The music industry is innovating faster than most industry executives are comfortable with, and it’s only recently that music labels have warmed up to the likes of Spotify, Pandora, and Last.fm. And now Radical.fm is entering the picture and touting a “radical” business model: A completely free-to-stream, ad-free, no-strings attached music streaming service that could stir up the digital music market’s dust yet again.
In the simplest terms, Radical.fm bundles multiple music services up into one package — namely, it gathers your Spotify, Pandora, Slacker Radio, Last.fm, Rdio, and even YouTube accounts. The number of features that this one platform offers is dizzying, but should it prove to be successful it could be the music industry darling that revolutionizes the radio and music streaming industry.
First, Radical.fm is launching today in the very country Spotify calls home, Sweden. With a library of 22 million songs, the catalogue is completely free to listen to for all users with absolutely no limitations or restrictions, and labels and musicians will get paid like they would on any music streaming service. However outside of Sweden, you can only listen to music from the indie record labels that have inked a deal with the service — for now, of course. CEO and founder Thomas McAlevey admits that the larger labels have been skeptical, although he tells us cautiously that he’s currently in negotiations with “labels at the highest level” to bring the music streaming service to the United States.
However if Radical.fm doesn’t “get the direct deals we want with the licenses in time,” McAlevey could switch on its currently-dormant radio feature and broadcast the music from any rights holders that are hesitant to jump on board thanks to the SoundExchange license Radical.fm has obtained.
As a technology platform, Radical.fm boasts many of the same features that appear your average streaming service, including playlist creation. McAlevey also claims to offer a far superior music recommendation engine than Pandora’s music genome, which he calls the “WTF” factor. “You get a lot of weird hits from left fit that aren’t near your music taste at all, and shouldn’t be there. It’s not a perfect system that’s based on certain parameters,” he says of Pandora.
Radical.fm determines your music tastes based on your favorite genres (of which there are approximately 90). Users can then assign a value between one and 10 for each genre, and Radical.fm will recommend tracks based on this factor. It doesn’t learn your musical tastes or restrict you to a bubble of tailored tracks. The system is supposed to be more flexible, and even allows you to discovery music by mood. “What if you want to change that [Pandora] station? It’s a Friday night and suddenly your girlfriend wants to hear a lot of dance music. You’ve spent months curating that station. You can’t just go and change it to start getting dance music. With us you can.”
What McAlevey is most proud of is “RadCasting,” a feature that democratizes radio. Every user that signs up for Radical.fm will automatically be able to broadcast original content live, which isn’t strictly limited to music. Music is just a launch pad, McAlevey tells us, and news, talk shows, podcasts, and other types of content are fair game.
Looking at RadCasting, there are enough parallels that can be drawn with YouTube’s online video model. Although McAlevey doesn’t want to draw that analogy, it’s obvious enough that the founder has lofty goals for Radical.fm to evolve into a YouTube for online radio. There’s a lot of money to be made in Internet radio — it was a $17.4 billion industry in 2011. Based on YouTube’s partner program, we asked McAlevey if a revenue sharing program between broadcasting users and Radical.fm is a route that they would take. He says that this is something that they are considering should professionals bring advertisers with them to their RadCasting channels in the future.
Of course, an important question, is how will Radical.fm make money? After all, the necessary music licenses to get a startup like Radical.fm off the ground can cost millions of dollars. And that doesn’t include the royalties a music streaming service is required to pay. But Thomas McAlevey, CEO and founder of Radical.fm, and his investors are betting big. “We’re not charging for anything,” McAlevey tells us. Drawing on parallels to Radical.fm’s competitors, he emphasizes that there is no catch.
As crowdfunding has become a viable model for jumpstarting emerging businesses, McAlevey wants to adopt these models and survive entirely on the generosity of its users. There’s even a charitable aspect to the streaming service. “Everything is free to everybody. If you like it, send us some money. We’re totally user-supported. And 10 percent goes straight to a charity of the user’s choice,” says McAlevey. Sure, it sounds crazy, but it’s not impossible: National Public Radio has long survived for over 40 years with the support of its loyal audience.
Radical.fm is backed by a closed group of private investors that have helped the business fund its necessary expenses, like licenses and royalties. “I’ve got a great group of investors, and our goal is to run this through next year and give it a real good chance. My personal belief is that we will be able to continue this forever because I have a lot of faith in people. I believe that if we give them a compelling enough service, which we do, they will step up and understand that this can’t go on forever if nobody supports it,” says McAlevey.
McAlevey is promising a holiday gift to the platform’s early users with a Radical.fm mobile app that will launch by next month, and guarantees that all label music will be available on Radical.fm sometime in 2013 or early 2014 for the entire world.