Yesterday, the New York Times devoted the front page of their Arts & Leisure section to this story:
“Kelly Clarkson Is Nobody's Puppet”
Written by Caryn Ganz, it details the maverick approach Clarkson has employed her entire career, often using her gut and instincts to make key decisions. The story began at a recent party at her home in Hendersonville, Tennessee. The bash was put together to promote her new album. Here's how Ganz described it:
“Ms. Clarkson and her husband, Brandon Blackstock, also her manager, were introducing the record, titled ‘Meaning Of Life' to the people who could either make it a blockbuster or bury it.”
Who was that influential group of partygoers?
More than 200 radio programmers.
Yes, at a time when pundits continue to play up how music discovery has moved to digital platforms and how consumers are gravitating away from radio, here was Clarkson taking the time to party with the industry's true gatekeepers – radio PDs.
Maybe she's been reading her Nielsen data. Their new Music 360 study confirms radio remains the king of new music discovery – with nearly a 2-to-1 margin over other media sources. Yes, consumers are curating playlists online more than ever, but when it comes to finding out about what's hot, who's new, and what matters, it's still on the radio airwaves.
The connection between radio and records was historically a strong one throughout the second half of the 20th century. Yes, there were speed bumps along the way – namely, payola. But all in all, the two industries worked well together to advance each other's goals. Radio was always the way you broke an artist – or a record. And labels, management, and bands tacitly understood the power of radio promotion and support.
But something got upended along the way. I'm sure analysts have their theories, but it seems to me that when SoundExchange became an independent non-profit in 2003, things started to go awry. Nearly four years ago at the New Music Seminar, SoundExchange CEO Michael Huppe wondered whether FM radio airplay actually diminishes music sales.
According to Billboard, “Huppe's argument claimed FM radio hurts music sales, fails to set trends, profits enormously to the tune of $17 billion a year while failing to fairly compensate musicians and labels.” He even cited several examples from a University of Texas study noting there were three times in history when radio decreased music sales, including the debut of NASH-FM in New York City which failed to move the needle on country music sales.”
You have to wonder how those arguments would play with Kelly Clarkson. That's because the reality is that while streaming sources like Pandora and Spotify provide lots of spins on digital gadgets often helping to expose or even break a new song, radio is the only medium that builds artist brands. Promoting music one song at a time is an arduous task. But as veterans of both radio and records know very well, the key is to create sustainable fan bases that support artists, release after release.
I was reminded of that last summer when Linkin Park's Chester Bennington took his life. In the days that followed, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were filled with photos of Bennington visiting radio stations and meeting-and-greeting radio programmers and DJs backstage. Linkin Park's rise to superstardom was very much due to how the band worked the radio industry – and how PDs and air talent responded.
Linkin Park took the time to visit radio, built their rep, played station festivals, and connected with millions of radio cumers, while building a long-lasting, dependable brand. That's precisely what's missing in so many music formats today.
So, maybe artists and programmers should start having dinner together again, hang out at the station, and give local fans great memories they cannot experience from a streaming pureplay or satellite radio.
Because for the health of both storied industries, putting down the weapons, respecting each other's missions, and spending time together could be the start of a healing process that is much needed.
As Kelly Clarkson knows so well, it just might make both radio and records “stronger.”
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