The music you love is on internet radio. You could be listening right now. You don't have to do any downloading and most streaming stations are free. If you grew up with broadcast radio, this may be unfamiliar territory that seems inconvenient and uncomfortable in comparison. Why would someone want to listen to music on their tiny PC speakers and put up with the glitches and inferior sound quality that often accompany streaming music? Plus, it's not portable. You can carry a radio or a CD player with you, but to listen to a webcast you have to be close to a modem or cable outlet. The good news is that technology is advancing rapidly. Wireless internet access is becoming more accessible and the hardware is getting smaller and more portable. Sound quality is improving too. Even if you are a relatively low-tech person with a dial-up modem and those little speakers that came with your computer, there is one all-pervasive reason that internet radio is irresistible to a smooth jazz fan: you can hear your music uninterrupted and undiluted! Internet radio stations play new music as soon as it is released. They play several songs from a CD rather than focusing on one song at a time. And there are so many stations to choose from that you can pick the music mix that fits your tastes and your mood. You can listen to a station that plays only smooth jazz or one that plays a combination of smooth jazz and mellow vocals. There are stations that focus on older music and stations that play mostly new releases. If you want to hear a mixture of smooth jazz and traditional jazz or smooth jazz and fusion or a little bit of funk, Brazilian or old school, somebody is doing it on their internet station.
Internet radio is a labor of love. You can't make a lot of money operating an internet radio station, but you will spend a lot of time and money creating and maintaining one. Even the stations that have no DJ talk breaks have tangible identities. The webcaster reveals their personality by the music they choose and the way they put it together. Some webcasters are former broadcast radio professionals who want to choose the music they play. Others are rabid music fans who earn a living doing other things and spend their free time and most of their disposable income sharing the songs and artists they are passionate about via the web. Some internet stations are as slick and professional as a major market radio station. Some are as quirky and eclectic as the local public access channel at 4 am. What they have in common is that they are programmed by music fans for music fans. The emotional connection with the music and the listener is more important than statistics.
The impact that internet radio could have on smooth jazz is critical. Traditional radio is still the most effective way to expose music, but it is inaccessible to a majority of the artists who are playing smooth jazz. Adult-oriented radio formats generally focus on older songs that are already familiar to the audience, so it is extremely difficult for new music to get airplay. There are glimmers of hope. Occasionally a new song or new artist will break through. But for every one that does there are others who have the same level of musicianship, songwriting skills and production values that fall through the cracks. Webcasters can play them and they do. Taken individually it looks like these stations could not have much of an impact. However, collectively the audience for internet smooth jazz stations is impressive. Several of the larger stations have over 500,000 unduplicated listeners per month. Add to this the combined listenership for all the smooth jazz stations on a shared server like Live365.com and you have a sizeable audience that could "break" a song or artist if they are used effectively in the marketing mix.
Research has shown that internet radio listeners are much more active musically than traditional listeners. They buy more CDs and attend more concerts. They also listen closely rather than using it for background music. Most streaming music sites display the title/artist/CD as the song plays, so listeners can immediately identify it. Webcasters are an extremely diverse group but when a great song comes along they seem to intuitively find it and get behind it collectively. Over the last year, songs like Brian Hughes' "Wherever You Are," Eric Marienthal's "Uptown," and Acoustic Alchemy's "Shelter Island Drive" got minimal broadcast airplay but made it to the top of the internet airplay charts. The listeners who hear them need to be effectively motivated to hit the "click to buy" button. To an industry steeped in the traditional way of doing things, this is still a quirky and unmanageable phenomena. We are also an industry of creative people. It is only a matter of time until someone creates a way to use this new form of airplay as a legitimate and effective way to expose new artists and new music to the audience that is waiting to hear them and support them.