The CBC has taken a giant new step into the competitive digital-music arena.
On Monday, the public broadcaster unveiled CBC Music, a website and mobile app with 40 radio stations covering genres from indie rock to classical. To keep listeners coming back (that all-important "stickiness" in digi-speak), the service also includes create-your-own playlists and selections of songs by young artists such as Toronto's Austra and Montreal's Plants and Animals.
It's not only a bid to attract more listeners, but also opens up "a whole bunch of ways to connect with them that [was]difficult to do on terrestrial radio," said Chris Boyce, CBC's executive director of radio and audio.
This comes as broadcasters are increasing their presence in the world of apps: Astral recently launched new mobile apps for its radio stations, with bonuses such as exclusive in-studio performances. Meanwhile, subscription streaming services such as Rdio are once again on the rise, offering users access to massive libraries of streaming music for a fee.
"Gone are the days when people first heard a new track of music on the radio," Boyce said.
The CBC isn't trying to compete with online music retailers such as Apple's iTunes, though. Instead, the site links to iTunes. And no, it doesn't replace CBC's on-air music. There are currently no plans to eliminate the Radio 2 music station, Boyce said.
The CBC attracts savvy programmers. CBC's independently spirited Radio 3, for example, brings listeners everything from singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards to local Charlottetown band, Milks and Rectangles. Now that expertise can be applied to a broad spectrum of genres, with streams devoted to Canadian classical composers, some of the best homegrown jazz and alt pop. CBC Music could become a key arbiter of the best, if lesser-heard, music out there.
It's still radio: You can't jump ahead to the next song when listening to a stream. So while CBC Music caters to the new-media crowd, it requires old-media patience. You can jump forward or back while listening to playlists though. (Radio 3 host Lana Gay's colourful list, including The Gruesome's garage rocker Hey, is a highlight at the moment ). Still, the nascent service only has a precious few playlists so far. And features of individual artists have a grand total of seven acts right now.
The pay service Rdio gives users access to a huge library of music for a monthly fee. Astral's free apps are an extension of its stations, with added content such as app-only performances of hot acts. In comparison, CBC Music feels like the CBC – with a wider cross-section of music, unencumbered by the tight programming formats of private radio stations.
The next big thing
Spotify, officially unavailable in Canada, is nevertheless seen as a standard bearer with its personalized playlists (Obama just posted his) and its highly searchable library of artists. CBC Music, by comparison, is more like enhanced radio. Yet some digital radio sites, like American public broadcaster NPR, have taken a sharp direction toward nuanced, esoteric music. The question is whether users will want more breadth or more eclecticism? More searchability or more of a curated radio feel? What the CBC and the industry knows for sure is that we always want more music.
With files from Steve Ladurantaye