How does a song become a hit in 2022?
That's how this conversation started. And for me, it was a story sent to me by a guy who goes by the Twitter handle of @KingofPodcasts. It's a USA Today story with a long, but fascinating title:
And that says it all. Artists like Halsey, Ed Sheeran, and Florence Welch are pushing back against their record labels that insist a TikTok video is prerequisite to releasing the next single.
Halsey pushed back, and took her complaint to social media:
it’s not about making the tiktoks I already make tiktoks! They are saying if they don’t reach some imaginary goalpost of views or virality than they won’t give me a release date at all. I’m not claiming to be oppressed! just saying that all not all marketing methods are universal https://t.co/TtblycBOi0
— h (@halsey) May 23, 2022
If you remember the early days of MTV, it was the same story for certain artists who looked down on rock videos. We may remember those iconic videos from Peter Gabriel, Michael Jackson, and Robert Palmer. But other artists – Dylan, Tom Petty, and Bob Seger pushed back against the trend…at least initially.
Some artists have no issue with TikTok. The USA Today story points to Riley Roth who sees TikTok as a litmus test for a new song:
“Before leaning into social media, releasing a song was a bit of a gamble in trying to figure out if people like it or not…If you post the demo and get a good response to it, then you already know there's an audience of people that like the song.”
Her TikTok is account is loaded with video snippets of her, seen and shared by thousands – with or without the benefit of radio airplay:
We've seen the power of TikTok to influence music tastes before, sometimes in odd ways. Remember when that dude hit his skateboard drinking Ocean Spray cranberry juice rockin' Fleetwood Mac's “Dreams?” The song shot up to #1 decades after its initial release.
If the idea is to meet the audience where they are, Halsey and Riley Roth may not share musical sensibilities. But their respective fans hang out in the same vicinity. As Lori Lewis told me last year about TikTok, Reels, and similar outlets:
“Focus more on the art of creating short-form video that’s entertaining, inspiring, or helping us discover something new.”
But what about Netflix? Can a video streaming platform make a hit out of Alternative songs from the 1980's?
It's happening. If you're a “Stranger Things” fan, the long wait between seasons finally ended. When Netflix dropped Season 4 last month, it set records. This next batch of “Stranger Things” episodes broke the previous Netflix mark of most hours viewed within a show’s first 28 days, blowing by “Bridgerton” – and it only needed 17 days to do it.
The truly fascinating story behind Season 4 is about a song, one that became popular during the mid-80's when “Stranger Things” takes place. If you're watching, you're now more than a bit familiar with Kate Bush‘s sort of hit from back in that day, “Running Up That Hill.”
A great story last week in The Ringer explores just how music charts are being warped by digital media platforms. Writer Nate Rogers points out how the song – integrated into the plot of the show – has soared to the top of daily streaming rankers in the U.S. and U.K. And for the first time ever, Kate Bush finds her song on the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100.
Unlike some past hits wedged into TV shows or TikTok videos featuring cranberry juice, the choice of “Running Up That Hill” isn't a random one. The song always had an ethereal feel, sounding little like the tunes around it. It broke on Alternative radio (known as Modern Rock back then). I was fortunate to be consulting 91X at the time, and I remember thinking how the song had an eerie feel, a great example of how the format could be distinctly different from CHR and Rock, the two most competitive adjacent formats.
There's a story behind “Running Up That Hill” and I'll let Rogers tell it. But despite its mysterious history and conspicuous placement in the Netflix hit show, the rise of this old song is indicative of a larger phenomenon.
As Rogers notes, “For some time now, the trend has been solidifying: Old music is growing more valuable than new music.”
He quotes Luminate data (the old MRC Data and Nielsen Music) that at the start of this year, music that was older than the past 18 months made up 70% of the U.S. market – up 5 percentage points from the year prior.
And the economics of this man bites dog relationship is that more and more artists are selling their publishing rights, often for hundreds of millions of dollars. It's hard to deny their current value when you see a song from the Jimmy Carter era get resurrected as a result of exposure on a digital platform.
In other words, everyone's cashing in on catalog music – the artists, the labels, audio and video streaming platforms, social media, and video games.
Every other medium is benefitting from this now long-time trend where older music – let's call it classic – is truly more mass appeal than anything released since the turn of the new millennium.
Radio's inability to position its Classic Rock/Hits stations as the new mainstream has consistently squelched and stunted revenue on these stations, despite the fact many are at or near the top of their markets 6+ in PPM markets.
For Kate Bush, 2022 will ironically be her breakthrough year. Nate Rogers quotes her response to an interview question posed to her a few years ago:
“What's the most satisfying thing you do? she was asked.
And her reply:
“The most satisfying thing? I guess when you've actually written a song, and you think about what's going to happen to it in the future.”
Kate Bush, along with the rest of us, could never have predicted her 80's-era hit would be charting everywhere, along with earning airplay on today's ALT stations. Oddly, the song stands out similarly – but different – than the way it did when the “Hounds of Love” album was produced, and “RUTH” was its first song.
But we can predict 2022, 2023, and beyond will be successful ratings years for Classic Rock/Hits radio. If past is prologue, we've got nearly four decades of history that tells us where the musical puck isn't just headed. It's sitting in the classic net, the red light is on, and the sirens are blaring.
Bush recently wrote on her website that her song has been given “a whole new lease of life by the young fans who love the show—I love it too!”
What's not to love? When a medium, a platform, or a show takes your work from decades ago, and turns it into a current hit, it's truly an amazing moment for artist.
So, what do we take away from this “Running Up That Hill” story?
First, radio's ability to make hit records has diminished, replaced by the reach, ubiquity, and buzz of new media platforms.
And second, radio's formats that focus on exposing this great old music to new generations of fans should be knocking down the best power ratios in the business.
OK, maybe I'm half right.
Here is the official music video for Kate Bush's “new” 1985 hit: “Running Up That Hill.”
Thanks to Jorge Hermida aka @KingofPodcasts for the tip.
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