iHeartRadio, the online radio service from terrestrial radio giant Clear Channel, has hit 50 million registered users, a milestone only three years in the making.
The pace of iHeart signups -- faster than that of rival Pandora, the biggest radio provider on the Web, as well as Twitter and Facebook -- reflects the growing popularity of streaming music as well as the promotional heft that comes from a giant like Clear Channel as the parent of the developing service.
However, Clear Channel Chief Executive Bob Pittman said that horsepower -- 850 owned radio stations in the US, giving Clear Channel the largest reach of any radio company with 245 million monthly listeners -- wasn't necessarily a blessing that guarantees iHeart's success.
"If you look at the history of traditional media companies, the heft alone isn't enough," he said in an interview with CNET. The annals of the Internet are littered with "traditional companies that don't make the leap," Pittman said.
In the past few years, streaming music services have grown in popularity among consumers -- revenue from them rose to more than $1 billion last year globally -- and that, in turn, has made the online services increasingly adored by recorded-music labels as digital music downloads begin to slow. Like any burgeoning opportunity, the market is rife with intensifying competition, including the Web's biggest radio provider Pandora with 77 million monthly active listeners, startups like Spotify, marketing powerhouses like Beats, and giant technology corporations like Apple, Amazon, and Google.
Pittman, who rose to prominence in the media world as the wunderkind who founded MTV, views iHeart's competition more simply: by not conflating radio with other options.
"Let's not combine music collections and radio as one category," he said. "They rarely live together. Now it appears that downloads replace CDs, maybe subscription replace downloads, but it's still the same thing. It's still your music collection."
"When you go to the radio, you want to hear what's going on in the world," Pittman said.
Pittman added that the 50 million milestone puts iHeart in a top tier of online music services, competitively. "If you look at the marketplace, there's the four of us and then everybody else," he said, listing iHeart, Pandora, Apple's iTunes, and Spotify. "At 50 million, we're clearly in that league."
iHeartRadio is a free, ad-based online service that combines the live and on-demand streams of Clear Channel's terrestrial radio stations with a Pandora-like online radio option: create a station based on an artist or song and iHeart serves up a radio channel with related tracks. Originally launched in 2011, it hit 97 million monthly unique users in May. iHeartRadio's strategy has been to take advantage of its assets as a longtime partner of the recorded-music industry and expand the brand into a talk-radio "audiosodes" feature, a nationally televised primetime awards show, and a yearly music festival with top acts like Justin Timberlake, Paul McCartney, and Katy Perry.
"The future is some sort of electronic -- today it's digital, it's streaming," Pittman said. "We're doing open heart surgery on a beating heart...we're all trying to build this digital market in a intelligent way."