An interview with Paul Campbell, founder of Amazing Radio UK
Digital radio listeners in the UK may have noticed a new station on their list over the last few months with the beta launch of Amazing Radio, founded by Paul Campbell as a follow up and companion to Amazing Tunes. However, unlike the majority of the other stations on both digital and FM, Amazing Radio doesn’t play normal, mainstream music. Instead, its playlist consists solely of music from unsigned bands and artists who have signed up and uploaded their music to AmazingTunes.com.
Their music can then be downloaded from the site, for which they get paid. The more downloads and interest an artist receives, the more likely they are to get played on the national radio station. Amazing markets itself as an “ethical” download website, on which artists get 70% of the download revenues. They now have more than 22,000 songs uploaded, with about 100 uploaded every day.
As Amazing Radio introduces a new schedule for the New Year, with presenters rather than solely pre-recorded links, Wikinews reporter Tristan Thomas interviewed Campbell to find out more.Paul Campbell himself has extensive experience in both radio and television production, having worked for BBC Radio 4 andChannel 4. After success with his own production company in the nineties and with support from investors, Campbell launched Amazing Tunes in 2005.
WN: Paul, thanks for doing this interview.
PC: My pleasure – thanks very much for asking me. We’re really grateful that Wikinews is interested in us.
WN: At the end of 2009, you complained to the BBC Trust about BBC Introducing. Can you explain what this was about and the reasons for it. Has anything come of it?
PC Sure: in a nutshell, the complaint was about unfair competition – about the BBC not following its own rules. It’s still ongoing. It will take, ahem, a while to resolve.
The details are a bit complex, but here goes. (If you commit suicide out of the boredom at what follows, I apologise).
As British readers will know, the BBC has a guaranteed and very comfortable income derived from the Licence Fee – effectively a tax you have to pay if you want a TV. According to Wikipedia (so it must be true), this generates an income to the BBC of about stg4.5bn per annum. Nice.
Not really. In recent years the beeb has increasingly used this gargantuan income – and its incredible audience reach online, on radio & TV – to launch new services that make life impossible for everyone who is not the BBC. These have ranged from e-learning content (that completely wrecked the market for private publishers), to a new digital radio station (that caused a private speech station to go bust), to an attempt to launch online regional news services (which caused howls of outrage from local newspapers). The BBC does it for the best of reasons – to provide a public service – but BBC people live in an insulated, publicly-funded world, one where you know with complete certainty you’ll get paid on the 15th of every month. It’s a million miles away from the real world, where entrepreneurial people take risks, and lose their jobs and their houses if it goes wrong. Here, the BBC’s actions have grave implications. And not just for private companies: the UK as a whole is very good at creative industries, which are the fastest-growing part of the economy. But it’s kinda hard to grow a global business if your domestic market has been wrecked by a rampaging, publicly-funded, bull in a china shop. So by accidentally knackering private companies, the BBC is also damaging the British economy.
Wise people noticed this. A few years ago the Governance of the BBC was changed. A new regulator, the BBC Trust, was created. It tried to address the problem. It insists the Corporation does a ‘public value test’ when it wants to launch a new service, or to expand an existing one.
Here, it hasn’t. Although the BBC has a longstanding commitment to play new music on its local radio stations, and one of its most famous DJs John Peel had an outstanding show on BBC Radio 1 for many years which played new music (and was, incidentally, produced by one of our new presenters), it’s suddenly changed the game. It’s launched a huge expansion and automation of this formerly piecemeal and limited activity, targeted exclusively at unsigned bands. BBC Introducing is a pan-BBC brand, combining local and network radio, television, online, even a special stage at Glastonbury. There’s a very expensive online upload service which I just know would have cost ten times what we had to spend on our similar service. There’s a Head of Department, doubtless with dozens of staff. I’ll bet they have BBC Introducing pens. It’s everywhere.
This is, by any reckoning, a ‘new service’. But it’s not been subjected to a public value test. Worse, I have it on very good authority from someone inside the BBC that BBC Worldwide – its commercial arm – is planning to launch a BBC Introducing record label – i.e., an overtly commercial expansion of BBC Introducing. This would be like the BBC trying to create a new version of the music industry, all by itself.
Whether or not you think it’s a good thing for the beeb to champion new music, you may agree it should follow its own rules. It hasn’t. There was no Public Value Test; no request to the Trust to be allowed to do this.
So we complained. It was a bit hilarious. The Trust said they weren’t allowed to investigate until we’d complained to the beeb itself and the BBC had rejected our complaint. There was a long pause as I tried to understand the logic. I said ‘I’m guessing the BBC didn’t do a PVT because it didn’t think it needed to do a PVT. We think they should have done. We’re asking you to investigate, to see if you agree’. They said ‘you have to complain to them first. It’s protocol’. It’s all very British – i.e., charmingly polite … ludicrously bureaucratic … and totally useless.
So we have another hoop to jump through. We’re now preparing our formal complaint to the BBC itself – whose Director General is someone I used to work with, when we were both fresh-faced BBC trainees in 1981. It takes time: I’ll have to write it myself, and I have a business to run. The beeb will have a small army of staff whose only job is to read it … and reject it. (They always reject criticism; it’s the BBC’s default position. They usually do it with a slightly pained expression, hurt that anyone could fail to understand their brilliance and omniscience. Either that, or they try to demolish your intellect and cast doubt on your probity. Either way, they’ll reject it).
When they do, we’ll then be able to go back to the BBC Trust to say ‘guess what? The BBC rejected our complaint. Now will you investigate?’. Yawn.
All this might make me seem a BBC-hater. Actually nothing could be further from the truth. The BBC trained me.
The stakes are high. The conventional music industry is falling to bits around us. There’s an historic opportunity to re-invent music in a way that’s fair to musicians and music-lovers, and also creates jobs and wealth in the real economy. It’s vitally important the BBC, with its publicly-funded hobnailed boots, doesn’t ruin that opportunity.All this might make me seem a BBC-hater. Actually nothing could be further from the truth. The BBC trained me. I was once, so I was told by the Head of Appointments, its youngest-ever Producer. Despite appearances, I firmly believe it’s one of the best things about the UK. I wrote to The Times of London recently in defence of it. But unfortunately it’s really, really bad at understanding the damage it does to private companies, the ones like ours that create jobs and try to create wealth, without the benefit of a guaranteed income. (Or even, any income at all).
So we’ll do our complaint, wait for it to be rejected, complain to the Trust, and keep battering away. Fun fun fun. (This would never happen in the States).
WN: You don’t accept any PRS registered artists at all. Why not?
PC: We’d love to – after all, we have the same aim as PRS, which is to make it easier for musicians to earn a living from their talent. But we can’t. There’s two reasons. 1. PRS has a barmy standard contract for using their members’ music online. It requires us to pay them a fixed percentage of ALL revenue from that website – whether or not the revenue is derived from their members’ work. So if we had 100,000 songs from non-PRS artists on amazingtunes.com, and one song from a PRS artist, we’d have to pay them a percentage of the revenue from ALL 100,000 songs. I.e., we’d have to take money out of the pockets out of non-PRS artists to pay to PRS. That would be immoral.2. If we played PRS artists on the radio, we’d have to pay PRS for our use of their members’ music. Sound fair enough? But PRS doesn’t know what to do with the money. They’d put it into a big bucket, then share it out among ALL their artists – not the members whose songs we paid, all their artists, including rich and famous signed ones. The vast majority of PRS payments go to a tiny minority of artists (and big record labels). So it would be another case of stealing from Peter to pay Paul. Paul McCartney, that is.
I wrote to the CEO of PRS when we first launched Amazing Radio pointing out these absurdities and asking if we could do a more intelligent deal. I said that I thought we had identical aims – to make life fair for musicians. I suggested we could/should be a feeder to them, introducing new members to PRS as they grew in the music industry. But so far, the PRS head is still firmly in the sand.
WN: And how would you suggest PRS could improve? If they did, would you consider allowing artists registered with them?
PC: PRS could improve by;
a. buying some computers (so they could handle our comprehensive data about the tracks we play, and then pay the right people);b. accepting that we want to mix PRS and non-PRS artists, and only asking for a share of the artists they actually represent.
If they did that, we’d sign up. This would not necessarily be popular with our audience. A lot of people – especially charities and small businesses – like the fact that they can listen to Amazing Radio without a PRS licence. But we’d do it anyway, as it would be a better service for musicians.
WN: With regard to Amazing Tunes, how many downloads could your most popular artist expect to receive per month and monetary wise, how would this compare to them receiving that number from iTunes?My personal view is that the PRS should also stop threatening to murder law-abiding people who want to listen to music at work. There was a recent case where they threatened someone for singing at work. They actually did that. They later apologized, but it revealed the corporate mentality. I think it’s incredibly counter-productive; it means their members make less money, not more; it’s ruining perceptions of what motivates musicians; it’s causing thousands of people to stop listening to music. When really, PRS should be encouraging that, shouldn’t it?
PC: Sorry, but we don’t currently release detailed figures – our competitors would love it, but we’d rather be nice to our artists and our investors instead. We do say that we expect amazingtunes.com artists to make ‘anything from a few quid, to a good living, to a small fortune’. At the moment, because it’s still very early days, people are clustered towards the first two of those options. As things grow – and there’s been incredible growth even in the past few months – we hope/expect more and more artists will start to make tens of thousands of pounds each month. We’ll soon register for the official chart, and our guess is that someone will have a major hit before long. Then everything will go really crazy.
So far as the iTunes comparisons go, the facts are already public domain. An artist on iTunes can expect to make 8p from a 79p download. The same artist on amazingtunes.com will make about 52p. We only deduct the VAT and the cost of the transaction: 70% of what’s left goes to the artist. What’s more, their income will improve over time – the more downloads we sell, the less the transactions cost us, so the more cash there is to give to the artists. That’s one reason we ask people to buy eight or more songs in one transaction – it’s much more cost-effective, less of their cash goes to VISA, more to the artist.
WN: Amazing Radio launched in mid-2009. How has it grown since then and what are your current listening figures?
PC: It’s gone mad since then. I’ve worked in broadcasting and the media since 1978 (I was very very young then, mind you). I’ve never known anything like it. The reaction has been absolutely incredible – and it’s growing faster than ever right now. The most humbling thing has been the audience feedback – masses of long emails from people we’ve never met, saying they found it by accident, and they love it.
WN: DAB transmission costs are well over half a million pounds a year. How is this being funded currently and how are you planning to fund it in the future?We’ve not yet paid for RAJAR audience figures because – well, because we’re a bit mean really, and I’m not convinced they would accurately measure our audience. I think RAJAR is very good at coming out with figures for radio stations that have been going for 40 years, but not very accurate when it comes to new and innovative stations which are also listened to a lot online and especially popular with young people. But the best guess I’ve heard in the industry is that we have something like 600,000 listeners in the UK on DAB. That’s an estimate, but it came from a very wise source. We have slightly more than that number on top as regular users online, and a weekly reach for amazingtunes.com of about two million users. But it’s all growing so fast, those numbers will be out of date by the time you read this.
PC: We’re not contractually allowed to tell you what we pay, so we can’t confirm or deny the cost. Whatever the true figure, it is undeniably expensive; but it gives our musicians a chance to be on national radio. We figure it’s worth it. I’m reminded of that wonderful teachers’ union bumper sticker: ‘if you think education’s expensive, try ignorance’. If you think creating the world’s first radio station playing 100% news music is expensive …. try being inaudible.
So far, we’ve been funded by a very small number of private investors, people of enormous wisdom and insight, natch. They understand that we have a very serious, long-term and audacious ambition to change the music industry for the better, to make radio interesting again, and to turn the word ‘amazing’ into a global challenger brand.
This year, we expect to do one final fund-raising in the UK, then to raise a lot of money on the West Coast of the USA to make this absolutely massive and global, fast. They understand this scale of ambition there.
WN: What are your plans for Amazing Radio in 2010? Any exciting announcements to come?
In 2010, we hope to make Amazing Radio the default station for everyone who has ever had that incredible experience of hearing a song for the first time, and having to stop what you’re doing to listen to it: a station for everyone who has broad musical tastes, a respect for musical talent and an open mind. We want it to be constantly surprising, fresh, original, sometimes hilarious, always unexpected.
Blimey, I sound like some corporate twat.
Now (obviously) it wouldn’t be massively unexpected if we suddenly started revealing all the unexpected things in advance – but basically, we’d like the message to spread that we’re doing something different, fresh, original and ethical – so we’ll launch more new programmes and more new services – on Amazing Radio and amazingtunes.com. Things like our virtual radio station Amazing Ambient.. There’ll be some video and some TV along soon too. And other cool stuff.
It may not be ‘insanely cool’; just cool will do just fine.
We also want to do it in other places. E.g. America. We’ve already started there. We’ll be unexpected there too.
WN: Finally, your favourite artist on Amazing Tunes/Radio at the moment?
PC: Now this will sound like a real cop-out, but I never ever say who my favourite artist is. It’s for a serious reason. I’m not some musical Einstein – I’m merely the bloke who started amazing. And I’m merely a drummer. My taste doesn’t matter. EVERYBODY’s musical taste does. One of the many problems of conventional record companies is that they think geezers in suits in big glass buildings have the right to decide what’s good music. We think the world does. I’ve found hundreds of incredible songs that I love, across loads of styles of music. You’ll find hundreds of your own. Enjoy.
WN: Thank you very much for your time Paul. Good luck for 2010.
PC: Thanks very much, we really appreciate it. 2010 is going to be amazing.
This story was originally published on wikinews.