Celebrating Black Music Month 2011 - Part 2
June 14, 2011
Tomorrow Will Be Different
As we move into the second in our four-part series for Black Music Month 2011, we continue our focus on the music and the decades that were finding themselves and each other. In the beginning there was rock and roll. The infant art form embraced gospel and country, blues and ballads. African-Americans co-habited with whites on Top 40 radio. Boys packing sexual threats in their jeans shared the bill with girls tenderized in lacquer and lace. Singers like Aretha Franklin would take a Broadway spiritual like Meredith Wilson's "Are You Sure" and transform it into a righteous steeple raiser.
At the same time, Dionne Warwick, working with the ricochet rhythms of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, built a brand new bridge connecting gospel urgency to show tune sophistication. The jazz inflections of Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Nat "King" Cole enriched the vocabulary of pop music. Then came the girl groups and Motown who kept teen pulses surging to an irresistible beat. It made for a varied vigorous music in the golden are of chanteuse pop.
By the early '80s though, a new agenda had been proclaimed. Melody and vocal craft were being replaced by the hip-hop virtues of energy, swagger and attitude. They were all part of music's emergence.
Music is still the elixir, the balm to ease the pain of hundreds of years of suffering. And in between the blues songs about suffering and the dance celebrations came a spotlight born of these two musical conflicts -- a bounty of stimulating originality and explosive creativity. It was about more than just music. It was also about an overdue vindication of that neglected American institution, the black middle class and the former lavish confection of a no-risk music industry. Because of all of these things we know that tomorrow will be different.
Part of that difference will take the form of what I like to call the digital divide. It's no secret that we are in the midst of an information economy, and the future is moving at light speed. Technology is being used to grow our economy, to generate new products and services. It is being used to bring higher wages and high-skilled jobs to our nation's shrinking work force. The question becomes, where does this leave African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities? The answer is we will be underserved unless we seize the opportunities. For those of us in the radio and music industries, we already know what's up, most of us, anyhow.
The key to opportunity in the future lies in understanding what's happening in our high-tech world. You see it in the work place where six out of every 10 new jobs are computer-related. I personally know of someone everybody assumed was a qualified brother whose company downsized and he suddenly found himself unemployed. So he set about to try to find a job. He was able to connect with a large group that owned several stations. They had an opening. He interviewed well. The manager said he needed someone who understood research, the fine art of music scheduling and Arbitron's PPM. Believe it or not, our man passed research and even PPM. But music scheduling was another story. It was a problem.
When interviewed, homeboy said he understood the computer music scheduling system Selector, but he really didn't. After he got the job, the GM found out he had not been truthful. One day, when his MD, who was really Selector-savvy, was out, he couldn't put a record on his own radio station. The word spread and soon, when his ratings went down, so did he.
Skilled labor today requires the ability to use computers and telecommunications. Telecommunications is now over 14% of the economy and growing. America will need 1.3 million new workers in information technology over the next eight years.
How do we make sure the information highway has on-ramps and off-ramps into every neighborhood? How do we avoid creating a country of information haves and have-nots? How do we make sure this revolution in communications helps our listeners to recognize how important it is? We have to find a way to give our listeners some facts in between the hits they come to our stations to hear. Our stations need to re-tool themselves, so that the residual effect of Black Music Month lasts and extends.
Urban Radio's Exploding Popularity
It's interesting to note that of all the terrestrial formats, Urban radio remains popular in spite of all the distractions, including iPods, satellite-delivered radio, Internet listening and various online music sources. The reason is that more people use the Internet to get music now than ever before. When they hear something they like on the radio, they find it on the Internet and either have it delivered electronically or use that information to go out and buy the music we have made them want.
Recent studies show the Internet has become an important delivery system for new music, but it's still radio where they hear about new music first. Radio used to be the only place for people to hear new music, but it is now one of many sources. Radio is competing for the audience's attention with all of these other players. But, even though our Time Spent Llistening (TSL) is down, radio is still very important to the music industry in 2011. It's amazing how influential radio continues to be.
And what's even more amazing is the billing slice that radio overall gets is about 8%-10% of the national pie. And naturally, Urban radio gets an even smaller slice. And unlike other formats, Urban and Urban AC stations have the "saleable demographics" advertisers are looking for.
Demographics' main purpose is to tell what gender our audience is, how much money they earn, what products they buy and how many times they do it. Urban radio has to go beyond demographics. We still need to count numbers, but numbers alone, even when we have them, will not help us get our fair share of the local or national advertising dollar. Out truths are not self-evident. They must be told and re-told.
Part of the story that needs to be included in that pitch is the main thing that attracts listeners to our format is the fact that not only is our music strong, additive and fun to listen to, we play new music. (Some of us, anyhow.) And we need to play more ...especially in the Urban AC format. One thing many research-driven, federally regulated, corporate-owned Urban adult stations fail to realize is that most Urban AC stations are vying for the coveted 25-54 demo, but it's the younger end, 18-34 that drive the demand for new music and can make a huge ratings difference, even for a successful adult station.
Many smart Urban stations have already noticed this hunger for new music and have reacted accordingly. Their current-to-gold radio during the day, when the audience is older, is lower. At night, the percentage of currents increases dramatically because the audience is younger and demands it.
So is the answer to only play new music at night? No, new music should be played during the day as well. And daytime new tracks should be more familiar. It should be the songs that have the best potential of making it into the "A-stack." Many of these daytime currents probably started at night with the younger audience, making that initial "playground" very important to the overall sound of your station. They are forming the "bridge" to crossover.
Finally, we know tomorrow will be different and that we have to prepare for it. We have to bridge the musical "digital divide." If we can't cross that bridge it will continue to separate us just when we most need to be brought together. So between songs, as part of our daily show prep, we have to find a way to work this thinking into what we say, as well as what we play. We have to make sure our listeners can get to the on-ramp on the information highway, because that's also the on-ramp to opportunity.
We can't simply go along with business as usual. Because if we do, the information haves will become have-mores ... and the have-nots will become have-nones. We have to work to set aside excuses and prepare for a better tomorrow for us, our children and our future.
(Next week Part 3)