The Theory Of Everything: Supply, Demand, The Hits, And Shiny Objects
September 9, 2016
“Right now, it feels to me like we're trying to put 50 pounds of sugar into a five pound bag.”
That was Midwest Communications Corporate Country Brand Strategist Tom Baldrica in an All Access “10 Questions” feature earlier this summer, commenting on the state of supply and demand, as it relates to current music available for consideration right now at Country radio.
His observation didn’t surprise me; I talk with Country radio all day, every week about music, and right now, this is the number one concern among programmers – yes, even more than tempo. The musical firehose is on full-go, with release after release landing on their desks, but not near enough slots available to give most of them even a look.
“I’ve had that conversation with three different label VPs recently,” says JVC Broadcasting Country WJVC/Nassau, NY PD Phathead. “In my five-plus years in this format, I have trouble saying no, partially because I’m booking 15 full band shows a year that have multiple artists for our venue – so I need at least 60 bands a year. I have to play 80 currents and play a ton of artists, but even I’ve had to say, ‘don’t call me for another month – I have 15 songs in front of you.’”
The Bottleneck: Possible Reasons Why
This dilemma – the relentless onslaught of singles for potential airplay and fewer spots for them – comes at an interesting time for the format.
Programmers appear to be reacting to declining year-to-year shares across the board for Country listening in 2016 compared to 2015. It happened again in the most recent August PPMs. With the help of Nielsen VP/Program Services Jon Miller – and a further assist from Jeff Green, partner at research/data analytics firm Stone Door Media Lab – a broader look at a 47-month tracker (dating back to January 2013) of the format’s performance shows that Country is actually steady among 18-34s, with its August shares (8.8) just 0.3 less than its average during all those months (9.1). Country’s 6+ monthly average of 7.5% in August 2016 was slightly off its 47-month 6+ average of 7.7%. And, among Country’s traditional target, 25-54s, the 47-month average is 7.6%, slightly above the 7.5% for August ’16.
Until a July-August ‘16 dip (7.7-7.5) with 25-54s, Country had been building in the demo steadily every month all year from a traditionally low Holiday book – which, last year, was 6.3%. Country has only fallen month-to-month once so far this year with 18-34s, when it moved 8.8-8.7 from June to July. But it rebounded back to an 8.8 in August, and is averaging an 8.6 for the year. Nonetheless, year-to-year dips always get programmers’ attention, and historically, the fundamental response is cinching down playlists. That’s been happening at Country radio for several months now, whether some stations or chains want to admit it or not. And why is that? Many programmers I talk to believe we’re experiencing the inevitable down music cycle after several years of strong product that helped drive new listeners to this format.
“I believe it is absolutely the music,” said one PD, asking for anonymity. “I pulled my callout from 2013 and compared it to today’s report: Back in 2013 – 18 songs with a 4.00 or higher; today, only two. In 2013, the highest score was 4.23; today it’s 4.00. To me, that is the smoking gun. It’s overwhelming Yelp reviews that say your restaurant’s food sucks. Then you wonder ‘why aren’t people eating here anymore?’ Duh.”
And from another anonymous major market programmer: “The chart is moving too fast, and too many stations are following the charts. When a record goes to number one, the audience is just starting to get familiar with it. Then the song lasts one week at number one.”
Are ‘The Hits’ Really ‘The Hits?’
His point about past #1s not building familiarity underscores what I have been saying for the last year and a half or so: with big name artists flying in and out of the charts so quickly, are we unwittingly creating disposable music from the biggest stars in our format?
I tracked #1 singles on the Mediabase Country singles chart dating back to December 14th, 2014, when Tim McGraw’s “Shotgun Rider” topped the chart. In a random week, of those 80-plus songs, 62 played less than 2000 times in the past seven days by the combined 159 reporting stations on the Mediabase panel. Of course, mileage may vary, but a 2000 spin minimum is an average of 12.5 per week on each station – less than twice per day. Next, 44 of them played less than 1000 times, or six times per week on each station. And 13 played less than 500 times, or three spins per week, per station, on average.
To put that in perspective, I polled a handful of programmers – who all preferred not to be identified - to find out what their power recurrent spin count is in a typical week. I asked a variety of stations in terms of how aggressively they turn currents/recurrents, overall. The range of power recurrent spins among those I spoke to was somewhere between 35-45 per week and as high as 50 in some cases. That’s a lot more than 12.5 times, and for sure more than twice a day. Somewhere in there, former #1s aren’t getting played often.
The BIG stars in this format – which can have songs go in and out in 13-16 weeks – are giving us what often ends up being music sometimes seldom heard from again in a consistent, high profile rotation. With that fast lifespan for a song, programmers tell me it’s all WAY out in front of reliable feedback – but it gets ushered in and out anyway, before gaining true familiarity or even a decent potential score. As one programmer – asking not to be identified by name – told me, “We are not creating familiarity. We need viable recurrent and gold for the format. We need to invest in hits.”
I’ve said this many times before, and still believe it, in spite of a movement toward a singles-based environment for Country: we are a burn it IN format, not a burn it OUT format. Then again, there’s this tough-love question, posed by Jeff Green: “Isn’t it also possible that some of the star releases just aren’t that great? Not every Van Gogh is a masterpiece.”
Meanwhile, many other developing, non-stars are living on the charts for more than 30 weeks in many cases, and for a couple reasons. One, what programmer wants to be “that guy,” who kills off something – perhaps prematurely? Two, labels are passionately committed to them, and you have to applaud that, because in some cases, it really does pay off. Kelsea Ballerini had her first career #1 after more than 40 weeks with her debut single, “Love Me Like You Mean It.” Today, she’s a CMA Female Vocalist of the Year nominee. Would THAT have happened if Black River threw in the towel at some point? Lee Brice has a career because “Love Like Crazy” spent a year on the chart. Recently, John Pardi’s “Head Over Boots” topped the chart after more than 40 weeks of percolating. Look at William Michael Morgan and “I Met A Girl.” It’s entering week #44 on the Mediabase Country singles chart, and nearly every programmer I talk to says it’s become a solid-testing record that has a legit shot to be a #1 single. Conversely, I moderated an “Outside Looking In” programming panel at CRS this year and learned how quickly – and mercilessly – Pop guys pull the plug on songs they identify as stiffs after several weeks of airplay. There are a number of songs hanging in there, fighting the fight, on the Country chart right now that would have been yanked after about four weeks in the Pop world. Somewhere in that mix, one of them might survive, hit #1 and establish a career – but which one?
Shiny New (And Old ) Objects
As those year-to-year shares across the board have dipped for Country – particularly among 18-34s (August ’14: 10.1, August ’15: 9.7, August ’16: 8.8) – Classic Hits and Classic Rock are seeing a rise in listening levels among Millennials. Even at the onset of Country’s 18-34 growth, a lot of Country programmers cautioned against throwing all of our eggs in that basket long term, owing to the fickle, flighty nature of 18-34 listeners. Flighty and fickle is mostly out of our control, but other programmers have told me we are partially to blame for the negative migration of our newfound, younger fan base – which peaked between May and August of 2014, posting a 10.0 share or better during those months.
Our programmer who earlier voiced concern over the charts moving too fast attributes that phenomenon to some of the 18-34 loss, asking, “What happens when there's not enough familiarity? The audience moves on to other adult-friendly formats like AC and Classic Hits.” And, from the other PD who shared music research he believes demonstrates a down music cycle: “I think the upswing of Classic Hits and Oldies could be a result. It is certainly the music most compatible with a Country listener’s taste. Makes me wonder why we are serving up Dance-Pop to our listeners.”
Bristol Broadcasting’s Bill Hagy – who, while semi-retired, still handles music for WXBQ/Johnson City, TN – told me the rash of playlist tightening is also hurting the younger end, explaining, “In an effort to stem the audience instability, most stations have taken the approach of a shorter playlist – play the hits. But the audience who perceived there was variety on their favorite Country station suddenly lacks the variety, and now they find it elsewhere with Classic Hits. Truly, all the above play into our problems as a format.”
It’s true: we’re losing 18-34 TSL to Classic Hits and Classic Rock. And how ironic is that? The generation that always chases the next shiny, new object is chasing a shiny, old one – at least musically. That’s because among Millennials, nostalgia is in, whether or not they lived through Pop culture of the 90s with full awareness. Adds Green, “The nostalgia of Classic Hits has been building, thanks to its memorable melodies and Millennials’ stronger connections with their parents than our generation had.”
There’s not much to be nostalgic about on Country radio – in general, most stations right now feature music concentrated on the past 2.5 years – when many singles that reached #1s aren’t making it back in, and the faceless, unfamiliar new artists whose songs lived on Country radio for 35-40 weeks somehow survive – because their songs were burned IN. A look at the reporting stations on the Mediabase County panel shows the average percentage of songs played from 2014-2016 clocking in at 71%, with the typical station’s musical vintage around 2010. So even the “gold” titles don’t reach back all that far.
According to another (again, anonymous) programmer, an additional thought to consider as it relates to 18-34 shares for Country: “We all knew that the 18-34s would move on to the next shiny thing as soon as Bro Country was over. Now they have, and we have scared off the adults with songs they don't really know.” He’s got a point. Like it or not, and in spite of the negative backlash of Bro-Country – which, I contend was generated by the consumer press, who didn’t really like or understand this format in the first place – Bro-Country gave us a signature, identifiable handle that made Country music easier for otherwise peripheral listeners to get their arms around. While I love what I have often called the format’s current “Wild, Wild West” state – which has allowed for all kinds of influences from R&B, to Rock, to…well, you name it right now – we don’t have what the character “Curly” in the movie “City Slickers” professed to be so important in life: “The one thing.” We lack that signature, handle sound anybody and everybody can easily grasp. In spite of the recent successes by Jon Pardi and William Michael Morgan, it still isn’t a traditional sound, as that has been (ironically enough) reduced to a textured, or nuanced part of Country radio’s playlists.
But my friend Jeff Green counters, “You’re right that the Bro Country brand was an image young people identified with, but it’s not something that is workable long-term on a broad scale, as we can see.” And, Jeff introduces another possible component to a leveling, then dip, among 18-34s. “One has to wonder if Taylor Swift’s firm shift from Country to Pop in 2014 with ‘1989’ was a turning point among 18-34s. And maybe there’s some oversaturation at work, too. Each genre is different, but Bruce Springsteen has only released 18 studio albums in 43 years. Tom Petty has released just 16 in 40 years (excluding the Traveling Wilburys). By contrast, Tim McGraw has issued 14 in 23 years. Blake [Shelton] is on a similar trajectory, with nine in 15 years.”
Speaking of trajectory, WJVC’s Phathead believes that Country has been on a Pop radio arc for a few years now, trying as hard as possible to act like Top 40 – something which he feels is not sustainable. “It feels like the mid-80s, where everybody had money, and things were going great – then the bottom falls out. It’s coming.”
Meanwhile, the hits keep coming too – or, songs that want to be – at a non-stop pace. And I realize that, similar to what Tom Baldrica said at the beginning, I’ve possibly poured 50 pounds of questions and theories about the format we all love into a five-pound bag here. But I throw it all out there in the spirit of getting ahead of issues and self-correction. The collective brain trust of this format – radio and records – has always excelled at working together to make it all keep working, period. As always, I appreciate and welcome your thoughts.