Jay Z is right: Radio is the worst place to listen to music

Jay explains.
Jay explains.
Image: Reuters/Benoit
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Is radio dead? Data show it isn’t as a whole—yet as a music platform, it’s a whole different story.

In a candid interview between Frank Ocean and Jay Z that aired on Apple Music’s Beats 1 radio station Feb. 24, the latter spent a good portion mourning the golden days of radio, where he got his own start in the 1990s as a hip-hop artist. Said Jay, about modern radio:

It’s pretty much an advertisement model. You take these pop stations, they’re reaching 18-34 young, white females. So they’re playing music based on those tastes. And then they’re taking those numbers and they’re going to advertising agencies and people are paying numbers based on the audience that they have. So these places are not even based on music. Their playlist isn’t based on music…

A person like Bob Marley right now probably wouldn’t play on a pop station. Which is crazy. It’s not even about the DJ discovering what music is best. You know, music is music. The line’s just been separated so much that we’re lost at this point in time.

His attacks don’t come unbiased. Jay Z is the owner of Tidal, a music streaming service that makes its money from subscription fees, not advertisements. Personal stakes aside, however, the rapper hits on a key point: Radio—which has been fragmenting its audience into different genres for decades now (paywall)—is fundamentally a subpar way to discover new music, or listen to it at all.

The problem at the root of it all is advertisements. By relying on ads, radio stations put themselves at the mercy of something other than a mission to promote genuinely good music. Music fans instead are going to sites like Bandcamp or SoundCloud, or Spotify’s own Discover Weekly algorithm, to find new artists. As radio’s main listening demographic ages and younger audiences turn instead to platforms like digital streaming, the kind of music that’s best-suited for radio plays also becomes further limited.

Ad-funded music platforms have drawn hate in recent years for other matters too—such as the paltry payouts they offer to artists. Remember when Taylor Swift called out Spotify over its free, ad-based tier in a Wall Street Journal op-ed? Since then, disgruntlement amongst over not getting paid enough from ad profits has only grown.

While the complaint about meager artist profits doesn’t specifically apply to radio because payouts are structured differently there, radio’s echo chamber problem just gives musicians another reason to be hesitant about putting their attentions toward anything that relies on advertisements. Now, major artists like Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper, Rihanna, Drake, and Beyoncé are opting to give their albums exclusive releases on Tidal or Apple Music, platforms that don’t rely on ads.

Frank Ocean’s exclusive interview of Jay Z came during the debut of his own show on Apple Music’s Beats 1 station—which has no ads. An audience paying for music, rather than listening casually on radio on their way to work, will be the one to hear such an interview. It also means artists get to bypass the gatekeepers, taking their music directly to fans, who come to subscriber-based streaming services to hear them promote the music as well. (Future, for example, has released two albums in two weeks—with all the promotion coming via interviews with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe.)

Artists these days trying to do what brands like HBO are aiming for in television entertainment: getting fans to pay for what they like directly. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently predicted the death of ad-heavy cable TV for that reason. The death of ad-funded music may not too far away, either.