The Co-op’s Unsigned Playlist, RIP?

I was a little surprised to see this headline earlier today. Apparently the Co-op switched to exclusively playing music by unsigned artists in their supermarkets, but after widespread complaint by the staff working in them, they have reverted to playing chart music. To be honest, I was mainly surprised because I hadn’t heard that the Co-op had switched to playing unsigned artists’ music in the first place.

Some suggested that the move was simply to save money, as licensing music from artists without major-label representation is considerably cheaper than licensing music from large record labels (about half the price, according to the agency that supplied the music). Others simply complained that they were forced to listen to terrible music throughout their working day.

It would be very easy to dismiss both of these points off-hand. Maybe the reduced licensing bill was part of the deciding factor, but they provided an opportunity for smaller, more independent artists to be heard by a wider audience. And as for “terrible” music, well, that’s entirely subjective of course. I loathe the majority of chart music, and any initiative which spared me having to listen to Iggy Azalea or will.i.am at work would be a good thing in my book. But then I’m a musician; I care about music and I’m quite particular about what I choose to listen to. A far greater number of people are content to listen to that which comes pre-filtered through Radio 1.

Herein lies the rub, of course: if you take an average consumer’s preferred radio station and replace that day’s playlist with artists they’ve never heard of, they won’t like it. They’ll go elsewhere. It wouldn’t be so different from ITV deciding one night to spontaneously replace Coronation Street with a series of French art-house films. A handful of people might be intrigued enough to give it a chance, but the majority would change channel in disgust. The problem is that such a big, sudden change takes the audience out of their comfort zone. And people have varying degrees of tolerance for being taken out of their comfort zones. If they have a choice, they’ll switch it off. If it’s piped into their place of work for the entirety of their shift, you can bet your bottom dollar some of them are going to complain.

So how do you get around this? Let’s give the Co-op the benefit of the doubt and believe that this initiative was motivated mainly by exposure for smaller, struggling artists. Actually, the answer’s fairly obvious: if you introduce people to it more gently, they won’t object so strongly. If you blend some of the unsigned material in with the chart music, you give them what they want, along with a small sprinkling of something new. Put it in a more familiar context and they’ll be more receptive to it. Some of them might even like it. Fortunately, judging by their last statement on the matter, this is what the Co-op has decided to do. (Which reassures me that maybe they did have independent artists’ interests at heart, not just trying to cut their music bill.)

The third possibility, which remains unexplored, is that the music on their unsigned playlist was actually terrible. But even if I did wander through a Co-op supermarket during this ill-fated trial period, I certainly didn’t notice what music they were playing, so I can’t comment…

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