Consider these numbers:
- 50 million albums sold worldwide
- The 11th best-selling band in history
- Named by Billboard the most successful band of the 2000-2009 decade
- 17 million “likes” on Facebook
- They've sold out 11 international tours, playing to 8 million fans
- In Canada, they had 5 #1 albums – more than Neil Young and Joni Mitchell – combined
The Telegraph once called them “the world's most hated band.”
And that sums it up for Nickelback, a paradox in popular music. It's not that other artists haven't suffered through derision or fan backlash.
But in the case of these rockers from Canada – led by Chad Kroeger – the band has become a joke, amplified by the swarm of critics who took off on their lyrics, their power chords, their songwriting – pretty much everything. Of course, this is all despite the fact a Nickelback concert could likely fill any stadium here in North America, and perhaps around the world – next month.
To see how this plays out, look at some recent metrics when you compare a multi-platinum group like Nickelback to Soft Cell, a synth-pop duo famous for one big hit, “Tainted Love.” Yes, for all intents and purposes, Soft Cell is a classic “one hit wonder.”
Nielsen Music shows that in the week ending October 17, in the streaming numbers – or conscious decisions made by consumers – Nickelback earned nearly 16 million plays. Soft Cell – where streams for the same week only total 8.3 million streams – about half as many as Nickelback. Makes sense, right?
But when we turn to Mediabase airplay spins over a recent week – or the conscious spin decisions made by PDs – Nickelback scored nearly 2,300 spins in the U.S.
Soft Cell? Their music was programmed more than 3,100 times.
These are the kinds of inexplicable things that can happen in our fluid, fickle world of “what's hot & what's not.” And if you're in the broadcast radio business, you shouldn't be snickering at Nickelback because very much the same phenomenon has happened – or been allowed to happen – to your medium.
I was recently observing a radio focus group the other night of mostly Millennial males and females. One of the women in the group declared early on that she'd pretty much stopped listening to the radio because she prefers her Spotify playlists and satellite radio.
At that moment, us observers started wondering why she showed up for this group in the first place. But as we came to find out, she was one of the most knowledgeable respondents in the room. In fact, she shared some good insights about what was happening on our client station and in the market today. And yet, she could not admit being a radio listener, especially in front of her peers.
But the snarky question – “Who listens to radio?” – has taken root, perhaps as much as “Nickelback sucks.”
The radio industry – on a station by station basis – spends millions of dollars every year on audience research. This comes in the forms of perceptual surveys, music and dial tests, and of course, audience ratings. In fact, for most stations, the ratings are a major expense line, often falling in the top five, along with personnel and health care benefits.
And yet, we know precious little about how the audience really feels about us. Much like Nickelback, broadcast radio's numbers are impressive. In fact, other media platforms don't even come close:
- 248 million listen each week in the U.S.
- 92% of American 18+ tune to broadcast radio on a weekly basis
- Broadcast radio is the most-listened to medium in the car earning more than half of all in-car consumption
- Radio will generate upwards of $14 billion this year
- Of all the audio platforms – streaming, podcasts, talking books, satellite – broadcast radio has been around longest, celebrating its centennial anniversary in 2020
As my Grandma Sara was fond of saying (add the strong Yiddish accent):
“So, what's not to like?”
But like Chad Kroeger and Nickelback – who may lay awake at night wondering what the band did wrong – broadcast radio's image in the pop culture community – among consumers, advertisers, and other media – is nowhere near commensurate with its performance, both historically and right now today.
Critics can take off on radio all they like – it's too corporate, it's homogeneous, it's too commercial, it's too safe, it's too repetitive – but the numbers don't lie. Despite disruption and competition coming from all corners, broadcast radio – commercial, public, Christian – has held up extremely well, continuing to influence music tastes, while providing entertainment, community, and companionship to hundreds of millions of people every week.
The record labels and their artists certainly know the truth. It's why despite their efforts to drive audio and video streams, and Shazam searches, the success – or failure – of most artists and their music is still very much dependent on radio airplay and the promotional support only radio can provide – music information, concert support and presence, in-studio interviews and videos – in short, the marketing lift that can make or break a project.
So, why the disconnect?
That's precisely what should be driving radio's leadership crazy, while motivating them to better understand the problem and how to successfully address it.
Oddly enough, that's the protocol broadcasters have used for decades to not only launch, but to also “fix” stations: do the research, gain an understanding of perceptions, learn about the competition's strengths and weaknesses, create and prioritize actions steps, improve/fine-tune the product, and market it back to consumers. It's Radio 101 and no one knows how to do it better – and more quickly and efficiently – than broadcasters.
Why radio leadership isn't embarking on a scaled-up version of what it has done well for so long in local markets is perplexing, and it goes to the heart of the fear and denial that hold companies – and industries – back when the going gets tough. Is it that broadcasters are afraid of what they will learn? Is it they'll find out the challenges are seemingly insurmountable? Or is it possibility there are no realistic solutions to the changing nature of media usage and consumption?
No way that happens.
Because too many brands that have been labeled as “uncool,” out of touch, and even dead in the water have come back to not only fight another day, but to re-emerge as leaders in their categories (or by creating new revenue platforms).
Let's use a modern example – Microsoft. Bill Gates' company was the envy of everyone in the tech space back in the 80's and 90's. Gates himself gave college dropouts hope they could enjoy success. But Microsoft software came with too many viruses and threats, blue screens, obsolescence, and other potholes that created bad perceptions despite the fact the company's software was on pretty much every laptop and desktop.
Then Apple came along with a better, more reliable, elegant, and hipper platform. And they ten exploited Microsoft's weaknesses in a series of powerful commercials and symbols that took root.
These two characters symbolized the differences between the two operating systems, positioning Microsoft as lazy, fat, and out of touch.
Microsoft? Dead in the water?
It sure seemed that way, especially when the Stev
e Jobs- powered Apple was at the helm, introducing one amazing product after another – the iPod, iPhone, iPad – while Microsoft flailed around with Zune as well as an ill-fated attempt to go after Apple's smartphone empire.
So, how's Microsoft doing lately. Thanks to their focus on the cloud and enterprise software, led by new CEO Satya Nadella, has been instrumental in fueling Microsoft's resurgence:
Statista's Felix Richter sums up Microsoft's comeback this way:
“Back in 2014, most people given the choice to invest $1,000 in either Microsoft or Apple, probably would have invested in the latter, considering the huge success that Microsoft’s old foe was having with its mobile devices, most importantly the iPhone. And yet, here we are, five years into Nadella’s tenure and Microsoft is not only the most valuable public company on the planet, it has also outperformed Apple over the past five years. As the following chart shows, Microsoft’s share price grew by 327 percent since Nadella took over, beating Apple’s 212-percent increase by a significant margin.”
In fact, the Pentagon stunned observers last week by awarding its JEDI $10 billion cloud computing contract to Microsoft, instead of presumptive favorite Amazon. Some believe that White House pressure played a role in this decision, but whatever the influences, the result is the result.
Now, you may be thinking that when you're on 90% of computer operating systems like Microsoft is, how can you fail? But the fact is, only about 77% of computers run on Windows, while iOS (Apple) is still a distant second (around 13%). Still, that's a big edge for Gates' company.
But let's remember that 90%+ of adult Americans listen to radio each week. That's greater ubiquity than Microsoft Windows.
Broadcast radio is still holding some powerful cards. And everyone wants a piece – streaming platforms, satellite radio, podcasting. But as marketers know from studying storied brands including IBM, Old Spice, McDonald's, and Levi's, it is not just possible but immensely doable for comebacks to happen – in some cases, multiple times.
But rarely are they organic.
While each of the above mentioned brands had large amounts of historic good faith and nostalgia at their back, each had to study changing audience trends and perceptions – of the competition and themselves – in order to forge strategies that could be successful.
Consumers tend to value venerable brands – products they grew up with. In some cases, they root for them to be successful. But rarely does this happen without a lot of hard work, investment, and focus.
While buying or building new media companies to expand portfolios – like podcasts, streaming platforms, and mobile apps – is a smart way for radio broadcasters to adapt, the “mother ship” – the broadcast radio product – is still the core, the center, the everything.
Like any brand that's been around for decades and decades, consumers take it for granted, while competitors reposition it as “old school” or dated. That's when leadership needs to step up to control the narrative.
Maybe Chad Kroeger should keynote the next “Radio Show.” He could tell us a lot about talent, perseverance, cultivating fans, and remaining true to your values.
And we'd probably be able to get a Nickelback performance at the Marconi's.
Special thanks to Toby Ryan who came up with the name/theme for today's post. And to Haley Jones & Nielsen Music for their great data.
To find out what your audience think about your station and the state of radio, sign up for Techsurvey 2020, fielding in January. Info here.