April 30, 2013
Grant Hubbard essentially grew up in Christian radio. He honed his talents working at a Christian station his father built in Colorado. After a few years in radio, Hubbard ventured into Christian music industry, starting with a job at Word. Since then, he has become one of the leading figures in the Christian music industry, earning multiple awards for his promotional efforts. Here, Hubbard offers his insight into the growth and evolution of Christian radio - and the labels that serve them.
How did you get into Christian radio ... and then the label side?
I started right out of high school, working part-time at a radio station in Texas. At 18 years old, the Saturday/Sunday shift was a passion for me. After a couple years of doing that, my dad got a construction permit to build a station in Colorado, so we moved there and built one in Monument, CO. It took us about a year to build; we were a full-time Contemporary Christian station. I was middays, then the afternoon guy, then MD ... and then dad lost everything, station went bankrupt and everybody got terminated -- even me. Thankfully, Dad became GM of a station in Colorado Springs. I became PD there because everyone else was gone: I ran that station for about a year; it was a reporting station. Then the guys who owned it decided not to continue the format, so they eliminated my position. It was the only time I ever got fired - and my dad had to do it. Imaging your dad firing you; it was pretty painful.
So I called my buddies in the industry, such as Chris Hauser, who's an indie now but was with Myrrh Records in 1990, who said he could get me an interview at Word. He made a call and within 30 minutes, I got an interview. A week later, I flew out to Nashville and within a month work, I got a job. April 1st, 1990 was my first day in radio promotion. I was a tracker, which is what they called us back then. There were18 people in the Word office; the rest of their business was in Dallas. I worked records for seven years at Word in radio promotion. In 1997, I saw an opening here as Senior Director of Promotion for EMI's Sparrow label. I thought it was a great opportunity; I pursued it and was hired.
What have you learned about the business going from radio to the labels?
It's interesting when you look at it. I was still a young 26 when I first came to Nashville, so I learned more about radio talking to radio guys every day than when I was doing radio myself. I've found that the biggest difference between the two is that most programmers don't understand label strategies -- why we want to release the next single and when we want to go for adds. They don't get it, or understand what we're trying to accomplish as a record company. I was the same way when I was in radio. I've tried to explain it to them, but they sometimes don't quite grasp why add dates are so important - especially for the 100 or so reporting stations my team talks to every week. They don't understand that the other hundreds of Christian stations we send music to hypothetically watch what these 100 stations are doing to determine what they're going to play. The goal of the entire charting system is to build awareness of a song with the other hundreds of other stations. If they see a song's working, that's like getting a sales pitch from us, because we simply don't have the manpower to go out and see all these stations, and in most cases, the non-reporting stations are in smaller markets.
Of course, radio stations playing that hit record wonder why they should drop the single -- when it's still working -- for something new and ultimately untested.
That's the hard part for us. I need to say this carefully ... I don't want radio to think too small. There are a lot of guys at radio who don't realize that you don't have to fry a record to move it out of current. Sure, your heavies may be getting 40 spins and your recurrents 18-22. Why not take a really strong song with 1,000 spins and put it in recurrent to keep it alive for another year, rather than fry it in power? The old-school mindset is to burn your hits to a crisp before you play the next record. If you make those hits recurrent; you'll have more songs testing at your benchmark in currents, recurrents and power golds. People will listen to your station a lot longer if they're not sick of the burned hits you're still playing.
Take our "new" Toby Mac record, which came out in November. It tested top 10, but not #1. Still, it made the top 10 everywhere; now it's in recurrent and power gold at some stations. Yet it's still in current at other stations and it will stay there until its burn factor gets up to the "magic number." I don't understand why they have to make 25% of their audience sick of a song before they move it to recurrent.
Has what constitutes a hit in Christian radio changed over time?
It's much more competitive. When I look back at the difference in radio between when I started and now ... this is the reality: When I was at Word in 1993-94, and Point of Grace came out -- a huge artist who is still in the industry -- their first record had six #1 singles in two formats -- AC and what was then called Inspirational. Four of the #1s were in AC in just one year; a new single came out every 12 weeks and each one blew up. They didn't have music testing going on back then; they added songs on instinct and the second the GMs got sick of a song, they dropped it. They weren't thinking that the audience only listened for their stations four to five hours a week.
Today even guys playing songs 48-50 times a week are playing records a lot longer because they have new tools at their disposal. Testing tells them that the audience is not sick of record. In the past, those who programmed on instinct heard the song at the station eight hours a day, and they also heard it night with their families, so of course they would get sick of the song.
Now the problem for us is that with hits lasting longer, we're lucky to get two hit songs on the radio over the course of an entire year. We released Matt Redmon's "10,000 Reasons" in March 2012, which got 4 adds ... and on at April 1st 2013, it was still in the top 4 5(top 5). That's how long the life cycle has been extended. The challenge for A&R now is that you literally better pick the right song because if you don't, it's going to limit you. There's always going to be a handful of stations that play a record, but if you miss on a single, you've got to go back to them 12 weeks later with a new one.
But we don't just have to break our records on radio today. We have the iTunes chart, where we can see what tracks are selling. Those things have changed the game since 1997. In selecting singles, there's a lot more data in front of us; we don't have to only listen to a record and decide what track's our favorite. Today we look at how the individual tracks are selling from a record. Sometimes we have to find out why we were able to sell so many of songs we never took to radio.
It turns out that many different things come into play. The artist could be playing to 10,000 people every night, doing an incredible version of it in concert. It turns out almost everything can be a tool for us to sell records.
Conversely, do you have turntable hits ... and what do you do about them?
Oh yes, and those are obvious to see. I've talked to some of our writers and they've done analysis on that in Christian music. They've found several different songs that were testing so high, yet there was nothing there on iTunes. We do see a lot of those, but it's hard to predict right now which songs become turntable hits. My feeling is you connect with enough stations to break a hit at radio, hopefully you should know how to drive sales into the neighborhood 5,000-6,500 a week.
How important is social media in helping break your records?
We do a ton of work with different companies on social media. I haven't done too much myself on the radio promotion side, but we have people keep up with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. A handful of our artists are really good at tweeting back at radio stations that add or play their record, giving them props and all. That's more relationship building than anything else, but they can also do it to build their fan base.
The real connection from a record company standpoint is simple lyric videos posted online on YouTube. We see a huge amount of interest there.
What's your view of songs with uplifting messages vs. ones that are more political?
I can go in a lot of different directions with this. But for me, we look at songs that connect people with God, so uplifting songs expressed in the artist's own personal experiences are something to encourage. I know it sounds cheesy to say, but we want listeners to our music to feel good. We want to move emotions in a positive way. When we talk about spiritual, it moves people. Of course it's got to be great music, but it also has to have some kind of depth in the lyrics that connects the family to the church. I really haven't heard a political song on Christian radio, such as an anti-abortion or "don't take away our guns"-type of thing.
Thing is, our artists are very diverse. I am a very conservative person from political standpoint, but I know artists who have a liberal political standpoint and they're not bad guys. We're still friends; we just stay out of politics.
What's your view of crossing your artists' music over into pop or country?
You would find A&R guys who would love that, but we can't live that way. First and foremost, we've got to make records work in our format. We can sell Platinum records here; we can't survive if we rest our hopes on pop success. It can still happen. We had a great run at mainstream with Britt Nicole's "Gold," which got to about #28. We were able to go to KLTY/Dallas and say, "Hey, the crosstown Top 40 just added Britt Nicole." We used that a lot of as a momentum builder. But it's not our goal to build a record strictly to cross into the mainstream -- although we've been through that phase in my 16 years here.
Have you noticed a change in Christian radio programming since the advent of PPM?
PPM has been really good for our industry. In the old days of Christian radio, the TSL was something like eight hours a day. The listener would basically fill out a diary for an entire day, even if a different listener was actually listening to the station. We'd still be a 2 share, but our TSL would be through the roof. What the PPM has done for us is take our cume through the roof. Christian stations in Dallas have crossed a million in cume a couple of times; it's been a huge explosion with the PPM. Of course, our TSL is down dramatically; it's quite similar to a crosstown AC station. With the TSL down, some programmers have used that to justify extending the life of singles.
How does the fact that you'd be lucky to work two hits a year for an artist impact his or her "artist development?"
You don't want to wait long to break an artist, you want to make sure there are a couple really good songs to take to radio. We try to convince our new artists that they've got to invest in the best songs. That's why it's really hard for smaller labels to have success in radio these days. If they miss on a record - and they're only working two artists a year -- it's going to be long year.
Is there a cut-off line where you realize it's not worth working a record anymore and it's time to go to a new one ...say, 12 weeks or so?
It doesn't work that way. There's a lot of emotion in these records -- from the artists, their mangers and the radio people who believe in that record. So you look at a record and think, "Maybe if we get a few more stations, we can keep going after it." Once you get past 20 weeks in trying to get adds, you can start hurting yourself, because there will likely be stations playing the first single and won't add your next one.
What are the biggest issues facing the Christian music and radio industries today?
There are opportunities and challenges. We're seeing a lot of consolidating going on. We saw it happen at the label and radio group standpoint. Now we're seeing it from a network standpoint. Our biggest client, K-LOVE Radio, has bought many reporting stations, so we're going to lose some slots if K-Love doesn't play our records. They can dictate what records will last on the charts, so we get their input on what they're looking for. It's a challenge for us, moving forward. If they play our records, it could be huge for us, but long-term, we lose the ability to have as many different stations start our records.