Meet the ad-free, user-supported music service that wants to take on Pandora
21st Aug 2013 | 00:20
Can a compelling concept overcome launch-time bugs?
If Aerosmith got it right, Radical.FM's journey may be far more interesting than its destination. Of course, it could cause some disruptions in the streaming music industry when all's said and done, too.
Radical.FM launched as a free iOS app today, giving users access to its library of 25 million tracks.
A heady number, but where Radical starts to stand out is in its commercial-free, user-supported model.
"People say, 'Oh that's such a great marketing ploy,' but it's a very serious thing," Thomas McAlevey, CEO and founder of Radical.FM, told TechRadar about the company's fee-free access.
"It's not just about the money, but it's the interruptions. It is so bad to have commercial interruptions when you're listening to music. We're out to make a better user experience for everyone."
Sound like a dig at some other music services you know?
How it works
"We compete directly with Pandora," McAlevey said. "With a computer algorithm picking your music, a lot of times it's 'WTF,' which for me stands not for 'what the fuck?' but 'where the fuck?' If you've had this happen, you know what I'm talking about. A computer algorithm is never going to be perfect."
Radical, he said, has zero WTF factor because it relies on humans to curate its genres.
"You pick '80s rock, and the next song will be something that's safely within what you're expecting to hear."
According to McAlevey, Radical relies on close to 30 music programmers dedicated to particular genres. For English speakers, the company wants to keep its genre total under 100.
Currently there are 20 umbrella genres, ranging from Adult Pop to Motown to Folk to Golden Oldies. Choosing one will open up a window with subgenres, and it's from these that users pick what kind of music they want playing on their stations (Moldy Oldies vs 70s Oldies, for example).
But no matter how carefully crafted those playlists, the element of "you" is still missing. To that end, Radical has something called "Custom Genres" that allow users to find a track, as long as it belongs to the firm's SoundExchange-backed collection.
The Custom Genre find will only play a 30-second snippet, and 30 song clips must be accumulated before they're added to a station. Once they're in, however, they are guaranteed to show up in your mix.
"The degree of control we offer is unprecedented," McAlevey said. "The only thing you won't get is full on demand, but that's not our game. We are a radio service."
Users also have "sliders" to adjust the value of genres relative to one another, meaning you can have 90s Rap & Hip Hop hold less value (play less frequently) than Today's Rap & Hip Hop.
Blocking songs and entire artists' catalogues is an option, but users can Unblock to bring banned tracks back into active rotation. There's also the option to like/thumbs up a song, doubling the frequency at which it's played. Unliking a song reduces it back to normal playing frequency.
There's the ability to buy tracks from iTunes or Amazon, but in our testing this option only seemed available for Curated Genre clips.
In our time with the iPad app, we found it very buggy. Controls didn't work as they should - pressing the fast forward button wouldn't skip the current track right away, but after about 20-30 seconds, 3-4 songs would be skipped as a result. It was impossible at points to stop a song or change stations, with the same song playing on repeat (if we here Flo-rida's Spin Me Right Round one more time...). Lady Gaga would inexplicably keep playing while the app informed us Jay Z was up.
It would be great if the app included a set-up guide, as you're really thrown in to figuring out how to craft a station, not to perform most functions.
We'd have also liked if the subgenres provided examples of what kind of songs and artists would be found in each. Perhaps someone with more musical know-how than us would have an easier time of it, but we thought it would helpful to know what songs we could expect in more ambiguous categories.
The Curated Genres doesn't lack for songs, but perhaps this is where Radical's 25 million figure comes into play. Search for Don't Stop Believin' and your confronted with just about every cover there is of the Journey classic.
All said, as with many apps, once we got the hang of it Radical.FM got a lot more enjoyable. There were glitches to be sure (McAlevey noted the app wasn't perfect when we spoke) but it was reassuring to sit back and know a modern indie rock song wouldn't pop up in between Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin.
If you like that kind of thing, however, you can add that genre to your station, giving it as much value as you like. It's in this control, customization and option to subtract or add that Radical.FM stands a chance of succeeding beyond a few birthday bumps.
Taking on giants
Radical.FM is entering a crowded field - not only does Pandora alone boast 200 million registered listeners, but the likes of Spotify, iTunes Radio, Google Music, Rdio and Last.fm are all jostling for users.
McAlevey doesn't seem phased.
"By the end of the year, we'll have a two-year leap on the industry," he said. "Pandora and Spotify, they're big battle ships, and it take a while for them to do turns, but we're small and quick. We have a cutting edge platform, we're using almost bleeding-edge technologies."
"Let's not underestimate the competition," he added. "Don't think I don't think Pandora is a pretty good service, but it's an old monster. Picking your songs through a computer program, that was hot once upon a time, but it's not the way to generate a great playlist now."
Pandora utilizes the Music Genome Project to analyze songs based on 400 attributes, organize them according to a mathematical algorithm and plays tracks based on users' determined preferences.
Pandora is of course a familiar, typically seamless service, and offers an ad-free option through Pandora One. A company spokeswoman informed us its library has over one million songs, and Spotify told us its library consists of over 20 million tracks.
Radical.FM beats them both with 25 million, but the proof will be in how easily users are able to find what they're looking for, whether human-crafted genres and Curated Genres really satisfy listening needs and if the service can survive without ads. Oh, and if it can fix all those glitches. That'll be a big one.
'With your help...'
The journey to get to this iOS app has been an unconventional one, to say the least.
After founding and selling Sweden's immensely popular Bandit Rock radio station, creating the "far ahead of its time" and now-defunct Tomsradio.com and trekking across Africa in a red beach buggy, Radical.FM is a sort of amalgamation of these experiences for McAlevey.
Ad-free access to a large music collection is part of it, but so is the app's "pay-what-you-can" funding structure.
"Everybody should have the right to great music," McAlevey mused. "We give you a really, really nice experience, and if you can send us a few bucks when you can, great. We believe this will work very well, but then again, it's never been tested before."
"People don't want to be as cynical as they have become," he added, recounting his experience trekking dangerous swaths of Africa, only to encounter men with AK-47s who wanted nothing more than help him on his journey.
Radical.FM is focused on paying artists, composers and labels at rates "identical to what everyone else pays," he said, and to keep those people compensated and its own doors open users will see and hear prompts to donate. In using the app for about an hour and a half, we only had one interruption for a donation pitch.
It's a dreamy proposition, but McAlevey is convinced donations will work and keep Radical.FM growing beyond today's app.
An Android app should arrive in a matter of weeks, with a web client a few weeks after. With a desktop version, Radical.fm will include "all typical" sharing features, plus RadCasting and TALK, but at launch the iOS app is more limited to ensure users understand the basic music radio service first.
As for growing beyond the U.S., he said Radical will expand with label music as licensing deals are secured, with the U.K. and Australia high on the company's list. Even more interesting (according to McAlevey) will be the launch on all platforms worldwide of an indie music offering this fall.
As of Day One, Radical.FM has a long way to go to topple the likes of Pandora, but it's a challenge McAlevey seems to relish taking on.
"I've never gotten into a bar fight with someone smaller than me," he said.