For the people obsessed with the “long tail” of music production, and the power of outlets like iTunes to disintermediate the record labels, it’s instructive to see how much influence and control the taste-makers like Funkmaster Flex continue to have. I don’t have the exact stats, but I blogged here last year my opinion that iTunes Music Store (itms) owes a lot to Funk Flex and Angie Martinez. A couple of years ago, it was almost impossible to find songs on the current Hot97 playlist on itms — last year it was getting a lot easier, and now we have Hot97 offering the first branded itms. Hot97 is helping listeners try out and decide what songs they want to to put in their iPod playlists.
This is really smart; if you think about the previous scenario, which was happening hundreds of thousands of times per week: someone hears something on Angie Martinez’s show, and thinks “I want this on my iPod”. The listener picks out a few lyrics, and does a Google search to figure out the exact title and artist. After bouncing around to a few pages, viewing lots of adsense ads and getting assaulted with attempted spyware installs, the listener realizes the music is too fresh — she ends up trawling around some discussion boards (or waiting until the playlist on the Hot97 site is updated). Once she gets the name of the song, she goes to itms and tries to find the song. Based on various permutations of name, she may or may not get lucky.
And note that the above scenario requires a pretty sophisticated listener. The *real* “long tail” of this industry is people who txt all day, but would get lost on step 2 of the scenario above. As long as someone has an iPod, you can assume that they know how to use itms (not exactly a safe assumption, in my experience, but good enough). So baking Hot97 into itms just lowered the bar enough to sell a LOT more music. Now just imagine when we make this experience seamless and easy using nothing but your cellphone.
But, wouldn’t it be better if we just autogenerate radio stations, tailored to each individual user, and based on that user’s social network of friends and their interests? I am sure there is a place for such a system (and we’ve done similar) to drive music sales. But I think it’s crazy to think that taste-makers like Hot97 will lose their dominant role. People listen to radio because it’s local; because they can feel like they are part of a community; that there is a soul behind the playlist. They want to feel like they are participating in events as they unfold; not being force-fed some homogenized, sterilized, and soulless computer-generated playlist. Genre is the crudest community, and outlets like XM with 1000 channels based on genre are missing the point.
And of course, I think this applies far beyond radio. The point is, it would be ridiculous for Funk Flex to claim that “I am just manifesting the desires of my audience; my playlist is a fair representation of what the listeners have asked for”. There is a bit if “wisdom in crowds” thing, but that’s not Flex’s role. His role is as an emcee, it’s his party and if you want to come along you’re going to have fun. Good companies realize that it’s as much about being emcee as about reflecting the “invisible hand of the market”. Steve Jobs gets it; Tim O’Reilly gets it; Scoble’s comments about “story to tell” get it.
What this means is that we either try to become the new taste-maker in whatever market we’re in, or we work closely with the taste-makers. I think it’s cool that 50 cent is trying to sell branded Apple Computers. It’s cool that Windows Media partnered with MTV. It’s cool that Hot97 partners with iTunes.