The Enterprising Fans of New Music: When Listeners Become Their Own Music Supervisor

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Ben Stiller in "Zoolander."

By themselves, any of the numbers are sobering for broadcast radio. In the 2015 version of Edison Research's "Infinite Dial" survey, respondents between ages 12-to-24  who say that it is "very important" or "somewhat important" to keep up with new music say the source they use most to keep up-to-date is "friends and family" at 28 percent.  This is followed by YouTube and then Pandora. Only 8 percent of 12-24s cite AM/FM Radio as their top source, just ahead of Spotify (7 percent). 

But then add these numbers together:

  • Friends and family (28 percent)
  • YouTube (18 percent)
  • Spotify (7 percent)
  • Facebook (4 percent)

Among those four sources alone, nearly 60 percent of those 12-to-24-year-olds who care at all about keeping up-to-date with music will first go to some resource that requires some level of enterprise on the part of the user. The "lean back" choices are preferred by less than 40 percent. Since the group that cares about new music constitutes 60 percent of 12-to-24s, at least a third of the entire age cell is willing to expend some energy in finding it.

Even among respondents of all ages, where AM/FM radio still leads any other source as 29 percent most-used for keeping up to date with new music, nearly 40 percent of respondents name one of the enterprise sources -- friends/family (22 percent), YouTube (10 percent), Facebook (4 percent), or Spotify (3 percent).

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Few of those choices existed, of course, when I was a voracious 12-to-24-year-old consumer of new music. In that era, my radio listening was geared to where I could hear new songs -- suburban AMs that were faster on new music by day, out-of-town stations with different musical leanings at night. I hung out at any record store that allowed you to audition new releases. I badgered a friend in the U.K. to tape the BBC Radio 1 countdown for me.

Today's 12-to-24s don't have to expend a ridiculous amount of effort to discover new music. But with more resources available, a considerable number are willing to do a not insignificant amount of work, often landing them outside of radio's walls.

For those willing to use broadcast radio for music discovery, there are also more resources than once existed. iHeart Media's hourly superstar premieres have codified the waiting around that listeners used to have to do on that first day. Both iHeart and CBS Radio have online only stations devoted to new releases. Most station websites have some new songs available to stream.

But discovering new music in the course of listening to FM music radio, while having the type of entertainment experience associated with "radio," has gotten harder. The musically aggressive suburban and small-market stations are long gone. The differences between markets aren't gone altogether, but are constantly diminished. International radio became a resource for me in the late '90s, but as label plans go worldwide, I'm just as often encountering "Lips Are Moving" talked up with a wider variety of accents. Most significantly, PDs and MDs are increasingly unlikely to go "off the menu" for a song not being specifically promoted to them

Most program and music directors would correctly regard their musical priority as "playing the hits." And the tools used by broadcasters to evaluate new music have changed and become more elaborate as well, even if they don't translate to championing new music. But there's still an interesting contrast between broadcaster caution and listener enterprise. With radio's hegemony on music discovery gone, some programmers now see their role as culling the available music, legitimizing the hits, and saving listeners the trouble. But a considerable number of music fans aren't looking for that.

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Then there are those listeners who are looking to be their own music supervisor altogether, opting for those services, like Spotify, that more resemble time spent with their own collection, over more "pre-programmed" choices (broadcast radio, Sirius XM, Pandora). Spotify's growing appeal among 12-to-24s has made it the anecdotal "thing my kids are listening to instead of radio" in many conversations. It's not quite that yet. For "audio brand used most often" in the Infinite Dial, Pandora leads Spotify 55 percent to 16 percent among 12-to-24s, but that's still a foothold when you consider that Spotify's overall number is 10 percent.

There has always been a significant amount of listening to one's own collection, of course, and it didn't move into the jurisdiction of studies like "The Infinite Dial" until Internet audio was involved. Broadcasters like to name their competition in sequence -- eight-track players, cassette decks, the Walkman, mix tapes, the iPod -- as a way of proving their own durability. But each of those things brought listeners closer to being able to enjoy their own music with the same ease as radio. Cumulus' Lew Dickey has correctly pointed out that "listening to 'Who's Next' in your dorm room" wasn't measured before. But that does not translate to radio's role being the "same as it ever was."

Broadcasters have spent (and perhaps squandered) a lot of time over the last five years debating what counts as radio, but it's hard to exclude Pandora or satellite radio on any grounds other than not being part of the broadcast community. It's an AM-to-FM-style transition where AM broadcasters don't also own the FMs. But among the next generation of listeners, there is both a decreased reliance on radio for music discovery and lessened interest by broadcasters in supplying it. And for at least a few, there's a willingness to forego the radio experience altogether. 

Sean Ross is a Billboard contributor and VP of music and programming for Edison Research.