Why NPR Should Offer a Streaming Music Service

npr-musicSo before we get too engrossed in this idea, let’s all just appreciate that it’s just an idea. This is sport; a discussion point. So don’t get too exercised about how I’m an idiot, and it would never happen. Similar accusations were levied a couple of years ago when I proposed the Grand Ole Opry would be for sale. And then less than two weeks later, it was. And two months later it was owned by Marriott.

The point here is that this rapid move by so many media companies into the music streaming space: Spotify, Rhapsody, iTunes, Amazon, Pandora, YouTube, Beats, iHeartRadio, Rdio, and on and on from there, has created a brand new dramatic, and potentially dangerous paradigm for music, and specifically independent music, sending it to the very precipice of commercial sustainability. Long story short, with the rise of illegal downloading, the music industry became complicit to see companies like Spotify and Pandora come online because at least they could earn some money off the activities of deadbeat music listeners. But the amount of money artists and labels make from these services is ridiculously low, and more importantly, it’s unsustainable in its present form, let alone taking into consideration where it might be headed. Meanwhile these streaming services themselves aren’t really making any sizable profits either. It has all become a vehicle for the public to access unlimited music for cheap or free, and this formula won’t keep the lights on for the artists, or the industry moving forward.

This challenge has grown even more alarming in the last few weeks with Amazon launching its streaming service as part of its Prime package. The problem with this is the streaming is not just being offered autonomously, it is being offered as part of a bigger consumer bundle. In other words, Amazon wants you to stream your music through them, so you’ll also use them to buy a back massager, or your favorite book. But just as many books are being pulled from the Amazon marketplace because of the razor thin payouts Amazon is demanding from literary firms, Amazon is offering extremely small payouts to its music partners, even less that Spotify and Pandora’s ridiculously-low royalty rates. And since some labels won’t sign off on the low rates, Amazon can only offer a limited amount of music. This is a loss both for Amazon, and the artists that won’t be featured in their streaming format.

Then YouTube comes along and wants to stream music as well. Once again, it’s not really about YouTube making any money off of streaming music, it is about bundling that service along with its Google suite of services, including the Android platform on mobile devices, just as Beats has partnered with AT&T for their streaming wireless service. To compete in the marketplace, you must offer a music streaming service, whether you’re a wireless provider, or a music seller. And once again, because some labels and artists won’t sign up to YouTube’s ridiculous royalties, they are being threatened to be locked out of the entire YouTube format, including the existing free service.

So what are we supposed to do here? As time rolls on, the cost of music continues to plummet, and at this point it’s already cheap or free. Can we envision a reality where artists and labels actually pay the public to listen to music? Why not? As rapidly as music has been devalued, that’s about the only other place to go. Someone buys a new smartphone and signs up for a two-year contract, and they get a rebate for $50 for signing up for a music streaming service. Since the competition is so rabid, there will have to be something to entice customers from competitors. We’re already seeing more and more pay-to-play scenarios for artists in the live performance realm, it would only make sense this culture could creep into retail.

Streaming is the way all music will be consumed in the future, period. Forget radio, forget downloads completely. Physical formats like CD’s and vinyl will still be there, but simply for nostalgic and tactile purposes. In a matter of weeks the world of streaming music has gone from burgeoning to positively glutted. However the one hole in the streaming music market that has yet to be exploited is for a sustainable, equitable streaming service that actually takes care of the artist and labels who have provided the content.

Think about it for a second: The United States and many developed nations are breaking into two distinct cultures: One that wants whatever it can get for as cheap or free as possible and doesn’t worry about the impact of their purchases on either their community or themselves, and another that is concerned about sustainability, buying local, tracing back supply chains to make sure the originator of the product is taken care of, and filling their minds, bodies, and homes with wholesome things.

When it comes to the first group of people, it doesn’t matter what you charge them for music, it will be too much, and they’ll hop barbed wire fences and commit felonies to get it for free. And soon, they will expect you to pay them for it. The other group wants artists and independent labels to be taken care of, and is perfectly willing to pay for that piece of mind by doling out reasonable amounts for access to music. In fact you hear it all the time when these arguments about artists payouts get broached: people say they are willing to pay more for streaming services, that they want artists and labels to be taken care of, but that choice does not exist in the current marketplace.

Okay, so we’ve now established there is a demand, or at least some of a demand for a premium, sustainable, conscious music streaming service. Yes I know, selling the idea to people of paying more for something they can get for less is a bitter pill to swallow, but it happens every day when people pass by Wal-Mart on their way to support a local business.

So the next question would be, why NPR? Would this even be possible for a non-profit?

First off, it doesn’t have to be NPR, and it very well might not be. It just makes for an interesting test subject, and NPR happens to be an ideal candidate for the task. But make no mistake, if anyone, NPR or not, offered a sustainable streaming service, the demand would be there.

As for NPR, there are multiple reasons it would be the perfect organization to accept the role as the sustainable streaming service provider.

1) Name Recognition

Remember that little exercise above about the two types of consumers? Well guess where many of the second group go to consume their music and news? No question NPR has the stigma of a “liberal” organization, but they are also one of the most universally-recognized music brands in the United States, and one of the last music brands that doesn’t offer streaming. If you’re going to get people to buy into the idea of paying a little bit more for their music experience, it would be better if it comes from an established brand, and a brand they can trust. As much as some people may want to think NPR is “too liberal”, it is hard to say they aren’t still a well-respected institution.

2) Infrastructure

NPR and NPR Music arguably already have much more established music infrastructure and wherewithal than most of its streaming competitors, including licensing deals with labels, a bevy of music programmers, IT manpower and infrastructure already on the cutting edge of digital music distribution and streaming, established liaisons with the industry, and a lot of respect from the industry they would be interfacing with, especially when considering the contentious relationships most of the music industry now has with Spotify, YouTube, etc. With it’s embeddable and pop out players, it’s “First Listen” and now “First Watch” features, it’s stable of well-recognized music shows like Mountain Stage, Folk Alley, and even strong ties to the festival circuit with things such as ACL Fest and Newport Folk, it is set up better than anyone else to slip right into the new music streaming paradigm, offer a ridiculously wide range of promotional options for artists and labels, and do it all in a sustainable manner. In fact NPR is already farming out much of its music technology to other non profits and companies in the private sector.

3) Relationships

Aside from already having a great rapport with the music industry, there would be nothing but incentives for artists and labels to work with NPR if they could offer larger payouts as part of their streaming service. This could even entice some artists and labels away from some of the more spurious streamers, or God forbid, force companies like Spotify and YouTube to pay out sustainable rates to content providers or risk being cannibalized by organizations like NPR. Even though NPR is not-for-profit, it could help restore balance and sanity to the private sector streaming market.

4) Because NPR Does Not Have To Make Money

Of course, they have to generate revenue, but unlike a for-profit, NPR simply has to set up a system that will be revenue neutral to succeed, which may be easier for them to do than some of the other companies just getting into the streaming business, especially if NPR is charging more. With no shareholders to be beholden to, no parent company demanding increased growth and profits every quarter, NPR can focus on building a more intuitive, fair, and healthy business model whose underlying goals are serving the public, as well as looking out for the interests of the music industry.

5) NPR May Have To Stream Music To Survive

As discussed above, streaming is where all music listening is headed. Though radio is still the most dominant format, and will likely be for the near future, eventually streaming will overtake it. Just like Clear Channel has done with iHeartRadio, having a streaming platform is necessary to meeting the new challenges technology has presented to the music world. Furthermore, a streaming service would be a sustainable revenue source for NPR, potentially relaxing the burden of the American public to subsidize NPR through tax dollars. If NPR does not set up a streaming service, their burden on the American taxpayer could increase. And just like Google and Amazon are doing, NPR streaming services could be bundled with other NPR services, like recurring annual or monthly donations from listeners. For example, you could subscribe to NPR’s streaming service for $19.95 a month, or with a monthly $50.00 donation, you get access to their streaming service for free (along with a handy NPR mug and key fob).

6) NPR Can Keep It Local

As has been explained in detail by media research company Edison Research, one of the reasons radio is dying is because radio consolidation and the nationalization of programming has bled the local touch and relationships out of the format. With its hundreds of affiliates and locally-generated content, NPR could offer locally-flavored programming in a way no other provider could, right beside the general streaming of their music catalog. Playlists made by local DJ’s, intermixed with local radio shows in live or podcast form could make the NPR streaming alternative a much more vibrant environment compared to its competitors.

7) They’re Pretty Much Already Doing It

NPR deciding to get into music streaming wouldn’t involve opening up a new wing, it would probably involve just a few new hires and a redistribution of current manpower and technology. They already offer features like the All Songs Considered 24/7 music streaming online channel that features all the music ever featured on NPR’s All Songs Considered program, and their mobile music app is one of the most powerful on the market. It’s all in place to enter the streaming marketplace.

Devil’s Advocate

Yes, all of this is fine and dandy, but as many of NPR’s detractors will tell you, with their big, nationalized network, NPR is in danger of becoming similar to Cumulus Media and Clear Channel in the way they homogenize the airwaves with syndicated programming. Because of budget restraints similar to those being felt by commercial radio, some local NPR affiliates are scaling back, or even shutting down in lieu of NPR’s national roster. Maybe a streaming service could help with this by creating a new revenue source, or maybe it could exacerbate the problem by centralizing NPR’s power at the national level.

Also NPR has many detractors of their not-for-profit status. Though they receive public funding and participate in regular pledge drives, they also take corporate funding from auto manufacturers, beverage companies, and run advertisements, just like their television cousin PBS. In fact some have charged NPR with impropriety in how they choose which music partners to work with and promote, especially since many labels use NPR as an advertising outlet. Also some believe that just as music labels cater music to commercial radio, some sectors of the Americana and World Music worlds cater their music to the NPR crowd.

As for the non-profit status, this could be the ultimate demise of the idea, or it may not be any hurdle at all. They aren’t selling anything. They are providing a service no different than their radio programming.

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Crazy, harebrained idea? Perhaps. But if not NPR, then someone should step up and offer a sustainable music streaming alternative for conscious music consumers. And from the looks of how things are evolving (or devolving, as it were), it has to be someone who can move into the marketplace quickly, and with leadership, and muscle.