Eight Things I Think
May 5, 2015
"Hello, yeah, it's been a while. Not much, how 'bout you?" - England Dan & John Ford Coley.
Not that you're sitting on the edge of your seats for another edition of "The 'Ville" or anything, but it's been a couple weeks. Between travel to attend the Worldwide Radio Summit in Los Angeles and launching our brand new "All Access Country Daily" (Shameless plug alert!), I've been swamped. But it doesn't mean I've been living in a vacuum; here are some of the things ratting around in that empty space known as my brain lately. Say hello to eight things I think this week:
I love the ACMs. ACM honcho Bob Romeo is this generation's PT Barnum and tries to push the envelope farther each year, usually with great success. The ACMs created another massive TV event that garnered record ratings. They brilliantly linked the past -- via the Milestone Awards -- to the present. But I'm glad it returns to Las Vegas in 2016, because AT&T Stadium in Dallas is too big for a show like the ACMs, this year's grandeur and enormity notwithstanding. The star of the show ended up being AT&T Stadium; this was a case where the room sucked the air out of the room, and did not allow for any "a ha" or take-away moments. That said, I think the Milestone award winners won the night with their performances and for my money, two stood our above the rest. Miranda Lambert is at a place where she owns any stage she's on, no matter what size the venue. But in a mere three minutes, Reba schooled every other performer that night and all 70,000 attendees on how to take a stage, command attention and deliver a solid, flawless and entertaining live performance, albeit a short one. Final thought: I was surprised at how the hosts for the night, Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan seemed somewhat limited to just introducing segments and presenter. I didn't get any sense of chemistry, camaraderie or their comedy hijinks as I did last year.
As always, I'm anxiously awaiting the latest PPMs next week -- April results. March saw a flat month for Country among persons 6+ and 25-54 with a slight uptick 18-34. With the exception of a January bounce-back from the usual Holiday book ass-kicking Country receives, that was the first 18-34 increase since June. What I'm watching however, and what I consider a real red flag as we head into the summer - where Country has been kicking ass in recent years - is a slow but steady increase in 25-54 numbers for Top 40 during the past year or so. Long term, is that a potential threat to Country? (Not that we can do anything about it.) We had that rare occasion when both Country and Top 40 had huge upward music cycles in tandem a couple years ago. Country blew up; Top 40 thrived, too. But when Top 40 grows in OUR target demo, they're picking our pocket -- sort of like when Country shows strong growth in 18-34 and challenges Top 40. Oh, and for competition with ADULT listeners, let's keep watching Classic Rock, too, where year-to-year, it was up 1.2 shares in March (4.5-5.7). I can't wait for next week!
Brothers Osborne, Chris Stapleton and Drake White -- radio loves their music, but collectively wonders how and if it will work on their stations. So far, none have achieved consensus from radio yet. All three are giving us daring, different and progressive music -- but is that lane open, how wide is it and will it accommodate three acts? Right now, The Brothers Osborne are being enthusiastically if not cautiously accepted with "Stay A Little Longer" -- a true, radio-friendly hit and for me, a total earworm. Maybe ... hopefully ... that tune can serve as the fullback of sorts for this sound, opening a hole and paving the way for Drake and Chris Stapleton to eventually gain acceptance. Or maybe radio just needs a minute to catch up to these guys.
And, is THAT the sound, a movement or whatever you want to call it, that can help Country keep growing? For better or for worse, "Bro-Country" was a music trend the entire format benefited from, that helped drive listenership, create awareness, conversation and debate, while growing the format in the process. We don't have one, definable sound doing that right now. We're diverse, but that signature sound is a complete jump ball right now. So what's it gonna be in terms of a unified, consensus sound? Will it be Chris Stapleton, Osbornes and Drake White -- will it be females -- will it be Sam Hunt? Who?
The best album of 2015 so far? It's a tie between Chris Stapleton's "Traveller" and Zac Brown Band's "Jekyll & Hyde." Contenders include Reba's "Love Somebody." Yes, you heard me right, Reba. One of the year's most solid, cohesive and listenable releases so far. Also, A Thousand Horses "Southernality." I defy you to put this in your car, start listening and not like it. The first single, "Smoke," is a runaway hit, sounds terrific on the radio and is selling big. Not convinced? Go see them live.
Alan Jackson's April 11th show at Nashville's Bridgestone pointed out a couple things for me. First, this guy has a TON of hits. Too many for one show. And when introducing his songs, you were reminded they were HIS songs. The ones HE wrote about HIS life, HIS family and his own, ACTUAL experiences. Time after time, Jackson introduced songs that night by reflecting on the who, what, why, where and when of the song's inspiration.
I love new music, the evolution of the format, the passing of the superstar baton, but I think the format will always need a voice like Jackson's right now, and I have a better understanding of why some remain cynical and suspicious of this format. The perception of Country music has long been real stories about real life. We have moved into a more aspirational era in music. Similar to what we see people post on Facebook -- in other words, the reality they want us to think they're living.
I've been to CRS 31 consecutive years, went to a handful of NAB Conventions and three R&R Conventions (before R&R unceremoniously ceased publication in 2009). But last Month's Worldwide Radio Summit in Los Angeles was my first. A five-year old event, it turned out to be the biggest WWRS ever and appears to have established itself as the "go-to" radio gathering for all genres -- with the exception of Country. It was enlightening and fascinating to be away from the CRS experience, though I still maintain CRS is the best and most unique industry event in existence and yeah, I am biased.
It was interesting to hear broadcasters from England, Germany, India, Peru and Asia describe their realities and approach to gaining listeners. Anil Machado, Chief Programming Officer of Radio One/India, was especially entertaining and it was refreshing to hear his philosophy on music: "If we like it, we just play it." Among Top 40 and Rock PDs I saw on panels over two days, I have to say I found them incredibly candid and forthcoming with opinions and insights on their stations, music and the business overall.
This was particularly evident during the session called "The Next Big Radio Hit," where hooks of new songs were played for a panel of programmers After the audience, equipped with dials that rated the songs on a 1-10 scale gave their anonymous feedback, the programmers each chimed in and the honesty on display up there was invigorating. We have tried that panel at CRS in the past, but I recall both radio and the labels basically shitting bricks about it -- Radio, hesitant to call anybody's baby ugly, and labels, on pins and needles about what might be said up on the stage. These Rock and Top 40 guys let it fly. They weren't snarky or mean; this felt like a real time music meeting where each evaluated whether it fit or could be a hit in a professional manner. A great panel!
The fact is, when we have so much access to everything any station is doing - Mediabase can help you drill way down on a station's music; stream any station anywhere to see what it is doing; Media Monitors can track spots, spot loads etc - everything is transparent. There are no secret blueprints anymore, no "Building of the MX missile" master plan. Do you think any team in the NFL doesn't know how to prepare for an opponent's offense or defense anymore? They study tape, they scout. On Sunday, it's about preparation and execution. Sounds suspiciously familiar to radio, eh?
I would love to see programmers open up more at CRS, but I also get the restraints placed upon them by corporate PR departments. Labels too. Very often, when we solicit for a 10 Question feature for All Access, the questions have to be cleared - then the finished answers do as well. PDs are worried if they're quoted in the trade press they'll be reprimanded. Since all CRS panels are covered by the press, the same hesitation exists. I get it. But it doesn't mean I don't wish they could be as candid as the Top 40, Rock and international radio pros I saw at WWRS.
As David Letterman signs off the air, ending an amazing, 30-plus year late-night run, let's tip our cap his way and acknowledge the influence he had over radio's morning shows in the '90s. Letterman was every bit -- if not more -- the pop culture standard Fallon is today. But unlike Fallon, radio at the very least adopted Letterman's STYLE - his delivery, his snarky, sarcastic and wry approach - and utilized it on local morning shows. How many radio shows started Top 10 lists and "Stupid (Human, Pet, listener) Trick" segments as a result of Letterman? Who among us didn't organize a Velcro suit on to a wall jumping bit in the station parking lot or at a remote? And didn't we all sort break down that fourth wall of radio in our attempt to be more like Dave? Yes, he had a definite impact on radio's approach to morning shows. We should acknowledge and thank Letterman for that contribution.