Ian Delaney talks to mixmeister Jethro Borthwick to reveal the combination that has made Nokia Mix Radio a smash hit
Jethro Borthwick, the man in charge of content creation for Nokia Mix Radio at the company’s Bristol office, has an enviable position. His career is devoted to music and helping people enjoy and discover music.
Jethro studied as a music engineer at university, but opportunities in the music industry outside London are few and far-between in the UK. Instead he drifted into designing databases.
Moving to Nokia as a ‘digital music librarian’ allowed him to combine the tech savvy he’d acquired with his love of music. He works with a team of musicologists in Bristol who work on Nokia music products and services. There are also a further 20 music specialists who also help out and then our local territory teams who help to make the content relevant to each country.
Just 12 months ago, Jethro’s team started work on Nokia Mix Radio, a brand new service with the idea of having sets of tunes – the eponymous Mixes – available for streaming and offline download.
Tasty music on tap
“We tried to get a taste of how people want to consume music from their mobile,” Jethro says, “So I just put an email round the office, to start with.”
“The results showed that people are very different. Some people said ‘I just want to listen to Westlife’; other people only want to listen to what’s in the charts, while others really want things they haven’t heard before.”
“It was clear we had to create a solution that could be as varied as people’s tastes and their reasons for turning on the music”.
The Mixes aren’t made by machines. They’re created by real individuals who care deeply about the genres or music types they’re curating.
“Nokia Mix Radio is designed from the ground up by people who love music. We think that having individuals curate the Mixes makes it very different to other, algorithm-driven music services.”
“When you’re listening to a Mix, you won’t just find the standard choices you’d expect to find. There are more quirky choices and rarities; there’s the same personality you’d find listening to a dedicated radio DJ.
The Music Store catalogue currently contains around 17 million tracks, all of which is available to put into Mixes. At any one time, around 20-25 thousand tracks are available through Mixes, with the rest also available if people choose to create custom Mixes by inputting some of their favourite artists as a starting point.
“But over time, we’ve widened the scope, responding to what people have asked for. So you’ll now find things like exercise mixes, mood-based selections and celebrity mixes. We’re continually trying to come up with new ways of getting music out there.”
The team can see the popularity of Mixes straight away through the back end of the system.
“We were quite surprised to find that the popularity of mixes very much tallies with our experience on the music store.
“Around 30 per cent of the music available accounts for 70 per cent of the downloads. The average person wants superstars and pop hits from their local charts.
“But then there’s a very long tail. All of the Mixes get listened to by some people.”
Specialists pay more attention
“One interesting fact we’ve been able to discover is that the more specialist a Mix is, the less likely people are to skip tracks.” People listening to the current chart selections skip very frequently, but if you’re dedicated enough to a particular genre or period to find your way to the ‘70s Soul, Funk and RnB’ Mix, for example, then the likelihood is that you’ll listen to the whole thing.
Global ambitions from small beginnings
Since it comes up in the comments here on Conversations, we asked Jethro about the international availability of Mix Radio.
“We want everyone to be able to enjoy it and we’re working to make that happen. It’s just become available in its twenty-first country, starting from just a handful at launch. It wasn’t initially available in Germany, for example, but now we’ve launched there.
“The availability can depend on lots of different factors: our relationships with labels in particular territories, how popular the service is likely to be and business priorities. But yes, our aspiration is for it to be a global service. It’s worth noting that, after just twelve months, it’s already bigger – in terms of international reach – than any other music service of its type.”
Nokia Mix Radio has proven a resounding success with users and industry insiders. “When we were a Mobile World Congress showing it off, people from around the world were coming up for the demo and saying ‘wow – this is amazing’. It was quite amusing to see some of our competitors arriving at the stand and going very quiet and pale once they’d seen what we’d done.”
“We’ve put our heart and soul into Mix Radio, working on it night and day for twelve months. We’re really proud of the whole thing.”