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Digital Radio

Sounding Off By Tim Keep
Published September 2008

Could digital radio be better exploited for artists?

Hard copy formats of music distribution are quickly losing ground to digital distribution and the old business structure of the record industry is becoming outmoded. This is partly to do with the change in distribution media and partly because of the loss of revenue from file sharing and the need to restructure.Digital Radio

About The AuthorTim Keep is a freelance technical consultant and engineer, an Apple Distinguished Professional and a Director of the APRS. He likes abstract minimal techno, girls in summer clothing and chocolate-covered coffee beans.

Pluggers are paid to encourage radio stations to play records so that we may listen, hopefully like, and then buy the record, but new and independent artists are lucky to get airplay up against the mainstream mafia and corporate pluggers. Even if they get some airplay, a person who likes the brief example of the music they hear will have to rush for a pen and paper, perhaps struggling to remember the artist name before the DJ has announced and played the next track. But even if they then buy it, despite all of their hard labour the new artist is probably not going to see much of that person's money, especially if they're going through the old record label / distributor / shop system — even if they paid for and produced the work themselves.

DAB and web broadcasts may have improved accessibility somewhat, increasing the number of channels available to the listener and democratising the playlist. DAB and web stations can also transmit text so the listener can read the track and artist name, increasing their chances of remembering the information and purchasing the release.

But it occurred to me that every release has a UPC/EAN — a catalogue code that is applied for from (and recognised by) the world's revenue collection agencies, such as the MCPS-PRS alliance in the UK. Why not transmit this information as metadata in the station broadcast? A listener could then capture the code with one button, and pressing another button could allow them to buy the track from their preferred supplier. This would also negate the need for radio sampling, as the PRS-PPL could just collect the serial numbers of the music played. If a code was included that described the radio station and programme, this could be transmitted back at the same time.

Why do this? Well, if someone then bought your record based on the fact that they heard it on a radio show, I'm sure you'd like to reward the radio production team, not the plugger, for playing your music. If a station and program code was added to the metadata, a small proportion of the revenue received by the retailer could go back to them as a token of you, the artist's, appreciation. In fact, it might even encourage mainstream stations to introduce more music or a wider range of music rather than the mafia playlists. With this model the revenue is split between the band, the marketing (the station) and the supplier (the shop or web site). No need for the middle man, just an angel to fund the recording and a fair split for all the people in between.

It's a similar idea to the Apple iPhone/Starbucks piped music — the name of the track being played is transmitted by the Starbucks WiFi and you can simply capture it with your iPhone. Exploding this idea, many mobile phones already have FM radios, and I'm sure DAB radio is on the cards. It won't be long before you're walking down the street listening to DAB on your mobile when you hear a track you'll want to add to your collection. A simple click of a button, and a text will be sent to your predetermined supplier. Logging to their web site at home, you'll have the track waiting for you to click and buy. I'm sure it's the future of distribution and I suspect that the large telephony and ISP providers will catch on quite quickly. If they were to begin broadcasting music programmes on their own stations, using the mobile microwave network, they would surely have a lot to gain from the model.

The world is changing: coffee shops sell records via radio, McDonald's offer A-levels to staff, and as an independent artist and producer I might stand to earn money from writing music I'm proud of, while giving a share to the people who have proved to have given me exposure.