When people compare on-demand music-streaming services with traditional radio, they often forget one of the latter’s key advantages: it still (usually) involves a human being talking to you in between songs.
Apple’s Beats 1 radio station has showed that the idea can sit within a streaming service, with some of its best shows – those from Grimes, St. Vincent and Josh Homme for example – being helmed by artists rather than DJs.
This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s tuned in to Cerys Matthews, Iggy Pop or Jarvis Cocker on 6Music here in the UK, or Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour in the US. And it also hasn’t gone unnoticed by Spotify, which launched its series of In Residence shows earlier this week.
This isn’t live radio: instead it’s a series of playlists mixing songs with spoken-word links from guest curators. It launched with four: Jungle, Big Narstie, Tonga (the duo including Mike Skinner from The Streets) and former Sex Pistol Steve Jones. Today, Spotify added a fifth from Peter Robinson, founder of music website Popjustice.
“This is a whole proper big series of shows that I’ve been working on all this year,” says Rob Fitzpatrick from Spotify’s original content division.
“I got pitched quite a lot of presenters, but that was never what I wanted. This is more like an artist takeover really. Every conversation I’ve had with them, and even contractually, they’re free to say what they want, and play what they want. It’s completely their show.”
According to Fitzpatrick, Jungle were the first people he asked. While the British band’s star is very much rising creatively, their appeal was about more than their music.
“They’ve got fantastic connections: they DJ a lot, they play live a lot, they basically know everyone. And they’ve got great stories about people, which really comes across in the show,” says Fitzpatrick.
“All the people involved have that authority and voice: they all stand for something, and mean something in their respective worlds. Which is very important.”
He admits that he could have gone down the road of “getting the 10 biggest artists on Spotify to do shows” rather than handpicking other kinds of curators, and says while he wouldn’t turn his nose up at those stars, they’re not the focus for In Residence.
“My feeling is that this is the start of a journey for us: I wanted to create things that super-served a particular part of the audience, rather than tried to be everything to everybody right from the start,” he says.
“I want it to be something people stumble across and then tell other people about, because it feels like a natural extension of these artists they like. Rather than ‘Superstar presents blah blah blah’. The world is full of content that’s, well, it’s just alright, y’know. I desperately wanted to do something more than that.”
Each of the guests has signed up to make six shows, which will be launched at monthly intervals. Besides the five that are already live, there will be shows from dance brand Mixmag and music blog Brooklyn Vegan debuting in November, and more (as-yet unsigned) to follow: “One I’ve been going grey about for six months now,” admits Fitzpatrick.
As Spotify builds a catalogue of these shows, there could be potential to bundle them together into a daily schedule, of sorts, highlighting the comparison to Beats 1 even more. Fitzpatrick says this hasn’t been in Spotify’s thinking so far, though.
“This isn’t radio. If anything, they’re podcasts. You can’t have talking over the music for example, and all the tracks have to be on Spotify,” he says. “There is an element of ‘hosted playlist’ to it, but what I like about some of the shows – particularly Peter’s – is that they do treat it like an actual radio show, talking you into and out of tracks.”
This isn’t a brand new idea. Artist Billy Bragg worked with Spotify on a series of radio-style shows in 2014, while The Horrors also made an exclusive Radio Luminous show for the streaming service last year. Further back in 2010, digital distributor Kudos Records launched a service called Playdio, working with traditional radio DJs to create shows for Spotify using a similar model of uploading spoken-word links.
How does the business model work for all this? It’s a live question, because Spotify has faced criticism in the past – from Ministry of Sound down to individual playlist creators – that there is no business model for curation on its platform.
The structure of In Residence, where each guest’s contributions are uploaded as separate tracks on Spotify, should mean they earn royalties from its spoken-word element. But Fitzpatrick is keen to stress that there is more to it than that.
“Everyone is paid for doing their show. I would not have ever gone into a situation of asking people to do this and not paying them properly, per show,” he says. “I would be ashamed of myself if I was asking ‘Will you do this show for promotion alone?’”
Spotify will promote the In Residence shows within its desktop, web and mobile clients – they have already been popping up in its Now and Browse sections – while encouraging listeners to follow the In Residence profile on the service. It’s very early days on that score, with just over 2,900 followers so far, but the marketing has yet to kick off in earnest.
Could In Residence become an even bigger thing in the future? For now, it’s a focused set of curators, paid a monthly fee to create shows that are Spotify-branded. Yet in theory anyone with a microphone who’s registered with a digital distributor can do this by uploading their spoken-word links and creating playlists.
Does Spotify have any plans to make this even easier, and potentially spark a wave of user-generated radio shows on its platform? “Over time this will become easier. To be honest it is quite simple already, as long as you own all the content you’re uploading. But there are a couple of hoops you have to jump through,” says Fitzpatrick.
“I would say that it will become something that will be easier to do on Spotify over the next six months to a year. It’s a thing that people want to do, I think.”