Monday, June 2, 2003

Service tailors tunes to listener

Music Choice offers interactive options

By David Bauder
The Associated Press

Forgive Damon Williams if he has a difficult time mustering enthusiasm for his company's latest product.

Williams is a DJ, and he lives for turning people on to great new music. He has a dream job. As programming director for Music Choice, he's ultimately responsible for deciding which songs are played on 45 channels of satellite and digital cable.

This summer, the company is introducing "My Music Choice," an interactive option that essentially lets listeners create their own channels tailored to their tastes.

In other words, they can bypass Williams' work. While that doesn't make him happy, he understands Music Choice has to be aggressive.

"You can't deny technology," Williams said. "If we don't offer this product, someone else will."

While Music Choice has been around for more than a decade, it is slowly seeping into public consciousness. Direct TV customers get it. And as more cable systems (including Time Warner in Cincinnati) go digital - adding the capacity for many more channels - Music Choice often becomes part of the mix.

The individual channels program a continuous stream of music, in formats set according to taste: rap, metal, jazz, blues, opera, gospel, show tunes, etc.

Even the popular genres are cut into narrow stylistic slivers. There's one channel for popular country chart hits, another for classic country artists, another for Americana and another for bluegrass. There are six separate rock stations, ranging from soft to metal.

No chatter

Music Choice has no disc jockeys (except occasionally on the rap station), no commercials. On screen is a graphic that identifies the song, artist and CD from which it originates.

It's essentially radio, minus the annoyances and local flavor, flowing through the television set.

Music Choice began in 1991 as a pay service on a handful of cable systems. Customers paid $10 a month for the music.

"It did well, but the model broke down very quickly," explained David Del Beccaro, the company's president. Music junkies loved it, but the service quickly hit a ceiling in terms of people willing to pay the monthly fee for something akin to radio, which they get for free. It's the same challenge that satellite radio faces today.

So Music Choice shifted to a more traditional TV business model, where cable or satellite systems pay a licensing fee to the company, and provide the channels to customers as part of basic service.

Music Choice has begun taking in advertisers, whose messages are displayed onscreen, not in audio commercials.

Today, it's available in nearly 30 million homes, more than one-quarter of the nation's 107 million homes with television. In the past year alone, Music Choice added seven million new homes.

"It's a huge difference," Del Beccaro said. "When we were in four or 10 million homes, we would run into a lot of people who didn't know we were around. At this point, every record company knows who we are."

So do many artists, judging by the increasingly cluttered wall at the company's Manhattan office. Musicians who stop for a visit are asked to add their autographs to the wall.

Music Choice airs the occasional concert; Fleetwood Mac and the Roots have given exclusive performances in recent months. For the most part, people use it passively, as background music when they vacuum the house, have a party or read a book.

Deep catalog

Although Music Choice has what is essentially a Top 40 station (called "Hit List"), its strength is its depth. Most of the channels aren't repetitive, and can play several songs from an album instead of just one hit.

The one thing not offered in one place is variety. There's no station where an adventurous listener can hear, for example, a bluegrass song followed by a rap or jazz cut or hard rocker.

It sounds good, but few listeners had the patience for it. "Whenever we did mixed formats, the listeners would go away," Del Beccaro said.

That's where "My Music Choice" comes in. The new service will allow viewers to create their own channels according to taste. A listener can program 10 percent bluegrass, 20 percent rap and 50 percent metal, if they want - or any other permutation.

Music Choice is also close to an agreement that will let viewers use their service, through its Web site,, to buy and download music.

"People want what they want when they want it," Williams said. "Every company is trying to develop products that make them feel like they have control."

Williams, with 15 years in the music business, doesn't like seeing his role reduced by "My Music Choice."

"My parents didn't send me to school all those years for nothing," he said.

He shouldn't worry too much. The service is only being test-marketed this summer in Iowa, Illinois and Pennsylvania, with no firm plan for a national rollout. And, as yet, Music Choice only has the capability to offer it to cable customers. The 11 million satellite customers who get Music Choice are out of luck.

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