Maybe it was inevitable. With all the high-stakes competition for streaming subscriptions, how do the many different platforms differentiate themselves?
Pricing models, podcast access, streaming quality, the user interface, skip limits, and library size are all variables that might swing a consumer's decision to Apple, Spotify, Amazon, Pandora, or the many other options.
The streaming economy – video and audio – has exploded in recent years. The global pandemic acted as an accelerant for many platforms, as millions of consumers can attest when they open their credit card statements each month.
The subscription economy isn't just alive and well. It is powering the media ecosystem, providing a powerful alternative to ad-supported services that include both broadcast radio and television.
To gain an understanding of just how big this ocean of streaming entertainment dollars represent, Visual Capitalist published this handy, mind-boggling chart earlier this year:
Audio streaming services are depicted in black. Deezer and Pandora are at 11 o'clock on this chart, each with under 8 million subscribers. SiriusXM (7 o'clock) notches 34 million paying customers, well behind both Amazon Music and Apple Music (each north of 50 million at 4 o'clock on this chart).
And finally, Spotify. They're hard to miss (2 o'clock). At 144 million subscribers, they're more than twice as big as their nearest competitor, Apple Music (68 million). In fact, Apple and Amazon's streaming services combined still fall well behind the runaway leader, Spotify.
How do Spotify's would-be competitors gain share? In radio, stations try to gain advantage over one another with tried-and-true tactics: commercial-free segments, cash giveaways, big promotions.
The streaming giants aren't there – yet. But they are making attempts to stand out, and that's where personalities have begun to enter the conversation. A favorite DJ, a fun morning team, a provocative talk host are often the key differentiators that influence radio listening – and ultimately, the decision to be loyal to a station and/or a show.
In the streaming world, personality has been something of a conundrum. Slacker placed its chips on DJs early on, but to little avail. Aside from Elon Musk, Slacker's share of streaming subscribership pales in comparison to the big boys, still under 1 million paying customers.
And for the past few years, Apple Music has enlisted the able assistance of tuned-in, knowledgeable personalities, including Ebro Darden and Zane Lowe, but these efforts to create the ultimate streaming brand have mostly fallen on deaf ears.
Satellite radio has had better luck, carving out a strategy that relies on former hosts of note (Jim Ladd, Pat St. John, Kid Leo, and many others) mashed up with the stars themselves (Little Steven, Tom Petty, Billy Joel, and more every day).
But streaming platforms haven't gotten it right – yet.
The pressure to add value to that monthly subscription rate is intense. And beating back all those well-heeled competitors is forcing the big streaming brands to innovate.
No service has been more active than Spotify. Their research must show there's a ceiling when it comes to satisfying music lovers with a playlist service. Even though they provide a strong recommendation engine, as well as playlist sharing and features, it may not be enough to fend off the other behemoths like Apple and Amazon, while crushing the bottom feeders.
Across the street, Amazon Music is determined to make headway. Seemingly, everybody subscribes to their Prime service (and Prime Day is coming up!). That entitles consumers of the basic service access to a streaming library comprised of more than 2 million songs.
In a head-to-head comparison, most critics and analysts believe both Amazon Music and Spotify's streaming platforms are more than worthy.
But given Spotify's massive lead, Amazon has no choice but to try new things, providing unique features to their value proposition.
Enter “DJ Mode.”
Radio Insight's Lance Venta reported last week on Amazon's content-added feature which will appear on several channels, including “All Hits,” “Country Heat,” Rap Rotation,” as well as a special Billie Eilish “takeover” channel.
Here's a short video about “DJ Mode” that emphasizes storytelling, music trivia, and features that “deepen your connection to the music you love.”
I called up Billie Eilish's channel on my Amazon Echo device – “Alexa, play the Billie Eilish Takeover.” It's a behind-the-scenes series of interview snippets with the artist, speaking about specific songs and her artistic process.
For fans, it's revealing. For those less familiar with Eilish, it's a nice introduction to the singer and her music. But is it radio? Digital Music News' Ashley King calls it “radio-like.”
She notes that along with SiriusXM's recently announced TikTok Radio (which we blogged about last month), it's a blatant attempt by both Amazon Music and SXM to “add the human touch with DJ mode and human curation.”
Will the other streaming giants enter the personality – that is, DJ – fray? It's becoming more common for them to amp up added rock star commentary, playlists, and other collaborations designed to set bland music channels apart, while making them more sticky and interesting.
This growing trend has been aided and abetted by podcasting – the audio format that has brought storytelling back to the forefront. While most podcasts are legally limited by their ability to play music, shows about music are popular and abundant.
That brings us full circle to broadcast radio – a medium that has purposefully gravitated away from personality-driven content over the past decade.
The advent of PPM more than a decade ago fueled the myth that on-air talent don't greatly contribute to ratings; in fact, talk has frequently been positioned as a liability.
It's a conspiracy theory. Music on the radio still gets ratings, of course. But it's personalities that generate loyalty, as evidenced by the radio stations using sitting on top of Nielsen rankers. And yet, in round after round of downsizing, talent is often among the first assets to go.
Veteran personality, Tony Magoo, recently confided this on a Facebook post about air talent:
“In a very large market I had a programmer tell me ‘If we're talking we're losing.'”
He is far from alone.
As on-air personalities have faced downsizing, as well as increased multi-tasking duties (shows on more than one station, voicetracking, production, and soon, personal appearances), their ability to provide much in the way of enhanced value has become even more limited – and that assumes management and/or ownership perceives benefit from a strong personality presence.
Amazon Music's move to “DJ Mode” (the name they chose for this feature is no accident) is yet another sign radio broadcasters may be conceding perceptual “real estate” it once owned to digital players.
Radio broadcasters would be wise to focus some of their strategic brainpower on what the streaming giants are doing. It goes without saying that Apple, Spotify, Amazon, and the rest of the field have better metrics and more research and development dollars than every radio station in the U.S. combined. It's why these companies have hired some of broadcast radio's best programming minds – Alex Luke, Kevin Weatherly, Alex Tear among them.
Paying attention to the features, the language, the partnerships, and the innovations being made in the audio streaming space isn't just smart – it's the due diligence necessary for radio broadcasters to viably compete.
Otherwise, I think we all know how this story will end.
Alexa, is there a local radio station with knowledgeable, entertaining personalities?