It’s a busy day for Mixcloud. The streaming radio service launched its new iPhone app and revealed it now reaches 10m people a month earlier today. Now the startup has commandeered a venue in London for its first Mixcloud Curates conference.
On the agenda: brands, music and content, with presentations and panel debates. We’re covering the event in several posts, starting with this one on the first panel session, featuring Radio 1 DJ Nihal, Goldierocks (aka Sam Hall) and Tayo, DJ turned head of content for Mixcloud.
The panel was moderated by Frukt’s Jack Horner, with the main topic the need for curation in the world of digital music, and the role that DJs, artists and celebrities play in it.
“Music fans, and people in general, not only accept the presence of brands in the world of culture and entertainment, but are happy to have them there if they do something useful,” said Horner, as an introduction. The idea: brands can learn from the relationship these panellists have with their audiences, and how they’ve worked with brands in the past.
How have they built their fanbases? “We’re brands aren’t we, so you can’t think about this as ‘oh no! I’m an artist, how dare you? This is a commercial world we live in,” said Nihal, before handing over to Hall.
She talked about her role presenting The Selector, which broadcasts new British music to the world. “When we started, we were broadcasting in six countries, and now we broadcast in 39 on FM all around the world: places like Mexico, Vietnam, Thailand, Australia, Malawi… But then we’re broadcast in places that are more unusual, like China, Libya, Israel and Palestine,” she said.
“Where people have related and wanted to be part of what we do, yes it is British music, but in a lot of these places there is no other alternative media. It’s a chance to hear something different.”
The show is recorded in English every week, then each station that’s broadcasting the show can customise it – taking one of the show’s two halves for example (the first half is more guitar-focused, the second more dance/urban) – while adding their own translations and responses from the local DJs.
Nihal talked about how Radio 1 has changed since the days when DJs saw themselves as supreme tastemakers or gatekeepers for music. “We’re not gatekeepers any more, we’re filters essentially,” he said. “At the same time, I don’t have the time that a 16 year-old has to go through all the music that is available to them. What Radio 1 has realised, which is what brands realised a while back as as well, it’s about experiences. It’s about unique experience, it’s not about music as such.”
For Radio 1’s case, that means it’s just as important to be putting videos up on YouTube, using Twitter and curating live performances from the Live Lounge feature as it is simply playing music to listeners.
“You have to be a broadcaster. It’s not enough to go ‘and there’s that record, and this is this record’. You have to assume your audience doesn’t know what you’re talking about. You have to strike the balance between not patronising them, and it not being ‘this is a special club for me and seven others’… Music is less tribal now than it was 20, 25 years ago. People are listening cross-genre… People are so much more willing to listen to different music, different genres and different languages.”
Tayo agreed, talking about the way people sign up to individual DJs and presenters as “your trusted filters”, and suggested this is why radio “can’t die out” – because people still need those trusted recommendations.
Nihal said it’s less important now to have an exclusive on a new record, and more important to have unique features and other content. “Most people have got the music instantly,” he said.
Hall agreed: “If you have the world exclusive, two hours later it’s everywhere,” she said, before returning to the theme of presentation as important. “Just being accessible in how you present ideas. It’s not about cool clubs any more. Anyone can go to the rave, be part of this festival, that festival… It’s open to everyone.”
The panel talked about the not-so-good examples of brands and artists. Nihal cited a Rihanna gig where she tried to get a call-and-response chant going: “When I say ‘River!’ you say ‘Island!’”
“And there was silence. It backfired so badly because of the silence,” he said. “Because everyone went ‘Fuck off! I’m not doing that.’ That’s one step away from saying Burger King or Head & Shoulders. Where does that end? And that’s where you look at it and think ‘That’s so wrong’… The product might be good, but the sell can make it bad. River Island clothes are probably great…”
Nihal noted that Beyoncé, by contrast, didn’t mention H&M once during her O2 gig recently – “But when you got off the tube at Oxford Street, it was wall-to-wall posters.” Smarter brand/artist marketing that didn’t run the same risk of being naff.
How much of the music that the panel play is music they love and choose, versus what comes off the playlist machine or the parameters of their show? And how does that affect their willingness to be flexible for brands?
“You’re willing to do whatever doesn’t undermine the reputation that you’ve taken years to build up,” said Nihal. “90% of the music I play, I can put hand on heart and say it’s brilliant. But when a big artist comes with a track, you’re not going to cut off your nose to spite your face. You’re going to let the audience decide, and put it out there. Most people realise if a DJ doesn’t say anything about a track, that tells you something.”
“In some ways it’s like DJing live, you’ll play the big belter that’s going to keep people locked in,” said Hall. “There is a fine balance between drawing people in, keeping people and then educating people. As a broadcaster it is your role to educate people, but not to the point of being dismissive or uninclusive.”
Tayo chipped in: “If you’ve just turned up on the radio and you start playing a set of music that you’ve been corralled into playing, you’re stuck with that.”
Nihal returned to the idea of not being dismissive, saying that the moment he knew fellow Radio 1 DJs Mark Radcliffe and Marc Riley weren’t destined for a long career in daytime radio was when they played a new System of a Down song and quipped on-air “Well, I won’t be subscribing to their newsletter”.
“It’s not your job in daytime to slag off records,” he said. “And in specialist, it would be a waste of my time with the two precious hours a week that Radio 1 give me, to play something that I don’t genuinely love.”
On to the Q&A session, and a question about the recent controversy around a partnership between Mountain Dew and Odd Future, which ended badly. “Yes, you might have that initial rush of attention, but is it a long-term marketing strategy?” asked Hall.
Another question: what will the next generation of curators look like, and how will they be discovered?
“At Radio 1, there’s a feeling that you stay there forever. There will be a shakeup in the next two or three years probably, though,” smiled Nihal, who compared curation with the changing role of record label A&Rs.
“It’s about harnessing heat. Someone like Toddla T created heat for himself in Sheffield, and that spread out. Charlie Sloth, the drivetime DJ on Radio 1Xtra, he’s getting a million-plus hits on YouTube for his Fire In The Booth sessions. Those curators will make themselves aware, because they’re impossible to ignore.”
Hall said it’s in media that we’re not “100% set in yet”, so looking beyond radio and television. “It is about the SB.TVs of this world and the Mixclouds of this world,” she said.
Meanwhile, Tayo suggested that the next generation of curators “are not going to be perhaps as visible as they have been in the past”, noting the proliferation in sites and services where people can discover, listen to and share music.
“You’re going to find pockets of curators on places like Mixcloud, sure, but in the same way I subscribe to certain YouTube channels, you decide what it is you’re into, and you go and find it, as opposed to it being presented to you in the way it used to be,” he said.