The BBC Playlister, which has launched in beta today, is the BBC’s attempt to help it better define its role in music. Now the radio’s role as a jukebox has been eclipsed by services such as Spotify, the Beeb are clearly trying to position themselves as curators.
The new service will span across all of the BBC’s output and with the click of a mouse, will add a track to the Playlister, for you to find later. The theory is that eventually you’ll be able to tag not only songs heard on the likes of Radio 1 and 6Music, but also stuff that appears as incidental music in the pub on Eastenders, or the tracks that the celebrities dance to in Strictly Come Dancing.
The launch of the Playlister website today gives a good indication of where they’re going with it. So let’s have a look, and see if it’s any good…
First thing you have to do on the Playlister website is sign into your BBC account. You probably already have one if you have vague memories of arguing on the BBC messageboards years ago. And from then on, it’s pretty straightforward.
All over the BBC website you’ll start to spot these little “Add to Playlister” buttons. For example, on the 6Music website, the first thing you’ll see is one of these buttons next to whatever track is playing right now (in this screenshot, The Beatles).
If you’re listening to a recorded show on the iPlayer and go to the tracklisting – again you’ll see these little orange buttons. What’s pretty cool is that not only can you add the track to playlister, but on some of the tracks you’ll be able to listen to a short snippet of the song to check it’s the one you remember hearing. (In this screenshot, I’ve perhaps unfairly picked the playlist of Radio 1’s excellent punk show, which goes out in the middle of the night and plays mostly music from obscure record labels run out of garages).
On the Playlister website you can view back all of the tracks that you’ve “tagged”, (to steal a term from the slightly-similar Shazam). And this is where things get interesting. You can export your playlist to a number of different services – or print off a PDF list of tracks… for your grandad?
The BBC have partnered up with three music streaming services – Spotify, Deezer and YouTube – with the promise of more to come. When you click the service you want to export to, you have to authenticate the BBC’s access to the service – like how you have to grant permissions when you link an app up to Facebook.
It’s all pretty seamless – after looking up the Playlister will attempt to match-up your tagged tracks with tracks available on the given service.
And it seems pretty reliable. Here are my tracks on YouTube playlist – mercifully set to private by default, so you don’t have to worry about your friends seeing that you like Coldplay.
What’s interesting is that whilst a couple of the tracks are from official sources – such as Vevo (the recording industry’s attempt to provide legit videos for YouTube), the Beatles track it found has simply been uploaded by a fan. Could this get the BBC into any difficulties with notoriously technophobic artists like The Beatles (who took years before they were even listed on iTunes)? And perhaps more importantly for the listener – does this mean that ropey gig recordings filmed the wrong way up on a phone could be automatically picked by the Playlister rather than the studio version? And what of the potential for Rickrolling?
The Playlister also exports gracefully to Spotify – after a similar matching process the playlist will be opened up inside a Playlister App inside Spotify – which you can either simply use to play the tracks back, or save as it’s own Spotify playlist (and thus sync with your phone and save forever and the like). One unexplained limit on Spotify also seems to be that it limits the list to the last 85 songs you tagged – so remember to export regularly and often if you listen to a lot of Radio!
Ultimately, I can see the Playlister being a very useful service – doubly so if, as I expect they will, roll out the tagging functionality to apps and devices. So for example, if you’re listening to the Radio on the iPlayer Radio iPad app you’d be only one button press from tagging it on to the same account. (I’d expect to see this sort of thing when they roll out the other massive iPlayer upgrades).
There’s also a couple of big challenges looming for this service. It’s only ever going to be as good as the meta-data that goes behind it. That is to say, someone needs to make sure all of the data is correct for every programme and broadcast. I imagine this is fairly straightforward for radio programmes as they’ll routinely be keeping tracks and putting them on the web, as they have been doing for some time… but is someone really going to make sure that every episode of Homes Under The Hammer has all of the tracks setup to work with this system?
The other crucial challenge is the music database that runs behind it. Whilst it will no doubt be kept up-to-date with whatever the latest number one pop song is, is the database also going to have all of the more obscure data it needs – like the unsigned band played at 3 in the morning on the Punk Show?
For now though, this is an exciting first step – and it’ll be interesting to see how the BBC build on the Playlister in the future.