Last month Drake, a Canadian rapper, released his latest album, “More Life”. It quickly broke records. On its first day it was streamed 61m times on Spotify. But more impressive still were the numbers on Apple Music, where the album clocked up 90m streams in the first 24 hours and 300m by the end of the week, even though the platform has five times fewer users. Apple was convinced that those streams were driven by the album’s premiere on Drake’s radio show, OVO Sound Radio, on Apple’s station, Beats 1.
The number of musicians hosting their own radio shows is growing. They fall into three categories. On sites such as Soundcloud you will find scores of lesser known artists with small but dedicated audiences. That’s where you might hear Gylve Nagell – a councillor and postal worker in Oslo and one half of Darkthrone, a Norwegian black-metal duo. Then you have older musicians whose careers are largely behind them and who are merely displaying their exquisite taste, for example Iggy Pop and Jarvis Cocker, who present shows on BBC Radio 6 Music. Lastly, you have big names whose careers are blooming or have reached their peak, and it is these whom Apple is attracting. This year Frank Ocean, Ryan Adams and The Internet, a soul band from Los Angeles, have all started presenting shows on Beats 1, joining Drake, Ezra Koening from Vampire Weekend, Corey Taylor from Slipknot, Pharrell Williams and Elton John. They are given free rein to record what they want, where they want.
Apple’s approach is a big-brand extension of a trend that has been creeping up for several years. When Bob Dylan launched his “Theme Time Radio Hour” on the XM satellite radio network in America in 2006, it was both a shock and an inspiration. The show was acclaimed for its unpredictable and eclectic selection of music, and Dylan was lauded for his warm and eccentric hosting. The network, in return, won huge exposure and scores of new listeners.
Apple’s pitch to the stars is that a radio show is a way to connect with audiences in a tailor-made way. As Syd Bennett from The Internet explained when they launched their show, “What we want is…to tell our stories ourselves. A lot gets lost in translation these days in press and media. This is a way to say everything in our own words.” This can make Beats 1 an odd experience for those more accustomed to conventional radio. You don’t hear the careful modulation of professional broadcasters so much as the contents of musicians’ minds pouring out. Listening to Koenig’s show can sometimes feel like eavesdropping on the world’s most irritating hipsters in the world’s least appealing coffee shop. Corey Taylor introduces his show with the words, “this will probably be my way of saving some money in therapy”.
Yet that personality helps give Apple an advantage over its competitors in both radio and music streaming. In the first episode of his Beats 1 show, “Blonded”, Frank Ocean interviewed Jay Z, who lamented the state of pop radio stations which, he said, select music in order to attract the kind of audiences their advertisers want rather than “the DJ discovering what music is best”. This echoed comments by the head of BBC Radio 1, Christopher Price, who last year said that the station had relied too heavily on data in devising its playlists, which had become predictable. Ocean and Apple are, by implication, musical purists. For a tech company trying to position itself at the centre of the music business, this is a great advert. We may be a corporate giant, they seem to say, but we care about the art, and here are the artists to prove it.
Radio also gives Apple a head-start when it comes to exclusives, which are becoming more important in selling music online. With most songs available on more than one platform, having exclusives is a good way of attracting users to yours. Before he premiered “More Life” on Beats 1, Drake played four songs from the work-in-progress on his show, only one of which made the final record. Ocean has used his show to surprise listeners with brand new songs like “Chanel” and “Biking”, and when he launched his visual album “Endless” and his audio album “Blonde” on consecutive days last summer he did so through Apple Music. Even if these premieres do not draw huge audiences, they help to put Apple at the centre of the cultural conversation: article after article discussed the music and the company’s role in its creation and release.
Meanwhile the presenters can cultivate their own brands, using their airtime not only to play their own work but also to position themselves as powerhouses in the industry. Drake uses his show to champion new urban acts. Among the people he’s played are Skepta and Giggs, two grime artists from London. Both saw big increases in the number of people streaming their music after it was played on OVO Sound Radio, and Giggs now presents on Beats 1 too. Even when they don’t have music to promote, presenters can reinforce their image as tastemakers.
When they do have music to promote, teaming up with Beats 1 gives them a boost. With streaming numbers now the determining factor in an album’s success, artists need prime position on streaming platforms. Tying yourself to Apple’s radio station help ensure you get that and much else besides. In 2015, Apple financed the video for Drake’s single “Hotline Bling”, before releasing it on Apple Music. The video has since been viewed more than 1bn times on YouTube. The following year, his album “Views” was released through Apple before being shared on other services, delivering sales of over 1m on iTunes, and 250m streams on Apple Music.
While the company is secretive about Beats 1’s listening figures, what’s certain is that it is winning exposure and new customers. The success of “More Life” delighted Apple’s executives. “What we saw on Drake’s radio show were TV numbers,” said Jimmy Iovine, a former record producer who is one of the linchpins of Apple Music. Meanwhile, it helps artists like Drake emulate Jay Z, who once said, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man”.