British broadcaster the BBC has launched a new music app for smartphones and tablets.
The BBC Music app is being released today for Android and iOS devices as a free download, although for now it is only available in the UK.
The new app is NOT the music-streaming service mooted by the BBC in its charter-review strategy document last year. That project remains in development, and the BBC Music app is a step towards it.
Its focus is thus on live performances filmed for the BBC’s radio and TV channels, as well as interview footage and playlists curated by its DJs.
In the latter case, the music is restricted to 30-second clips, but users can connect their Spotify and Deezer accounts to listen to the full tracks, as well as saving tracks to their own BBC Music playlist and exporting that to the streaming services.
In that sense, the new BBC Music app is an extension of the Beeb’s existing Playlister service, which launched in October 2013 as a way to create your own playlist of songs from the BBC’s output, then export them to digital music services.
More than 200k playlists were created using Playlister in its first year. The new BBC Music app is essentially the native app version of Playlister, rebranded to the Beeb’s umbrella music brand – something that’s also happening online.
Music Ally had a pre-launch demo of the new app, which gets new users to choose some favourite genres and BBC radio stations as a way to quickly personalise its feed of suggested playlists and audio/video clips.
The app also houses playlists from BBC shows, presenters and events, as well as a tracklisting from every BBC radio music show for the last seven days.
BBC executive product manager of radio and music, Chris Kimber, said the development team has been working hard on its recommendation algorithms, especially when it comes to brand new users whose tastes it knows nothing about.
“No one’s got it quite right yet. Apple Music has its coloured balls for you to tap on, Vevo has its list of artists. It’s something that everyone’s striving to get right,” said Kimber.
“The beauty of using our radio stations is that it’s enough to give us a ballpark, broad brushstroke idea of what you might like. If you like Radio 1, you might not be a fan of classical. If you like 1Xtra, you’re more likely to be a fan of hip-hop and R&B.”
Kimber added that the app has been deliberately designed to resemble the existing iPlayer and iPlayer Radio apps, to create familiarity for people already using the BBC’s catch-up TV and radio services.
By adding tracks and clips to their playlists, users can essentially create their own catch-up stream of music and music-related content. “Stream” is the word, though: for now, there are no offline features to download any of the content for offline listening.
“iPlayer and iPlayer Radio both have offline, but we don’t have it. It is an ambition, but for version one it’s not there,” said Kimber. This intent to expand the BBC Music over time extends to its streaming partners too: Spotify, Deezer and YouTube are on board for the app’s launch. Who’s missing? Apple.
Playlister playlists could be exported to iTunes, but for now, Apple Music isn’t supported in the BBC Music app. Nor, for that matter, is Google Play Music.
“We haven’t done iTunes in the app as it’s really focused on streaming. We are working with Google and Apple to see if we can bring them on board,” said Kimber.
Ben Chapman, head of popular music for multiplatform at the BBC, said that the personalisation aspects – including the app learning more about each listener’s tastes the more they use it – will be key to ensuring it appeals across the broad spectrum of music fans.
“We know music is important to a huge section of the UK public, but part of the challenge of going from a position where you serve content from across the BBC is that it’s hugely off-putting to almost everyone. Whatever you focus on, you’re alienating lots of people,” said Chapman.
In other words, for people who say their favourite genre is classical music and favourite station is Radio 3, the BBC Music app will drill down into those archives; but will be a completely different experience (musically) for, say, a young Radio 1 listener, or a thirtysomething 6Music fan.
At a time when Apple has revived the familiar humans-versus-algorithms debate in music recommendations, the BBC is sensibly nailing its colours to a marriage of the two – as are all the streaming services, Apple included.
“For the BBC, our core value is people making sense of music for other people, whether that be on TV or the radio. We feel like we’ve spent 90 years getting that right, but it’s really about evolving that to get it the best for individual users.” said Chapman.
“It’s never just ‘man versus machine’, there’s always a bit of the other one,” added Kimber. “We sit on one side of that line around human curation, but with algorithms supporting that,” continued Chapman.
He added that the BBC remains focused on its partnerships with companies like Spotify and Deezer, even though its longer-term ambitions may see it partially competing with them.
“We’re here to support legal music consumption in the UK, and to grow the UK music industry as a whole. We decided it was best not to be an island: you have to connect with the people who allow those services to happen,” said Chapman.
“We want to be a positive economic force, so connecting out has been really important to us as part of Playlister, and it will continue to be.”
The BBC continues to work with the streaming services in other ways: for example, the BBC Music profile has more than 897k followers on Spotify, and while its themed playlists tend to only attract a few thousand followers, its station playlists are much more popular: 357k followers of the Radio 1 playlist, and 78k for 6Music’s for example.
“We syndicate some of our lists into those services. It’s about maintaining our presence as a great curator of music, both on the BBC itself and in all these amazing new spaces,” said Chapman.
So what about those wider streaming ambitions? In September 2015, the BBC’s strategy document revealed its plans to launch a service that will “make the 50,000 tracks the BBC broadcasts every month available to listen online, for a limited period”, with people listening to it via playlists curated by the BBC.
The announcement caused some controversy, due to the report’s views on how the new service would benefit artists: “whether it’s by providing the first audience for an unsigned or undiscovered artist, or by working to license the product in a way that benefits artists fairly”.
BPI boss Geoff Taylor delivered a blunt message to the BBC the very next day, at his organisation’s AGM.
“If the BBC is going to launch such a service, then it needs to bring the industry with it. The starting point for some of the BBC’s suggestions around how such a service might work involved launching such a service but paying no money for it – and I just don’t think that’s viable,” said Taylor.
“Just like any other partner they’re going to need to reward the creators and everybody that goes in to creating that music… There will have to be a sensible deal behind it if it’s going to happen.”
Negotiations over how that service will work continue, but the BBC Music app looks a lot – to us – like an early version. Switch the 30-second clips for full tracks without the need to connect a Spotify or Deezer account, and the app pretty much is the new service as outlined.
Is that the plan, then: to evolve the BBC Music app into the new streaming service once licensing is sorted?
“We’ve got an aspiration that we’ve been very public about: trying to liberate the music that we play across radio and television for 30 days, but a limited catalogue,” said Chapman.
“It is hard to say whether this app and this code-base will evolve naturally into that. I would hope we will do that in the most efficient fashion, but that will depend what the stakeholders around us think of those proposals.”
One way the app definitely leads to the new service is its branding: it’s firmly “BBC Music” rather than “Playlister” – something that now applies to the website too.
“Playlister is now a part of this product on the web and in the app. None of that’s going away, but we’re not going to refer to Playlister any more. BBC Music is the brand,” said Kimber.
“We are bringing the web and the new app much more into alignment. They are one product, and there is a web version of it and a native app version. Certain things on the website won’t be in the app though,” he continued.
“The app is more focused. The website is more of a browse and wider experience: we’ve got artist pages and articles. We are focusing the app down to more of a consumption and discovery focus, and less about browse.”