Plugged

I have to admit, when I first read the details about Clear Channel's new erockster initiative I was skeptical. But after actually checking it out, I have to give props to what looks to be an excellent music resource.

To be sure, it's difficult to give much praise to erockster given all the silliness surrounding its launch. First, the name. It impressively manages to bundle three new media clichés into one works: all lowercase letters, the "e" prefix, AND the "ster" suffix. What happened, couldn't afford the "i" as well?

Then there's the launch strategy. OK I liked the idea of debuting its programming on a local radio station during Coachella. It showcased both the multi-format and cross-platform elements of the initiative. But come on, pretending to be a pirate underground radio station hijacking a local channel -- To the point of disguising the DJs voice with a mechanical voicecoder -- is exactly the kind of corporate stunt that marketing types think is cool, but it kind of comes off like the suburban kid who's trying to prove that he's gangsta -- pretty transparent. I mean you're Clear Channel—The Evil Freaking Empire! You lost any indie cred you may have had long ago, and it's not coming back.

But I came here to praise erockster, not to bury it.

Over the years, critics have leveled numerous complaints against CC for its practice of standardized playlists and uninspired programming. erockster is the company's first sign of addressing them.

Its format is everything CC's traditional radio stations are not-eclectic, experimental, even (dare I say) good. It places trust in the musical tastes of its producers rather than a playlist based on focus groups, as well as in the listeners themselves. The result is a very easy-to-listen-to mix of hits, deep cuts and new music that never once got annoying or repetitive after a full day of streaming.

Aside from the music, I'm also impressed by the format. It's an interesting blend of new media tech with old-school programming. The best new media efforts are those firmly grounded in the traditional roots of how people discover and enjoy music. Yes, users can suggest the music they like best, but the programming is still overseen by human curators who interpret users tastes.
This balance applies to the distribution as well: a cross-platform mix of online and terrestrial where both channels benefit from the core competencies of the other. CC, for instance, plans to syndicate erockster's programming into a two-hour radio show that will air on its terrestrial airwaves as well as on an HD subchannel.

But what's really different about erockster is that it's a nationwide play, a sharp departure from the company's previous insistence that radio as a local medium. It has me intrigued about what's next over there. The head of CC's online music and radio unit Evan Harrison says more big new media moves will be announced in the coming weeks, so stay tuned to see whether erockster is the start of a turn for the better, or just more of the same.

UnPlugged

I've covered the mobile market since 1996 and if there's one common thread I can pull from the many evolutions and changes to the market since it's this -- mobile companies are too in love with their own technology.

Almost every mobile content offering available today is the result of what the technology allows, not what customers actually want.

Take, for example, the recent live stream of a Madonna concert by Verizon. On the surface it's a great move: superstar act performing songs from her new album for the very first time (no pun intended) LIVE on the Verizon network.

But honestly -- so what? Other than the big check Verizon wrote for the exclusive content, how does this help the music industry?

It's not that the technology used to stream live video on a mobile phone isn't cool or useful, it is. I'm just questioning whether a Madonna concert is really the best content for it.

If I'm such a big Madonna fan that just can't wait to see the debut performance of her new album, why on earth would I do so watching from a small screen on crappy speakers? Don't you think I'd make a point of being at home in front of a computer with a bigger screen and better speakers watching it on MSN via Control Room?

OK maybe there's some novelty factor in whipping out a phone at the bar and showing your friends what Madonna is doing RIGHT NOW, or a few fans may be stuck at work or something where they can't get to a computer, but I hardly think that's a mass-market product.

Now, the people at Verizon aren't stupid, and are fully aware of this. They streamed the Madonna concert as a marketing/PR effort to establish themselves as the most innovative mobile music provider in the U.S. and win points with labels.

And to be clear, there is no more innovative mobile music provider or bigger friend to the music industry than Verizon. It is the only operator that bundles ringback tones with ringtones; the only one that allows users to buy full tracks and ringtones from its MusicID service; and the only one that makes mobile music part of its core marketing message.

So I'm looking forward to Verizon's next REAL mobile music advancement being something that customers actually want -- the ability to send their friends music recommendations, or search for a song and be able to listen to it in full, or a phone that can act as a fully-functional MP3 player without sacrificing any of the capabilities of their iPod.

Those are the things that truly advance the mobile music market, not this live streaming snake oil.