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Double J on air: alternative is the new mainstream

N.W.A. - Express Yourself from the album Straight Outta Compton.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports this morning that radio station Double J has been preparing for its relaunch today at midday by playing as many different versions as they can of NWA’s Express Yourself.

There is nothing new of course in radio stations running publicity stunts by playing individual songs back to back. Just last year Toronto’s Indie 88 played Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up for a straight week in order to test their FM transmissions, and so Double J are arguably being rather catholic and kind.

What is more interesting is what the high-profile launch of a radio station playing alternative music tells us about the modern broadcasting landscape.

Only a decade ago, broadcast radio was for the mainstream: it is where we would go to listen to the latest releases by the music industry’s global megastars. Of course, plenty of radio stations continue to do the same, but increasingly the mainstream media are moving online.

One can see the trend clearly in TV: Netflix commissioned the global TV hit of 2013 in House of Cards, Yahoo is moving into commissioning also, and leading broadcast TV providers such as the BBC, ABC and the American networks are furiously refining their apps for mobile devices.

Music is no different. In various global markets digital music service Spotify is quickly catching up with iTunes, and YouTube and Facebook are fast becoming the place where the music industry promotes mainstream acts.

And as the mainstream moves online, it no longer crowds out alternative music from conventional broadcasting. This is great for two reasons.

First, it provides a fantastic shop window for musicians who just 10 years ago would have been regarded as utterly obscure. Second, apps such as the magnificent GarageBand allow anyone to produce studio quality music in their own home for just a couple of dollars: the plethora of music that this leads to means that the challenge facing the modern-day music fan is to sift through all this to discover the music they like best.

Whoever manages to automate this discovery process first will make billions. The challenge has so far been too great for Spotify and iTunes Radio. Until they get it right, the filtering role of radio stations as taste-makers among the vast range of alternative music out there has never been more important, and neither has there historically been so much opportunity for them to do this.

So I wish Double J good luck, not that I think they will need it.

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