A jazz singer recently asked me, "How do you like all those new music channels on your TV?" I made puzzled noises, to which she happily replied that she had just subscribed to Time Warner Cable's digital service and was now receiving 40 music-only channels, each of which offered round-the-clock, commercial-free programming.
I followed her lead a couple of weeks later and subsequently discovered that many New Yorkers -- including more than a few digital cable subscribers who had access to channels 601 through 640 but had never taken the time to find out what was on them -- were as unaware as I had been that they could use their television sets as cutting-edge radios.
Tune into a Time Warner music channel and you will see a sky-blue screen identifying the song that is playing, the name of the performer and the title and label of the CD from which the track is drawn. The sound is as good as the speakers through which you're hearing it, and the channels cover an unusually wide range of genres: top-40 hits, golden oldies, rap and metal, country and classical, easy listening, jazz, gospel, New Age, even an all-Tejano channel. No disc jockeys are heard, nor are there announcements of any kind. All you hear is music, 24 hours a day.
And while I can't claim to be an authority on such niches as "For Kids Only" or "World Beat," I've been listening to a half-dozen of these music channels with some regularity, and I've been consistently impressed by the quality of the programming. "Singers and Standards," the school-of-Sinatra channel, seems a bit on the bland side, but the jazz and big-band channels are usually quite diverse in their fare, while the two classical channels (one features full-length works, the other shorter "drive time" classics) almost always have something good on. "American Originals" offers extended blocks of bluegrass, show tunes and Dixieland -- a nicely eclectic mix -- while "Post Country," perhaps the most interesting channel that I've listened to closely, specializes in the rough-hewn music of alt-country artists like Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and BR5-49.
Having spent a few bemused months channel-surfing from genre to genre, it occurred to me to ask: Where was all this good music coming from? The name Music Choice is posted in the upper right-hand corner of each screen, but no other information is visible, and I had a sneaking feeling that I was plugged into a super-station located somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
Famous for nothing
In fact, a morninglong series of telephone calls eventually led me to the corporate headquarters of Music Choice, a company based in Horsham, Pennsylvania, a tiny township just north of Philadelphia. So far as I can tell from its municipal fact sheet on the Web, Horsham is famous for nothing in particular, but Music Choice, though you've probably never heard of it until now, may well be in the vanguard of a significant change in the way Americans listen to music.
Founded in 1990, Music Choice bills itself as "the world's first digital audio service offered via satellite to cable television subscribers."
A partnership among Microsoft, Motorola, Sony Corp of America, Warner Music Group, EMI Music and a half-dozen cable TV providers, including Time Warner Cable, it serves 1,050 cable systems across the US, reaching roughly 85 percent of the current digital-cable market. (The other 15 percent is served by a smaller competitor, DMX.) Music Choice claims to have more than 18 million audio customers, with an average listening time per household of 14 to 17 hours a week. Its 45 channels (New York subscribers do not receive "Folklorica," "Boleros," "International Love Songs," "Brazilian Pop" or "Brazilian Beat") are programmed by 10 different specialists, each of whom maintains a group of playlists much larger than those heard on ordinary terrestrial radio stations, most of which adhere rigidly to one of a half-dozen lowest-common-denominator formats carefully tailored to maximize market share. "Our current-hit channels play between 500 to 800 songs each," said Damon Williams, Music Choice's director of programming. "The oldies channels are bigger -- anywhere from a thousand to 2,000 songs."