“Everything Is Nothing, With A Twist”
October 14, 2016
You’ve seen me refer to the current state of Country music as the Wild West in this space during the past year or so, because during that time, it seems almost anything goes in terms diverse influences finding their way into the format. Country has become the ultimate music melting pot; a goulash of sounds featuring strains of Rock, Urban, and Hip Hop; with Pop music now the dominant gene. Traditional music? As I’ve alluded here before: it’s been largely reduced to a textural additive on most mainstream Country stations, an obligatory dash of Country flavor here and there.
Concurrently, the ratings performance for Country radio during this time has been steadily trending downward. Yes, I realize there are many variables when a station or even a format starts to dip – many of them totally out of our control. One can preach “Just play the hits” all day – and while I agree on principle, radio isn’t really that simple these days, in a media landscape more complex than ever. But as I continue to track Country’s performance dating back to January 2013, we’re clearly in the midst of a consistent down cycle, ratings-wise. I wrote about that last week on All Access, then shared the story on my Facebook page, seeking constructive ideas and some perspective from the vast and unpaid research department, otherwise known as all of you.
To review, the headlines following September PPM monthly results were: September down year-to-year in three key demos (6+, 18-34, 25-54), and we’ve been off year-to-year every month in 2016; we’ve fallen to #4 in overall format preference among persons 6+ this year, with AC passing us; and, when you look at the average for AQH shares during the first nine months of 2016 among 18-34s and 25-54s, both are down 0.5% compared to the same period in 2015.
If you buy into my theory on music being the Wild West, you should have seen the collective feedback on what can be improved in our format right now. Holy cow. Goulash on steroids. And I say that not to suggest the many talented programmers who chimed in are mad scientists, but I reiterate what I said earlier: It’s complicated; this is a seven-layer dip we’re serving up here. All made valid points.
As I sorted through more than 60 or so comments, reading them over and over, I recognized a few themes. The usual suspect popped up early and often – lifespan of singles and the reality that Country has its own version of the one-percenters. In other words, those artists who release singles that fly in and out of the charts in less than 20 weeks. As we’ve discussed here before – last month, in fact – these songs get a fast pass and find themselves in power rotation way before there’s any reliable data saying they deserve to be there… other than “Hey! It’s [Insert one of a small handful of superstar artist names here].” Once they hit the magical #1, many disappear.
“The listener wants to get to know the artists,” commented consultant Scott Huskey. “They always trail the charts, meaning songs have more life than the label lets them have.”
Added KSON/San Diego PD Kevin Callahan, “Labels need to lean more on radio to let them know when a song is truly over. Audience research proves the charts move too quickly time after time.” And, echoing his mantra from last month, KIIM/Tucson PD Buzz Jackson reiterated: “We're stuck in this rut of "#1 and done" for the format. We're not playing hits long enough; not building enough familiarity – and not building a good library of gold.”
On the flip side of Jackson’s “#1 and done” concern, there’s the other 99 percent – pretty much every other artist fighting for a playlist slot and often spending months on the charts, languishing in categories which I like to call “parked in the dark,” or 7p-6a. SiriusXM Dir./Country Programming JR Schumann has been concerned about this for a while now. “If radio actually played records starting out – instead of five spins a week in overnights for 15 weeks – they'd be able to get a real look at whether a record is going to work or not. William Michael Morgan is a prime example. That record was 58 weeks in the making, because it took that long for people to really start playing it, and once they did – it tested! Low and behold – a hit record.” If radio played songs in a more prominent rotation from the get-go, believes Schumann, “We wouldn't be seeing data from all over the place. And then, the fact that a song is good enough for 1200 spins as a current on a station, but not one spin in a recurrent after the label says it's okay to come off the song, is indicative of another set of issues.”
Hall Communications VP/Programming Bob Walker, who also handles day-to-day programming for the company’s Country WCTK/Providence, said Country should take a hard look at its recent obsession with Top 40 programming architecture. “All those people screaming ‘Country is the new Top 40’ the past few years made me cringe. Being Top 40 means riding huge highs and deep lows. Top 40 is churn and burn; what's hot, what's not; use 'em and lose 'em. Loyalty is not part of the mix. Country would be best to drop power rotations from 70-80 to under 50, [and] take time to develop one or two new artists at a time. Ignore any chart that counts over-night spins, ignore any songs driven up the chart by spin programs, and offer a product to which a listener can be loyal, not just one they use until something cooler comes along – like Top 40.”
The conversation about spins, dayparted rotations, “#1 and Done” – and all the nuts and bolts components – is a valid one and can go on for hours, preferably over a few cold ones. In fact, I’m confident in saying if you attend Country Radio Seminar in February (Shameless plug alert!), you WILL hear more of that dialogue, both on panels and in the hallways.
“One thing I've Pondered Lately: What is Country Radio's Identity?” – KUZZ PD Brent Michaels
On a macro level, here’s something else that materialized in the comments I saw, phone calls I received from PDs who didn’t want to jump feet-first into a Facebook discussion, and one face-to-face chat. The word “identity” popped up a lot. As in, the format’s lack of one right now. Again, repeating what I’ve said before, “Bro-Country” – a term NOT created by anybody in this format, but by an otherwise non-Country fan from the consumer press – WAS a thing and gave our format an identity which P2s, P3s, and brand new fans could easily pinpoint in describing what the hell we were. When I was in programming, we sometimes described that phenomenon by saying, “the narrower the focus, the broader the appeal.” Since the Bro-Country micro-trend cooled, there hasn’t been a handle anyone can quickly grasp. Combined with so many younger artists raised on varied musical styles defining their personal history, which has impacted their interpretation of Country music, you get the Wild West – a scenario best described by borrowing a quote from Kurt Vonnegut: “Everything is nothing, with a twist.”
On the eve of a recent St. Jude Radio Advisory Board meeting, I was talking with iHeartMedia Dir./Country Operations for Austin/San Antonio Travis Moon, who returned to radio in February of this year after a two-year absence. Like a lot of us who have stepped away, Moon listened to radio very differently when not in it. And his main takeaway, particularly during his second year out was the lack of a tangible, clearly defined musical personality for Country radio. It’s something he and many other PDs are searching for now.
I believe similar to the discussion a couple of years ago about the lack of a developing female presence in the format, there are options at our fingertips for seizing control of the situation and self-correcting. Although we are that poppy-sounding, musical melting pot, we’ve seen signs – though not consistent so far – of actual traditional music starting to be more successful. William Michael Morgan’s “I Met A Girl,” Jon Pardi’s “Head Over Boots,” and Justin Moore’s “You Look Like I Need A Drink” are examples. And each of these singles comes off recently-released full albums that are strong, fully traditional projects.
“We usually don't realize the thing that is defining our identity until that thing is taken away.” – Tom Hiller
I moderated a panel at CRS this year comprised of Top 40, Hot AC, and Rock programmers – no Country guys. One panelist, KIIS/Los Angeles PD John Ivey, told me in his format when programmers recognize a musical void which they know is necessary for balance and wider appeal, they work to physically push it on the station, instead of waiting for it to happen organically.
To that point, right now we have an available identity ready for immediate installation, one which I have been carefully and secrectly crafting for several months. I think it's really taken shape and is finally ready for its closeup. Full disclosure, It’s revolutionary, so please make sure you're seated when I reveal what I believe to be pure and absolute genius. In fact, I may copyright it. Ok, here it comes … the silver bullet; the answer to ALL our format woes is … Wait for it … Actual, traditional sounding COUNTRY music from new, young artists! Ta-da! Well?!? Huh? Huh? You like? Boom!
But seriously, we have an upcoming core of artists to support this identity. I'm talkin' Jon Pardi, William Michael Morgan, Mo Pitney, Chris Young, Justin Moore, Luke Combs, and others. For anyone screaming “unfamiliar,” there’s an ample supply of well-rested, great 90s and early 2000s catalog. A lot of that music has been largely sitting idle for a few years now, because if you remember, I pointed out a few weeks ago that the majority of reporting station on the Mediabase panel feature libraries that are, on average, 70% or higher concentrated in the 2014-today vintage. Take a look at what’s happening in Nashville, where Cumulus’ WSM-FM (Nash Icon) is the leading FM Country station in the market. Icon plays a balanced, comfortable, and highly-listenable mix of currents and songs from the 90s and early 2000s. Yes, I realize that’s one market, and mileage may vary. This doesn’t mean you have to turn the station inside out – a little bit of a musical shift goes a long way, and you can subtly create a persona with imaging and jock presentation.
I believe this strategy of flipping the script would have multiple benefits for Country. It’ll give it that easily recognized identity we now lack. It will protect what is the true core – what’s really always been the engine of a fully productive Country station – and that is 25-44s skewing female. But it will satisfy more men, too, who aren’t using Country as much right now. And here’s something else I believe it’ll do: keep 18-34s interested and feeling the station is fresh. Where are they going right now? Classic Hits and Classic Rock. They’re seeking nostalgia. Apparently, that’s a thing for Millennials right now. And if you think for some reason a traditional sounding song will turn off an 18-34 millennial, that it will sound hokey and old-fashioned – remember they don’t put borders and clear definitions on music. What they like is what they like, and it all goes into a playlist – or, a series of playlists – they’re building. In fact, I’ll add this: If you don’t feature a defined, more core-sounding traditional music presence on the station, beyond the strictly textural application it now has on most stations, I think you’re missing out on appealing to this demo. Because they have a deep and wide appetite for all kinds of music. Keep it poppy, and you’re a one trick pony for them, and the upper demos in many cases are just tolerating it.
Do I believe the current generation of programmers will leap at this brilliant, trailblazing strategy I’ve just concocted ? Uh … no. Most former Top 40 and now Country PDs won’t have any of it. I’m not bitching at them, and trust me, I’m not one of those “Country isn’t Country anymore” guys. I believe most of what former Pop programmers have brought with them to our format has moved the needle and made us a much better, competitive, more dynamic and exciting product. And I personally love new music; all kinds of new music. Poppy, Rocky, Urbany? I ain’t skeerd. And I’m not stuck in the 90s or 2000s just because that is when I was in radio. But very often, the thing that is at first a strength is also, long term, a potential vulnerability. Generally speaking, a lot of PDs in our format are obsessed with shiny new objects that don’t sound the least bit Country. They prefer to utilize traditional sounds for texture, and have the Wild West be the driving sound – the one that doesn’t give the format any recognizable identity. Or, as William Shakespeare once said, “We know what we are, but not what we may be.”