Streaming allows listeners to dip toes into uncharted waters

Moving outside the Beltway and on to belt-driven turntables, National Public Radio has gone hipster in the last year and a half by providing a musical filter that’s having a two-fold effect: A younger and broader audience is coming to NPR for music, and the current crowd is learning what Vampire Weekend and Dr. Dog actually sound like.

Streaming entire albums, which NPR has been doing since September 2008, is not unique on the Internet. But NPR, through its “exclusive first listen” program, has become a go-to resource for artists and labels looking for a third party to stream an album prior to its release, especially the indie rock artists who appeal to twentysomethings but have no shot at commercial radio airplay.

Labels that have held tight reins on controlling the release of music have started to open up and allow full album streaming on third-party sites. Generally speaking, they have only permitted segments of songs to be streamed at e-commerce sites and placed individual songs on artists’ websites.

Streaming in these cases offers the potential consumer a preview of music before it is released as a download, CD or vinyl, and which they can play as often as they like. The catch is they get to hear it, but they don’t possess it.

Pre-release streaming of albums has become a popular feature at third-party sites such as AOL’s Spinner, which is dedicated to all forms of rock and pop music. They generally have a dozen featured albums streaming — some current, some catalog and some pre-release. It has become one of the site’s most popular features. Unlike offerings at labels’ websites and online stores, these are not the result of sales and marketing plans. At Spinner and NPR’s website, the selections are editorially driven.

“There’s no commerce,” NPR Music executive producer Anya Grundmann says. “It’s about providing access to artists and discovering music, not part of a business plan. The key is that somebody’s got to love it.”

Vampire Weekend’s “Contra,” an album that thrilled the entire NPR Music staff, was also one of the site’s biggest hits, generating “a couple hundred thousand” streams. (NPR does not give out specific numbers.)

Spinner and NPR had considerable profiles at the recent SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. Both staged events featuring the pre-eminent force in retro-soul: Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. Spinner’s show was a modern-day soul revue with Smokey Robinson, Raphael Saadiq, Mayer Hawthorne and Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears.

NPR presented two of the hottest current indie rock bands, Broken Bells and Spoon. Their day party included two acts that were among the fest’s must-sees — Surfer Blood and Local Natives — as well as the classical string quartet Brooklyn Rider. Broken Bells and the Dap-Kings albums were streamed at NPR.org in March.

“We believe people don’t want to be fenced in by genres,” says NPR Music product manager Amy Schriefer.

To that end, NPR Music is looking to reach beyond the Americana/AAA and world music areas they occupy, expanding coverage of country music, hip-hop and R&B, pop music and jazz. Also on the expansion plan is a growth into mobile platforms.

“The mobile space can set us apart,” Grundmann says. “It will be programmed by humans and not some computer algorithm, with editorial surrounding the music.”

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