'Live' is so cool.
There's something exciting about following a show, or a cultural moment that you can't just turn around and download the next day. There's something about the immediacy that makes programming that might not be my favorite thing in the world into something compelling that I don't want to turn off. Beats 1 captures all of that experience—and more.
The live effect
I didn't expect to like Apple's new 24/7 radio station, or its chief DJ, Zane Lowe. I'm from New England, after all: The last time a citizen of the British Commonwealth tried to tell us what was cool, we threw all their tea in the bay and started a war. But there was something in that first broadcast—his excitement about being live around the world—that kept me engaged.
This may reveal my age, but last time I listened to live radio, Beck and the Chemical Brothers had hits on the air. Imagine my surprise at turning on Beats 1 as it launched and hearing... Beck and the Chemical Brothers? I checked the stock market to make sure I hadn't been sent back to the nineties. Apple was not doomed.
Was Lowe's show my favorite music ever? Not really. A lot of it was really interesting, but my attention wandered every time a "dudes with guitars" band came on. But there's no denying that I heard more new music in two hours than I probably have in two years. Why? Because it was live and I was there. And not gonna lie, as a person who yells at movies, I really enjoyed when he talked over songs. Talk to the hand, music purists.
The thing that really blew me away about Beats 1, though, was St. Vincent's Mix Tape Delivery Service. Tune in at 10PM ET, get an hour with one of the fanciest art musicians in the world as she spent time on the phone with a little girl named Piper who likes to dance by herself. I can't remember the last time any kind of entertainment made me smile for a solid hour.
Was the show live? I'm not sure. But it was so cool, knowing I wasn't listening to it alone—even though telling my friends when and how to listen to it was kind of a nightmare.
Lightning in a bottle
I grabbed the playlist of St Vincent's show on Apple Music the next day, and while it was still good music—it was slightly less magical. I probably could have gotten a similar playlist on Spotify or in Apple's For You section, but this one held special significance, attached to an emotional moment in time: The time I first heard it, it was played "live".
It's great to see the Beats 1 crew offering playlists of their shows afterwards; it's a smart fit with Apple's focus on curation over all things. But it's remarkable just how much less compelling a playlist feels compared to having heard the same song progression as part of a live broadcast. It makes no logical sense that pre-recorded music delivered over the internet using iTunes should resonate more than if I just played the files myself—but it does.
In the driveway
I'm tempted to compare Beats 1 to how people live-tweet sporting events, Apple keynotes, or live awards shows, but I think it's actually closer to the NPR driveway effect. Have you ever noticed how much more interesting NPR shows are when you're stuck in the car? Have you ever tried following them as podcasts? I don't know about you, but I'm still a lot more likely to sit in the driveway—listening to a show about something I'm marginally interested in—than download every single episode of a show I really like.
Will the investment in live radio be what differentiates Apple's streaming service from the rest? I think it will. Immediacy and a personal touch go a long way when you're not the only game in town.
And heck, while I'm prognosticating, maybe Tim Cook could brave the wrath of investors and use Apple's billions to pay for NPR, too. I'd listen, Tim.