MusicToGo enabling stations to open customized stores.

Airplay is the single biggest influence on music sales, so why hasn't radio gotten in on the action? A new vendor is banking on the notion that radio not only influences music sales, it can also facilitate them.

With a pair of old radio hands in charge, New York-based software developer MusicToGo is helping stations extend their brands by providing customized online music stores for a growing group of clients, 43 stations at last count.

The stations aren't offering downloads to cash in on the developing digital music market, which is expected to reach $350 million this year. In fact, MusicToGo clients receive only a minuscule stipend for each song they sell.

"It’s not about the money," says Doug Podell, OM at Greater Media active rock WRIF (the Riff) Detroit, which opened a virtual store in early April. "It's more about imaging and being on top of how today's listeners are getting their music. They hear music on the Riff, call up and say, 'How can I get that?' Here's a very easy way, and it involves sending them to our Web site."

"The value is a stronger bond with our listeners at a time when technology is bursting," adds Buzz Knight, OM for Greater Media triple-A WBOS/classic hits WROR Boston and heritage rock WMMR/classic rock WMGK Philadelphia.

"Stations are doing this for branding reasons and to build out the platform so they can use music as a branding and merchandising tool for both on-air and for clients," MusicToGo founder and president/CEO Jeff Specter says.

ABC adult top 40 WPLJ New York added an online store in late March and has since seen a 23% increase in its Web site traffic, according to Tom Cuddy, VP of programming for the station and for the ABC Radio FM Group. "It encourages people to download songs legally and lets our audience know that we're on top of the latest technology," Cuddy says. "It makes it easy for our audience to keep track of what we're airing, plus there will be a promotional incentive. We'll be offering free downloads from time to time as well as making available special acoustic performances by artists recorded at our studios."

In January, MusicToGo announced a deal with Greater Media, owner of 19 stations in Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia and New Jersey. Greater Media has since opened online music stores for eight of its stations, with more planned.

Other MusicToGo clients include Midwest TV adult hits KFMB (Jack FM) San Diego; Clear Channel rhythmic top 40s KYLD San Francisco (Wild 94.7) and WJMN (Jam'n) Boston; Susquehanna top 40 WWWQ (Q100) Atlanta; and Inner City's R&B/hip-hop WHXT (Hot 103.9) Columbia, S.C., and adult R&B WBLS New York.

MusicToGo chairman Jimmy de Castro says the company "is put together by people who know radio." The flashy exec founded Evergreen Media with Scott Ginsburg in the '80s and later took a top post with Evergreen acquirer Chancellor Media. After Chancellor and co-owned Capstar were rolled into Clear Channel, de Castro landed an executive post at AOL and later formed Nothing but Net, a holding company that buys and sells companies like MusicToGo.

Specter worked for de Castro in radio, holding VP/GM and general station manager positions in Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston. De Castro says the goal is for listeners to go to a station they already associate with their favorite music and download songs they like for 99 cents each and, perhaps, broaden their horizons through the store’s music-recommendation system. Specter says he is negotiating group deals and hopes to have a total of 150 station stores activated by this summer.

It's unlikely that radio's late arrival on the music download scene will take a significant bite out of Apple Computer's wildly successful iTunes service anytime soon. According to Nielsen SoundScan, roughly 6 million legal non-album music downloads are sold in the United States each week, and it is estimated that iTunes accounts for about 4 million-plus of them. MusicToGo is selling less than 4,300 songs per week. Even if the company reaches its goal of 250-300 stations each moving 2,500 songs per week, the total would be about 687,500 weekly music sales.

What's more, songs purchased from station sites can't be transferred to iPods without first burning them to a CD and then converting them to MP3 or AAC formats. MusicToGo-enabled stores currently do not work on Macintosh computers. The service uses Windows Media Player, the same format as Musicmatch, Napster and Wal-Mart. So MusicToGo downloads synch with Windows Media-compatible players but not with the dominant player in the exploding portable music market. Plus, MusicToGo offers 800,000 songs, about half of what iTunes has for sale.

None of this appears to faze Specter. "The majority of digital music is used on CD," he says. "The majority of music used on iPods is ripped from [people's] personal collections."

"Music downloads, 99 cents," the headline screams, just below the station logo on KYLD's home page. "Shop the Wild 94.9 music store." Click on the headline, wait a bit, and you may think you've inadvertently downloaded a vintage episode of "I Dream of Genie." Actually, it's the Tune Genie, an animated recommendation engine that suggests songs based on the downloads you place in your online shopping cart.

Entering the main part of the store, you are given the choice to "click on any hour to see what was broadcast" or to "click on any artist and see their catalog." Including the station's 24-hour broadcast log is intended to make it easy for listeners to locate songs they recently heard on the station.

Like all the MusicToGo-powered digital depots Billboard Radio Monitor visited, the KYLD store displays the station's top songs and features "top selling" and "celebrity" playlist options. Click on "Baby Bash," for example, and 21 titles are listed. Some include additional, alternate versions. Three icons appear next to each song: one links to basic information about the song, one links to a streaming audio sample and one adds the song to your shopping cart.

To help brand the store with the station, MusicToGo includes an animated depiction of a key station personality, typically the morning show host, as a sort of cyber guide. At WPLJ's store, there are cartoon caricatures of morning hosts Scott Shannon and Todd Pettengill. Click on "Search with Scott and Todd," and the caricatures extend their arms, offering the option of searching by artist, song, genre or year. "We are making this easy for the average, everyday, non-high-tech person to find the tune they love," de Castro says.

To get a feel for the Tune Genie, Billboard Radio Monitor put songs from Beck, the Police and the Grateful Dead in our cart. The Genie slithered onto the screen, suggesting an eclectic list of songs by U2, Eric Clapton, Simple Minds, Shania Twain, Sting, Cher, Joe Sample and others. Cher?

The recommendations are based on research from auditorium tests and cluster analysis conducted previously at radio stations. While music testing drives the recommendation engine, the songs listeners pick in the store are tracked and form the basis for new research for participating stations. Some such stations have yet to tap this data, but Greater Media's Knight has and says it has been useful.

After WBOS played "Breathe (2AM)" by Anna Nalick in medium rotation, Knight says, the song became the site’s top download. "At a point where you're not sure—typical radio trepidation—that active bit of information about a new and emerging artist, showing that people are motivated, propelled us to play it more," he says. The station then booked Nalick for its Earthfest concert. "In Boston, the digital music store and our connection with that artist were key ingredients on how to grow the rotations of that song," Knight adds.

After becoming aware of the amount of downloads at for "Run" by Snow Patrol, Knight says, he wished the station played the song longer before moving on to the follow-up, "Chocolate." "The radio timing doesn’t always jibe with where the listener perspectives might be," he says.

WKLB PD Mike Brophey says, "In the 'old' days we used to spend more time tracking singles sales. Now we have another tool to easily see what is moving, and we see that the currents get lots of downloads. But it is also cool to see what oldies are moving, and we can spot some trends in terms of traditional versus pop appeal."

To make an initial splash, Specter says, stations typically open stores with an on-air promotion. After launching, stations are expected to promote the stores hourly. "It can be as informal as a live mention or it can be the full-produced [promo], which gets into more of the dynamics of the site," Knight says. The stores are promoted as part of on-air backsells. Some stations code downloadable songs on their music log to remind talent to plug the store.

WWWQ OM/PD Dylan Sprague promotes Q100's online store as a way for listeners to find hard-to-locate songs. "A candlelight mix of the dance remix of D.H.T.'s 'Listen to Your Heart' is hot for us now but difficult for listeners to find," he says. "When we play it, we promote that it's available to download at our digital music store."

Like Cuddy, Knight has noticed an increase in site traffic after activating the station store. He says WBOS recently sold its 10,000th song—roughly 10 weeks after launching. WMMR is approaching 6,000 downloads, WMGK is in the 5,000 range, and country WKLB Boston is close to 4,000. The average WKLB purchaser is buying "close to 10 songs per transaction," Knight adds. For WBOS, it's seven or eight. "As a new, developing process, we're thrilled with what we're seeing," he says.

The average sale across the platform is about $7, according to Specter. Of the people who come into the station stores and buy music, 20% return within six weeks and buy another seven or more songs, the company says.

"People give it a try and buy a couple of songs," says Brophey, who opened a WKLB store in March. "Then they come back and sometimes buy 10 or 12. There is a learning curve and a comfort level to get past, and then everything works. The longer they spend on our site and in the digital music store, the more they remember our call letters."

Once stations get up and "get a footprint," they're averaging about 1,000 songs per week, Specter says. "We can push that to 2,000-3,000 songs per week by using a lot of the marketing stuff that we're about to unroll."

Those efforts will include buy-one-get-one-free offers. For an upcoming Rob Thomas weekend, WPLJ plans to promote free downloads from the artist every time listeners purchase any music from the station store that weekend.

Specter says MusicToGo plans to add a PIN redemption system that will allow stations to give downloads away on the air and via street merchandising. (The station or one of its clients pays for the downloads.) By bundling spots and download giveaways into an ad package, a local car dealership chain could air commercials offering 10 free downloads to listeners who test-drive one of their vehicles.

"What we're doing is giving the local advertising community at every station the ability to do the exact same kind of promotion that Pepsi and iTunes are doing," Specter says.
Once 250-300 stations are up, de Castro pines to hook Pepsi, Budweiser, Chevrolet and other marketers that brand their products with music.

"As we build out this platform and continue the activation phase, we will pull together a group of stations that would be in the Pepsi demographic with a major promotion," he says. The campaign could be integrated with existing music-themed Pepsi marketing, such as the Pepsi Lounge program and national tour sponsorships.

"Budweiser wants the same thing with rock," de Castro says, adding that stations would get a share of revenue generated this way.