If you've worked in commercial radio in any music format for 4 minutes or 4 decades, you've no doubt heard this oft-spoken, much-believed-in simple motto:
PLAY THE HITS!
Whether you've worked in jazz, rock, country, classical, hip-hop, or even Triple A, you've not only heard it and uttered it, but you no doubt follow it. In radio programming, it is a mantra, the pathway to ratings and revenue.
These days, however, you may be having trouble following that plan because you simply cannot find the hits – especially current ones.
Over the past weeks, I've been spending much time analyzing music tests with clients in preparation for the Fall quarter, while getting a sense of where the trends are headed in my specialty areas of Rock and Alternative.
It's an odd time, to be sure. Increasingly, programmers are perplexed by the way music is testing, especially newer music released in the past few years. And in many cases, even music from the past decade struggles to make the upper percentiles of the research. In many ways, this is nothing new. In both of the formats where Jacobs Media resides, it has been this way for several years now.
Why is this happening? Many have theorized that “today's music ain't got the same soul” – it just cannot compete with the classics: Zeppelin, Floyd, AC/DC, Queen, Metallica, and the like. On the ALT front, conversations run a similar course. Where's the music that's on the same plane with Nirvana, Green Day, the Chili Peppers, and Linkin Park? Why do so many newer bands and their songs fail to impact the way their predecessors did?
Lately, I've learned this isn't a condition isolated to the Rock family of formats. To varying degrees, it's happening in CHR, Country, AC – all formats that have been traditionally fueled by a steady supply of new stuff that keeps them fresh, vibrant, and culturally connected.
In this new era, there's apparently more chips on the table for catalog music than current releases. Case in point: Pink Floyd's body of work is now on the market, and analysts believe it could easily fetch $500 million. An article in Digital Music News handicaps the bidding war now underway.
Ironically, one of the band's biggest 1970's hits, “Money” preaches we should “grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.” OK, so there.
A new think piece by UK consulting group, MIDiA, attempts to put the new music conundrum in perspective. In “Music is not a level playing field – it is a field of all levels” by Tatiana Cirisano, a key point is made that new artists are faced with duking it out for attention, streams, and even sales with Pink Floyd…and Billy Joel, Adele, Taylor Swift, and Bruce Springsteen.
She notes that while streaming democratized music exposure, the market is oversaturated with product, making it difficult for artists to form coalitions of fans to gain any semblance of control over those algorithms.
Cirisano posits there are three classes of artists in the musical wild, all going after the same fans and their hard-earned loyalty…and money. But they're playing by different rules:
- The Old Guard – These are the elites, the performers who became famous before there was streaming – Beyoncé, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi to name just a few. They sold tons of physical music for years, and their fame carried over into the streaming milieu.
- The 2000's Kids – These performers hit it big back in the nascent years of streaming, when the music economy was still being sorted out. Cirisano points to Taylor Swift, Drake, and Ed Sheeran as good examples of artists who reaped the fruits of streaming while the medium was young, having already established their brands, their fans clubs, and their followings.
- The New Kids on the Block – We're talking about all the up and comers, trying to make their fame and fortunes in today's music morass. As Cirisano notes, they're competing against the old pros in the other two categories, and it's far from a fair fight.
Her analogy? It's akin throwing a hot high school prospect on a practice court with LeBron James and Michael Jordan. And the end result is predictable. The “new kid” may have potential but doesn't stand a chance against these two legends – G.O.A.T.s.
Give the givens, for most consumers, new music discovery has become a flea market of catacombs where the payoff may not justify the effort. When music discovery becomes laborious, it may not be worth the time. In a new story in The Guardian, Daniel Dylan Wray askes the question: “Why are people in their 30s giving up on music?”
He makes the case that while his peers often ask the question “What are you watching?” as they hash over the new releases on Netflix, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime, fewer and fewer are asking the more traditional pop culture question, “What are you listening to?”
Wray wonders why in a world where people still discover new films, books, podcasts, and TV series, why the new music gene gets more regressive over time.
“…music seems to be something that more commonly slips away – or is even perceived as something you’re supposed to grow out of. Music is a key part of youthful identity formation: once your idea of yourself becomes fixed, perhaps by distinct markers like marriage and kids, the need for it slips away.”
But in a passing moment, Wray may have hit on a key driver that eludes Cirisano's analysis. Wray mentions BBC DJ and producer, Andrew Weatherall, who passed away in 2020 at the age of 56. He talks about Weatherall's “boundless curiosity, knowledge and passion for music, right up until his untimely death, is my personal benchmark and inspiration.”
Obviously in American radio in 2022, there are few “DJs” who are tastemakers on the airwaves. But many are still influential in shaping tastes and pointing to hits and trends.
Cirisano may not view radio as a key variable in this process, and as we know, radio and music are a lot different in the UK and around the world than here in the U.S.
Still, let's not forget how radio once put music in a helpful order. It played the hits, exposed new music, and was the only place you could learn about what was new and next, this side of print magazines like Rolling Stone. There was even a clever, knowledgeable guy who counted down the 40 biggest hits each and every weekend. In other words, radio curated the world of current music.
When the industry rolled over and embraced streaming, it adopted a new business model that was modern, digitized, socially influenced, and with a low barrier to entry. Just like in podcasting, anybody and everybody can be a musician. And that's part of the problem.
Standing out in the crowd is the challenge for fledgling artists, and while anyone can stream and be streamed, getting in front of the right fans at the right time is the hard part.
Radio's long dominance of the pecking order of music exposure may have had elements of unfairness and even illegality over the years. But it was an efficient, effective, mass appeal way of learning what was charting in the biggest formats and genres. We all knew the hits. They could be heard across formats during any given hour on the radio each and every day.
Gatekeepers – that is, music directors – like the late Rosalie Trombley (pictured) of the legendary CKLW may have had their moments of arbitrariness. But you knew where you stood.
And “discoverers” like Donna Halper of WMMS/Cleveland who ended up breaking Rush in the States were checkered all over the radio industry.
Today, radio has trouble making, breaking, and even finding “hits” that reliably can hold an audience for three minutes.
Somehow, I still wonder if a renewed effort by both radio and “records” to collaborate more than duke it out over royalties wouldn't be time and money better spent.
But these days, it's become more about discovering the next classic artist willing to put their catalog on the block than it is discovering the next Jackson Browne, Dire Straits, or Brandi Carlile.
Pink Floyd may have had it right.
“Money, it's a crime. Share it fairly, but don't take a slice of my pie.”
- An Open (News)Letter To Radio - December 6, 2023
- The Case For Handcrafted Radio - December 5, 2023
- Is It Time For The Music Industry To Write Radio A “Dear Genre” Letter? - December 4, 2023