The Theory Of Everything
May 28, 2015
Has the demise of 18-34-year-old shares for Country radio been, as Mark Twain once said of his own rumored passing, "grossly exaggerated?" Is 18-34 the new 25-54 for Country? Did Oswald act alone? Is Summer to Country what Christmas is to AC? The tomato: fruit, vegetable or female vocalist? Why is Top 40 quietly growing among 25-54-year-olds; should we be concerned, and what the hell can we do about it anyway? Is Classic Rock suddenly another threat to Country after being declared DOA a few years ago? Last but not least, does peeing on a jellyfish sting reduce or increase the pain?
These burning questions (pun intended) have been rattling around in my head for days. You ponder the tomato; I'll get busy with radio stuff.
After several years of continued and unprecedented growth among younger listeners, 18-34 shares dipped 10.1-9.2 between August and November of 2014, then (to nobody's surprise) continued to slide through December and the Holiday book. By January of this year, Country's 18-34 shares were back to levels of two years ago at the same time, triggering a conversation about the format's long-term sustainability with that demo.
Actually, that was a topic even during the apex of that growth. As far back as CRS 2013, skeptics and naysayers claimed it would never last -- that eventually those fickle youngsters would move on to the next shiny, new object. Woe unto thee who didn't protect Country's real core: 35-54 users.
In my column from January of this year, WPOR/Portland, ME PD Matty Jeff -- whom in all fairness I wouldn't call a "naysayer" but instead, cautious -- observed: "I think it's been a concern since we saw this pop -- that as quickly as 18-34s come in, they can go out."
Aaand, back in again, apparently. After a slight, 1% uptick from February to March, Country's 18-34 share sprouted 8.5-9.0 March to April (in PPM Markets). This increase far outpaced the month's modest 1% gain in both 6+ and 25-54 listeners. As Nielsen VP/Audience Insights Jon Miller pointed out in his post-April analysis, "Country hasn't seen this kind of growth in its 18-34 audience share in a single month in more than four years."
In a subsequent phone conversation, Miller shared this perspective with me: "Go back and look at Country and PPM shares 18-34 in April of 2011. It was 7.1; now it's a 9.0. So comparing the last two years, have things slowed down? Yes they have. But in the long run, this format is still well ahead of where it was four or five years ago."
So which is it for Country? Back with a vengeance among younger listeners after a six-month hiccup and shifting its core closer to 18-34, or merely in the early stages of a seasonal (Summer) surge as formidable -- and dependable -- as Christmas music for AC stations?
Well, it's complicated.
I think you have to consider recent musical cycles here, since we are after all, a music-intensive format. A movement appealing to younger fans (i.e. "Bro-Country") helped Country wake up on third base a couple of years ago to some degree, perhaps tempting some programmers to place too many eggs in the 18-34 basket, while hoping that momentum wouldn't stop. But the high-water mark appears to have occurred about a year ago (April 2014 18-34 share: 9.9%), April 2015's stellar results notwithstanding. As I asserted last week, there's no definable, signature sound powering Country right now -- unless we consider its current variety and diversity another significant movement altogether. I think the jury's out on the latter possibility … so far.
I asked Miller for his thoughts about the August-January 18-34 slump. "I think it's less of 'there's something wrong' and more of: Can a format continue to grow in a demo that is younger and uses all different types of music and all different types of devices," said Miller. "Country absolutely took off and hit historic highs when some were starting to say 'Young people don't use radio,' and 'It's not their first choice for music.' And yet we still keep seeing it IS a huge part of their lives and of their music consumption. During the past few years, Country sort of came through and proved that wrong."
One of Country's most powerful qualities, historically, is the addictive nature of the music; it has always cultivated intense loyalty. To Miller's point, with a younger, highly-engaged base finding it on more platforms than ever, is it conceivable that these fickle, shiny-new-object-seeking whippersnappers are every bit as susceptible to a lifelong attachment with Country music -- and Country radio -- as 25-54s? In many cases that demo -- and especially the 35-54 sector of it -- eventually aged into the format. Will younger, potential Country fans with greater accessibility age-in sooner, evolving the format's sweet spot toward 18-34?
I have no idea, and while that would be totally awesome, I do know that greater access on multiple platforms for younger music fans isn't limited to Country. Miller shared Scarborough data with me incorporating diary and PPM markets showing duplication among Country listeners. Those 18-34s sleep around, so to speak, with 55% also listening to Top 40, 34% Hot AC, 25% AC, 20% Rhythmic Top 40, and 20% Alternative. It's pretty obvious Country radio will have to fight for their loyalty.
Since the conversion to PPM measurement in the top-50 or so markets, Miller also points out that Country always peaks in the Summer, with the last two being the best-ever performances for this format. Miller says Country could potentially have another huge Summer in 2015 with this caveat: "To match some of the historic highs will still take some pretty big gains over the next couple of months."
But it's not totally impossible, just as AC stations surge around the holidays with share percentages varying year-to-year. "Things happen in the Summer almost to the same degree that things happen around Christmas music," says Miller. "When Christmas music comes out, we know that things change on the ranker; certain formats win and certain formats lose." Similarly, Miller says we've learned over time, "Summer is its own beast in a way. It has different working habits, different demos using radio. So it has been really interesting to me to handicap this race. Who's going to win format of the Summer this year? And certainly Country is always in that race."
Whether you're a stand-alone Country station in your market (Are there any more of those?) or battling a competitor head-on, with all listeners having greater access to their preferred music, everybody is your competitor. In recent years, Country and Top 40 have clearly been the two most popular and ubiquitous radio formats in America.
But just as Country has flirted with18-34 ratings consistency, look at Top 40 and its move toward similar success among 25-54s -- once the domain of any solid Country station. "On a 25-54 basis, we're actually seeing that's where the biggest [Top 40] growth is coming from," Miller said, adding "In fact, it's really been like 25-34 and 35-44. That's what is driving it. Top 40 has quietly taken the throne among 18-34s and 25-54s, ranking #1 in both nearly every month." While Top 40 still has greater shares 18-34 as you'd expect, it registered a 9.4 in April for 25-54, compared with Country's 7.6%.
Miller theorizes those Pop listeners are now aging into the 25-54 demo; I asked if he felt that posed a threat to Country's traditional money demo. "It's interesting to consider," he replied. "On the younger end, you're more likely to find Country listeners that like Pop-driven music. It makes sense to say that younger listeners are going to be influenced by that, so yeah, Country probably is -- in a small way -- competing with Top 40. The 18-34 ranker in PPM is #1/#2 Top 40 and Country. And it has been that way for a while as well."
I'm not sure Country can do a damned thing about Top 40's 25-54 growth -- but conversely, maybe Top 40 guys feel they don't have any control of Country's 18-34 appeal, either. I'd love to hear your feedback on that. But I do think it's interesting and important for Country programmers to watch the game board evolve from a 30,000-foot level.
Speaking of that, we may also want to keep Classic Rock on our radar. Miller told me, "It's growing everywhere and making serious in-roads 18-34." Additionally, if you remember a couple years ago, many predicted the death of Classic Rock, because everyone was going to age out of the 25-54 demo. What the format appears to have done however, is say "We won't let you age out, we'll age the music in," and modernize its library to make it more appealing for younger listeners while still balancing appeal to 35-54s.
Mmmmn, balance. Sound like a familiar strategy?
Right now, Classic Rock is the 4th highest duplicated audience for Country listeners among 25-54 year-olds at 25% and has grown 1.2 shares there in the past year. But it's not in the top five with persons 18+ or 18-34, in terms of duplication. "I think it's less about what Classic Rock is doing and more about what Country is doing," says Miller. "Country has become such a popular format; you see it sharing with other big, national formats, like Top 40, AC, and Hot AC. In the past, people would have assumed that Classic Rock was a much bigger deal to the Country audience -- and I'm not saying that it's not -- but you're seeing these other large formats get more Country audience to sample than the Classic Rock does."
As always, I would love YOUR take on all this radio stuff. As for my original, non-industry musings at the beginning of this piece, I do believe Oswald acted alone; because the tomato is of the ground, that makes it a vegetable to me but if you insist on calling one a female singer, I say the more the merrier, line 'em up! As for jellyfish, I've been stung twice; to be honest, it hurt so bad I peed myself, and didn't seem to help matters at all.