Updated: Nov 5
I've been fascinated by radio for as long as I've been a music fan. I would imagine most music fans over the age of 30 got hooked on their favorite artists or genres because of the personalities behind the microphones at various local stations around the country. Local radio stations were lifelines to my music taste growing up, and as much as I listened because I was discovering amazing songs, if there was a someone DJing who I connected with, that made it all the more appealing.
Of course, a lot of trends have made this form of music consumption obsolete during the 21st century. Media consolidation in the last 25 years has meant that a few large corporations control the vast majority of FM radio stations in the country. What this means in practice is that, whether you live in New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, Omaha, or many places in between, the same people are likely dictating what music goes on the air regardless of where you live. It also means that the DJs you're listening to might not be local, with syndicated shows becoming that much easier to distribute around the country.
And then there's streaming. Don't get me wrong, I love Spotify. The ability to pull a song or album you haven't heard in ages, if at all, on demand, has been a game-changer for music fans like myself. But it also cuts out the middleman, which I would argue isn't necessarily a good thing. Sometimes you need another person to help you find music you wouldn't be exposed to otherwise. I mean, how many times have you discovered a new artist because of a friend's recommendation.
Which is why I was saddened to learn that Amp, a live radio app launched by Amazon in March 2022, will be shutting down on October 31.
The idea behind Amp was pretty straightforward: users could air live shows where they played music and talked to other users. Since all the music available came from Amazon's music library, there was no danger of copyright infringement from playing a song you had no rights to.
When I learned about Amp's existence around this time last year, I immediately created a profile. I would try to air a show about once a week, usually for about two hours. It was a great way for me to connect with friends - or anyone else who happened to stumble along - through my favorite artists. At first, I thought it would be a good way to give my top 40 chart a weekly platform, but I decided to go deeper than that. I curated playlists based on themes or moods; one show was even dedicated to telling the story of the Back to the Future trilogy. I never had more than 7 or 8 listeners for any show, but the ones I did have were loyal, and it excited me to think I could connect with new people based on our tastes in music.
Unfortunately, there were problems with the app that should've foreshadowed its demise. Perhaps the biggest was the rule that you couldn't play music if you had no listeners after 3 songs or 20 minutes had passed. As anyone who has listened to the radio will tell you, it's not always appointment entertainment. Radio works best when you're able to filter in and out of shows or channels. What this rule meant was if none of the 2 or 3 people who always listened to my shows were able to tune in, or had to step away for whatever reason, I was screwed.
Then there was the issue of the app itself being buggy. I guess it should be expected that an app in its early stages would still be working out the kinks. But it was extremely frustrating for my show to have to end because my listener count suddenly dropped to zero - even though I knew people were still listening. I could always restart the show, but there was no better way to kill listener engagement than for the app itself to stop supporting the show.
Amp's focus on courting celebrities to its platform probably didn't help matters either. I suppose getting people with built-in followings wasn't a bad way of growing the app's user base. But it became clear that the celebrities were who Amp was prioritizing, and not the rank-and-file users that created the vast majority of the content. I know I wasn't on Amp to listen to Nick Cannon's show. It felt like in trying to push celebrities, they were trying to compete with SiriusXM or podcast services, when that should never have been the focus.
There were other issues I could get into, such as the slow rollout of an Android version of the app, but I suppose they're all moot at this point. From what I've been able to find in the news, it seems the demise of Amp is nothing more than a cost-cutting measure for Amazon. This is the most infuriating part. If anyone had the capacity to make a service like Amp work over the long run, you would think Amazon would be on that list. Surely they could absorb the losses from the service for a few years until the app was stable and they figured out a way to compensate its content creators while still trying to make the app profitable.
Instead, it's just a reminder that the biggest corporations, in spite of whatever innovations they can offer, should never be trusted to have its customers' best interests at heart. The bottom line is always going to dominate the discussion for these entities.
I hope we haven't seen the end of this concept, but it's hard for me to see another company or start-up getting behind such an idea, especially when Amp can be held up as exhibit A for why it wouldn't work. This had so much promise to bring people together based on a common interest. Instead, it feels like another example of a big tech company caring only about profits, and not giving a fuck how it affects the people who use its services.
Music, like any artform, is ultimately about human connection. If we only rely on ourselves to pick our favorite music, or depend on artificial intelligence or something behind a curtain to determine what our musical taste should be, then I fear it's only going to lead to a slow, sad decline for music, and maybe even society as a whole.