Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts
March 13, 2012
Part II: Overcoming Promotion Pitfalls In An Artist Friendly Format
Despite a cluttered competitive environment, there are many artists who have enjoyed lasting success in the past few years who owe a debt of gratitude to Urban-formatted radio. And while playlists continue to tighten up, Urban and Urban AC remain two of few formats that will take some chances.
Most mainstream Urban stations have to juggle and expose new artists to maintain the freshness their audience demands. With only so many slots, that becomes a very difficult game. "So why not just expand the number of slots?" asks a well-known promotion executive for a major label group. And the answer is if you expand the light rotation (which is where most new adds wind up), those lights don't get enough exposure in a week to justify a report or to determine whether they (the new tracks) should move up or not. They remain in light rotation ... or go away.
Then there are the passive songs that just don't generate requests and narrow programming that eliminates a lot of potential hit jams. Often, some of your biggest phone records don't do well in callout. We're all guilty of what I like to call the instant-gratification syndrome. We need to know going into a song that it's a slow build. While we looked at the role that research plays in filling the "hit hole," last time, we thought we would include these thoughts: While you can never have enough good information to look at, you have to combine that with good instincts.
Eventually you will develop a track record for finding music that will pay off for your station. I strongly recommend that you look at local and national sales, online and traditional callout, research from other stations, social media tracking along with phone and text requests, Mscores and whatever else you can pull together to help develop an accurate picture of what is really going on with a song. Remember, music is primarily about passion and an emotional response. That can't be quantified.
The key is steady growth over several weeks. For new artists this is especially important. But, it's also a negative to see a major artist slow down after just a few spins. Callout research can give you an early indication for the initial feel of the song from the passive audience (provided they can be exposed to the right hook, of course). The problem there is that you have to get your spin totals up above 50 a week before the passion scores kick in. A lot of Urban stations, especially those with syndicated morning and afternoon shows, are simply not able to do this.
Another ongoing problem many stations have centers around label add dates. For example, a new single from a major core artist is sent to the station. The label gives them an add date and the station prepares a spot for the cut on its playlist. Suddenly, the label decides it wants to push the add date back a couple of weeks. The station tells the rep they are ready to add it now. This does not make him happy. Later in the day, an independent promoter calls for the station's adds. The station mentions the record in question. The independent rep reminds the station that the label wants to wait on that one. They've pushed it back. Now the PD is really upset. "They're (the label) not responsible for my playlist or my ratings. I've had a couple of down trends and I need to be strong this book." He politely tells the rep they're ready to add it now. The result is that that record doesn't show up as one of the station's reported adds the next week, even though the station added and was playing it.
Now this is not a case of other radio stations lacking access to the song. This is a case of the label wanting all stations to add the record on the same day to make a big impact. This type of scenario brings to mind the question of whether or not we want charts that give a true representation of what is being played. Is this really much better than reporting a record and not playing it?
There are two schools of thought on this, one of which holds that, regardless of add dates; once a record is released it should be fair game for any station to play immediately. The idea is taking a chance on a new jam can provide a competitive advantage over other stations by allowing the station to be first with a major established artist's new jam.
The second school of thought says that since many trade charts are composed entirely of airplay initially until sales kick in, trying to orchestrate a first big week of reports would appear to be an attempt to orchestrate a high chart debut by forcing reluctant stations to add a record that may eventually prove to be a stiff. From the label standpoint, the reality is that add dates give them the opportunity to service all stations before airplay begins and to allow them to coordinate their promotional efforts.
We spoke to a number of winning program directors around the country concerning this subject. Their feelings varied from "When you get a record you should play it if you feel your audience will like it" to "If you want to break the record in your market, you should be able to, regardless of whether it gets reported and counted that week or not." Still another successful major-market Southeastern programmer said, "Stations should be able to take full advantage of pre-release schedules that permit early evaluations."
We should point out that the interval between receiving a record and its add or impact date gives programmers time to evaluate the release and lets them avoid impulsive commitments. The station's primary job is still to please its listeners. Nobody should get in trouble for early airplay of a released record.
There is one more issue that we feel compelled to bring up at this time and that is the tendency of some labels to have different add dates in different formats for the same record. Often today with consolidation, these stations are in the same building -- just down the hall from each other. That can cause confusion, frustration and chart problems. It also means, in the case of the individual stations, that they have to hold off reporting adds in one format if it's past the add date in another format on the same record.
What's the solution? Again, it depends who you ask. Personally, I think stations have to do what's best for them regardless of who it affects. In retrospect, the things we didn't worry about earlier seem much more important today. Today, our biggest new media competitor may be a cell phone. Station revenues have plummeted and many group-owned stations are making unprecedented budget cuts including massive layoffs. There's probably some smart-ass who claimed they predicted all these things. But the truth is that nobody envisioned a business in the state that radio finds itself in today. Plus we weren't prepared for the potential impact of new media.
In many cases programmers find themselves responsible for two or more stations. Just figuring out the logistics of managing the workload can be daunting. Sometimes one of the advantages of having one person program two or more stations in the marketplace is that person is aware of the entire strategy of the cluster.
Finally, while we know the whole is still equal to the sum of its parts, there is a problem that affects every Urban station today. We tend to get off songs too quickly. We all seem to have this chart-driven mentality that dictates moving a song down in rotation or dropping it altogether the second it loses its bullet or momentum.
Studies continue to show that it takes a lot longer for the audience to become familiar with or tire of a record. We're dropping records just about the time listeners are starting to get into them. We often feel as though there's this 10 to 12-week time frame during which a song can remain in a current rotation. Often, with syndicated drivetime shows, dayparting and gold-driven, voicetracked soft-night segments factored in, light rotation can be as low as one or two daytime spins a day. This is simply not enough. A station must be able to play those hits as least four or five times a day for the next several weeks.
But we seemingly grow tired of a tune. A few of the active "music freaks" call up and start complaining and suddenly the song is gone. This forces the passive listeners to find a new frequency so they can hear a jam they really like that the labels chased off the radio so they could force stations to play the new one.