CBC is diving into the world of online music with the goal of providing listeners access to their favourite tunes, and a way to discover new artists and connect with fellow music fans.
The free digital service CBC Music, which launches on Monday, offers access to 40 web radio stations, a vast array of music and blog posts by CBC personalities through a website and via mobile apps.
The new initiative allows the public broadcaster "to connect with listeners in something we’ve done well — music — but in new ways," said Chris Boyce, executive director of radio and audio for CBC English Services.
CBCMusic won't replace conventional radio
CBC faces a cut of as much as 10 per cent of its parliamentary allocation when the federal government hands down its next budget.
That could mean deep cuts to radio programming, with CBC Radio 2 especially threatened because of its lower ratings than Radio One. But Chris Boyce said CBC Music is not preparation for eliminating other radio services.
"At this point, I don’t think it means anything for Radio 2," he said. "It continues to be an important part of the mix."
CBC’s strategy is to connect to Canadians across all platforms – including digital and terrestrial radio, he said, adding it could be more than 10 years before conventional radio is threatened by the online version.
"Not only are we providing music, we’re helping people find the music and understand the music... there’s a ton of rich content that helps people understand the music as well as listen to it."
The CBC launch comes after private radio network Astral's recent unveiling of its own on-demand digital music service, which continues its roll out through the spring.
A segment of Canadians already listen to regular local radio stations via the web. However, at present, "it's actually a very small number [using] any kind of online music streaming service or internet radio service in Canada," according to Jeff Vidler, senior vice-president of research firm Vision Critical Communications.
Major players in the field include Spotify, the European-born online music-streaming service, and Pandora, the U.S. internet radio service. Though both have large followings, neither company has ventured into Canada so far — most likely because of tricky rights negotiations, Vidler says.
"The Pandoras and the Spotifys haven't bothered to come to the Canadian market, to go through those negotiations," he said. "To some extent, they're a little nervous about the copyright regime here."
Still, that reticence has now opened the way for Canadian-born initiatives. CBC's new service, for instance, is possible in part thanks to a recently announced deal covering online music-streaming with Canada's Audio-Video Licensing Agency.
"If you look at the music industry, it's been in essence turned on its head in the last decade. Technology has profoundly changed how people consume music content. For us, this is about adapting to how the listening experience has changed," Boyce said.
"Part of what we’re trying to do is reflect Canada to Canadians…This is an opportunity to reflect a wider range of music than you’re able to do on a single terrestrial radio channel."
The streaming services of both Radio 2 and Radio 3 are incorporated in CBC Music. Some channels have hosts, while others play only music. Some play only Canadian music, while others are a mix of Canadian and music from around the world. The online communities involve artists and hosts in blogs and chats intended to connect with music fans.
"Based on our experience with Radio 3, we are playing with ways to build online community," Boyce said.
Boon for specialty music fans
Along with appealing to those stuck in front of computers all day, web radio and online music-streaming services are also a draw for music lovers whose favourite genre isn't present on the radio dial.
"This is the way, when it comes to specialty music," said Berge Koulajian, a 40-year-old progressive house fan.
The Toronto man previously subscribed to satellite radio because his favourite music isn't on the playlist of traditional stations.
After discovering the thousands of online radio stations he could access through his smartphone — whether he's just walking around or using the Bluetooth connection that's available in many new cars, for instance — Koulajian has cancelled his satellite service.
"I've got hundreds of channels of radio — anything I can think of — a couple of clicks away, for free."
How quick and widespread the uptake will be for these Canadian digital music services, however, will depend on factors like marketing, artists in the catalog, how well they satisfy consumer demand and technical issues like the ease of the interface.
"The one thing that Steve Jobs told us about and gave us a lesson [on] through iTunes is that so much of it is about the interface," Vidler said.
"If it's an easy interface and something people can do — and will do — they'll go to it. But if it's clunky or clumsy, they just won't bother."
While terrestrial radio might not have anything to worry about for now, Vidler added, broadcasters branching out into new digital music services have great opportunities in front of them.
"It does allow the CBC to fulfill its mandate in terms of reaching as many Canadians as possible," he said.