Every artist can remember the first time their music got played on radio. The impact of a local DJ adding the song in rotation, or even just a single spin is huge. For my band, it was KFOG in San Francisco, winter 1994. We were ecstatic. We didn’t get picked up for steady rotation, but for that night we felt like rock stars.
Twenty years later the single-minded quest for airplay remains the industry’s obsession, and for the vast majority of working artists, that quest still ends in failure. But that dynamic is changing. Beneath the radar, there is a sea change that is poised to fundamentally alter the equation for working musicians.
In the month of January of this year, Pandora played the music of more than 100,000 different artists. In that same period of time, the three largest broadcast radio stations in the country played a grand total of 297, 157 and 261 unique artists respectively. For the first time, thousands of working musicians, who have had virtually no terrestrial radioplay, are now on air. And they’re playing for big audiences.
The data tell the story. In 2012, there were nearly 10,000 artists that each reached over 250,000 unique listeners on Pandora. Within this group, the median annual audience was about 750,000 listeners. To put that in context, the estimated audience on the nation’s largest broadcast radio station is approximately 60,000. So these 10,000 Pandora artists are effectively getting the equivalent of a spin every week on a major market FM radio station, all year long. According to Mediabase, less than half of these artists played on any broadcast radio last year. And what’s more, these are personalized stations chosen and curated by the listener (to the tune of 25 billion pieces of “thumb” feedback), so the audiences are already predisposed to like the songs. For the blues pianist, it’s like spinning every week on a station listened to exclusively by blues piano enthusiasts.
There are now over 200 million registered listeners on Pandora. We already account for over 8% of all radio listening hours, and Pandora holds the position as the #1 radio station in virtually all local markets in the U.S. Our catalog has more than a million songs in it, and we play virtually every song, every month. This is not the broadcast medium musicians have known all their lives — a perpetual fight by the well-financed for coveted slots on narrow playlists. It’s a musical meritocracy with a level playing field for everyone, and it’s also a glimpse into the future of the music industry — a transition away from controlled scarcity to distributed abundance.
Pandora’s Music Genome Project is blind to popularity so every artist gets an equal chance, be they an established star or a talented hobbyist. And the nature of personalized webcasting allows all of that music to play.
Pandora’s technology and scale ensures the largest and most relevant audience for every musician. And with that, the opportunity for each to control their own destiny.
This Op-Ed was published on April 12, 2013, in Billboard. The original can be viewed here.