NPR: The music industry's most unlikely titan

June 11, 2012

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Seventeen years ago no one expected NPR to become a major power broker in the music industry. But Bob Boilen, then the director of All Things Considered, simply did what he'd done countless times throughout his career: He had an idea and he went with it. As director, Boilen selected the music to play between segments. In the mid-'90s he started posting information about the songs he played on NPR.org. Eventually those postings grew into the All Songs Considered podcast, which in turn spawned the NPR Music website in 2007.

NPR Music brought together content from member stations, live concert streams from the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., as well as the "First Listen" feature, where record labels coordinate early album streams with NPR. They soon added the "Tiny Desk Concert" videos and the Webby and Emmy Award-winning "Project Song" video series.

In the five years since the site launched, it has become a major force in an ever-shrinking music industry. At a recent SXSW panel on trends in publicity, NPR was praised as the most desired press coverage, alongside the New York Times and Pitchfork. In 2010 the site averaged 1.6 million visitors a month.

For all its success, NPR Music has chosen a different path than its online competitor Pitchfork or WBEZ's own Sound Opinions. Where Pitchfork has its infamous 10.0 scale and Sound Opinions grades on the "Buy it, Burn it, Trash it" model, it's quite rare to hear anything less than effusive praise on All Songs Considered. The site didn't have a designated music critic until Ann Powers joined their staff in 2011.

At the same time, NPR Music has followed Pitchfork's lead by beginning to present live music, including major showcases at SXSW. For outlets with a strong focus on criticism and traditional journalism, some see this as a sticky ethical area, due to the potential appearance of conflict of interest.

Today on Afternoon Shift

This summer NPR Music is taking its All Song Considered show on the road, hosting six listening parties in rock clubs across the country. Their tour stops at the Double Door in Chicago Monday evening, so we invited Bob Boilen to join us on Afternoon Shift to talk about his own journey from synthesizer geek to music industry titan. We've also invited our own music blogger and Sound Opinions co-host Jim DeRogatis to talk about the difference between being a music fan and a music critic. Does the distinction even matter?

If you'd like to attend tonight's event in Chicago, leave a comment on this post. The first six commenters will get on the guest list with a plus one. Doors at 6 p.m. 1572 N Milwaukee.