Music Choice

There’s been a lot of discussion following Apple’s announcement about its new online global radio station, Beats1, and its streaming service, Apple Music.

Music streaming services are nothing new, though – Spotify, Pandora, Last.fm etc. have been doing it online for ages.

mce-mainGoing back even further, in October 1994 (was it really 21 years ago?) I moved from Capital to become Head of Programming at Music Choice Europe, which was about to launch 50 linear audio music channels which would be available, initially, by cable and later via satellite, across Europe and parts of the Middle East.

Although Music Choice US had already been going for a few years, this was a totally new concept on this side of the Atlantic and I can remember a few Capital colleagues trying hard to get their heads around it.

Music was curated by a team which, over the years I was there, included ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris, XFM’s John Kennedy, Phil ‘The Collector’ Swern and dance-meister Jeff Young – all passionate about their particular fields of music, and who helped put together a broad range of music across our channels covering just about every genre – and sub-genre.

For example Rock fans could choose between Classic Rock, Soft Rock, Acoustic/Folk Rock, Heavy Rock and Alt/Modern Rock. We also had several varieties of Classical music (Favourites, Symphonic, Adventures, Baroque and Opera); then there was Jazz, Modern Jazz, Big Band and Blues, Pop; Old Gold (50s/60s), Gold (70s/80s), Country, New Country, Dance, Rap/Hip-Hop, Soul Classics, Reggae, Film/TV Soundtracks, Musicals, World Music, Indian/Bollywood Songs, Irish music, Love Songs and a Children’s channel.On top of this was a number of ‘European’ channels, such as (German) Schlager, French Chansons and Norwegian traditional music while Dutch, German, French, Turkish, Belgian and Italian pop each had their own channel.

Here’s a company promo video from the mid-90s (despite the warning it will play via the Watch on Vimeo button):

That was a lot of different music channels and many had their own individual quirks. I think we really pushed Selector to its limits – and also worked closely with RCS to develop some customised add-ons.

However, while the concept itself was definitely there the technology and other necessary infrastructure wasn’t quite ready yet.

56k dial-up (and still metered by many ISPs at the time) was about as good as the internet got in the mid/late-1990s – not to mention long-running licensing negotiations with all of the various European music copyright bodies – so online streaming was out of the question for many years.

When we joined ‘Sky Digital’ (who had a stake in the company) at its launch in 1998 the on-screen EPG (Electronic Programme Guide) displayed Artist/Title/Album info. There were plans at one stage to use the Sky handset’s interactivity to provide a ‘Buy It Now’ option to get the CD. Development was ongoing when I departed in August 2000 but I gather that proposal never really took off.

I suspect one of the problems was that it had been decided at the very beginning that the original album should always be credited on the EPG. On some channels many of the tracks we were playing had been sourced from vinyl – and often from long-deleted albums – but even if a track could be found on a ‘Best Of’, or other general compilation CD, we still had to credit the original. As a result many catalogue numbers were just not recognised during testing by the purchasing software and sales were not possible.

In 2010 Music Choice came off Sky. The following year the company was acquired by Canadian broadcaster Stingray, who later re-branded the service as Stingray Music.

I spent nearly six years with Music Choice Europe. It was an interesting, if sometimes very frustrating, time but looking back I feel proud to have played a small part as a digital pioneer.