Bernie Connor’s eclectically excellent music taste has been keeping Liverpool entertained for decades: on the Radio with Crash FM, as well as in clubs alongside nearly all of the biggest names in dance or rock music. His peerless podcast The Sound of Music – recorded from his living room in Aigburth – is about to celebrate 200 episodes, but Bernie’s instruction for us all to become “kingmakers in your own personal world”, could be about to work against him.
Apple are preparing to launch their new iTunes Radio service, complete with over 26 million tracks and the support of major record labels. After 13 years of demonisation and blame, the majors are finally ready to harness the power of a potentially infinite internet audience. With online powerhouses like Apple, Microsoft, Google and many others joining Spotify in giving the power of choice to the people, traditional DJs like Bernie are facing yet another fight for survival; why listen to a DJ when you can effectively curate your own radio station? The man himself isn’t exactly fazed by this, though. Having been a DJ for longer than most of us have been alive, he’s seen many changes, and ridden them all: “Over the last 25 years Djing has become a completely different animal. People seem to think that a DJ is there to enhance their lives, whereas for me, it’s just a guy playing his favourite records.”
Bernie has always been keen to deflate the myth of the superstar DJ, even while happily sharing a bill with them. “I’ve got nothing against most of them as people, I just don’t think their opinion is any more important than anyone else’s. What I do with The Sound of Music is the very essence of Punk – if you don’t like what I’m doing, go out and do your own show.”
Apple’s argument is that iTunes Radio allows the public to do just that. Launching in the US this autumn, iTunes Radio takes an individual’s tastes into account – using their iTunes library as a jumping off point – to give each user their own personally tailored radio station, featuring tracks from the entire iTunes catalogue. There’s even a voice-activated function enabling users to start, stop and skip tracks at will. But are we really the kingmakers? Bernie can see a major flaw in the logic: “I object to being told ‘because you like this, you must also like this’. It doesn’t work like that! I love The Clash but that doesn’t mean I love every band that sounds a bit like them, y’know?”
Apple are by no means the only big company to turn their attention to streaming. Before the end of the year we can expect new services launched by Google, Amazon and Twitter, as well as those recently established by Sony and Xbox, not to mention past market leaders Last FM and Spotify. When you analyse the numbers, it’s hardly surprising that everyone wants to dip their toe in the pool. Streaming is one of the few areas of growth in the music industry. In 2012, digital revenue increased by 9%, compared to the 0.3% increase made by industry as a whole. Digital sales now account for a third of that total revenue. The big boys are furiously jostling to get to the front of the queue, offering users between 18 and 30 million tracks from which to create their personal playlists.
But when you have 30 million tracks, how do you choose what to play next? There’s a strong argument that, in the digital age, where it’s so easy to amass a large collection of songs, music can easily be devalued: “If you were a teenager 25 years ago, you might have had half a dozen singles and a few more albums,” remembers Bernie. “Now you can get a device with ten thousand songs on it. Half of which never get listened to!”
That’s where the art of the skilled DJ comes in: the ability to guide listeners through the vast musical universe with hopefully no ulterior motive other than allowing good songs to be heard by as many people as possible. That personal touch adds an authenticity unattainable by software, and is the reason word of mouth is still the most powerful marketing tool. The problems arise when it’s done badly. It’s hard to argue with Bernie’s assertion that “the kids don’t give a shit about radio anymore”, isn’t in part a consequence of the airwaves becoming flooded by identikit commercial radio stations and cheeseball Z-list celebrity DJs. “When a DJ isn’t in charge of the records played on their show I can always tell, as can a lot of the audience. Kid’s aren’t stupid.”
There’s no doubt who is in charge of The Sound of Music. Bernie is fiercely proud of his show’s eclecticism, often spending days on the running order alone. His mantra ‘we will not shy away from pop music’, was established on his very first show and still hangs as a banner draped across one of many stacks of CDs ranging from The Beastie Boys to The Byrds, The Clash to Kylie. And while he may dip back into the music of his youth, Bernie works hard to remain relevant: “There has to be new music in the show every week. Not just new to me, new to everyone. Not every record over 20 years old is a classic, but some records are 20 minutes old and already classics.” It’s entirely a labour of love, from which he earns no money. Like most of us who’ve chosen music as a career, Bernie fits his show around a full-time job. No one can question his motives, which remain steadfastly at the opposite end of the spectrum to those of Apple.
Like Spotify, iTunes Radio will be heavily ad-driven, unless you’re willing to pay the £21.99 a year to use iTunes match. And seeing as the only major record labels to announce an agreement with iTunes are Sony, Warner and Universal, Bido Lito! is willing to bet a substantial amount that the majority of recommendations come from artists on those labels. In reality, the claims of musical freedom are at best disingenuous and at worst downright dishonest.
Bernie will carry on regardless in the face of all comers. Having passed 200 episodes, he’s refusing to put a limit on how long The Sound Of Music will continue: “I hope I can get to 3-, 4- or even 500. I see no reason to stop now.” It’ll take more than the financial muscle of big business to silence this selector.