Do Urban Formats Rely Too Much On Testing?
June 26, 2012
What About The Responsibility to Develop Artists?
One of the most often-heard complaints from label executives is that Urban programmers rely too much on research and no longer have the patience nor commitment to work with them to help develop new artists. Radio, on the hand, says while they understand record labels' plight, their focus is strictly on building audience.
Not only is music quality important, today music quantity is also a major ratings factor. If a direct-format competitor plays three or four more jams each hour than your station, you could have a problem. Then there's the issue of song choices. Are they playing established hits? How many gold and recurrents? And finally, who is the narrow target for the competition and does their music selection hit their target? Answer these questions and you begin to realize why all stations need to do research to help reduce these programming risks. But how much is too much -- and what about your gut instincts?
Even for the format's most musically adventurous and artist-friendly programmers, the feeling is that there isn't a manager or VP/Programming who tells their programmers to develop artists so that they can have great ratings in a year or two. Once Urban and Urban AC became formats from which other formats cherry-picked artists, there really wasn't time to develop artists. The artists left behind are almost by definition not going to be mass-appeal artists. So having a station or a group of stations that recognized the need for artist development now that Urban formats have become mass-appeal is important.
We spoke to a major-market East Coast programmer who said, "It's unfair to say that Urban programmers aren't developing artists today because we do break new artists. The PDs' job is to get and keep ratings and to do it any way they can. Generally that means playing the best available jams. As an offshoot, you would prefer to have artist development so that you have artists you own."
We also spoke with a well-respected, senior label executive who expressed his feelings this way: "More than ever, I have confidence that while Urban-formatted stations may not always want to be the first one out of the box on a new record; I would hope that they would give artists that have had successful first singles a second chance. I think the concept developed from major-market stations that were playing disposable one-hit wonder tracks and realizing their ratings weren't growing. They needed to find new artists and grow with them. Part of this also stemmed from programmers anticipating that some of the major releases would carry them, but those releases came and went so quickly. the big artists suddenly didn't feel so big. So now they seem to be trying to grow with artists and find their own, and staying just one step ahead of the other stations."
Another promotion exec said that the biggest obstacle labels face today is call-out research. He said, "I think it's a cop-out."
Is There Too Much Reliability On Testing?
There are three basic types of research that most stations do on a regular basis: Auditorium Music Test (AMTs), Focus Groups, and Call-Outs. Auditorium Music tests are conducted with a carefully screened group of target listeners who evaluate portions of songs called hooks. Each song is scored according to its familiarity, appeal and passion.
Callout research is an evaluation process wherein target listeners evaluate 30 or more songs weekly, again indicating familiarity, appeal, fatigue and passion.
Focus groups are smaller, carefully selected groups of target listeners who discuss and identify key issues and set priorities for quantitative research and are designed to enhance the overall value of perceptual research.
Finally, we were asked about Mscore. It's important to understand that Mscore can only be used with PPM. Mscore is an index which measures the amount of switching to your competition that occurs when you play specific songs. Mscore only looks at listeners who are switching to another station every time a specific song is played.
It depends on the market and the competition. If you're in a market with only one Urban station, switching might develop certain patterns. If you're in a market with two or three Urbans, the switching might be another pattern. Listeners tend to switch from one station to another frequently, especially in a car. So Mscore takes that into account when doing their calculations. They look at what's above normal or below normal. If there is less switching than usual, this is good. This becomes a positive Mscore. If there is more switching than normal, it's a negative M-score.
The most-often asked research question is, "If you have a limited budget and time frame, which form of research should you choose?" I personally feel that it depends on the station. For example, if the station is an Urban Adult, gold-based station, an auditorium test would be the best choice. If your station is a mainstream, currentbased station, however, callout research gets the nod.
It's important that the questionnaires are carefully reviewed so as not to confuse the respondents. And it helps if the moderator looks like those he/she is actually moderating.
Most Urban programmers we spoke with said an average-sounding record won't earn better test scores the more it's played. Now in 2012, Urban radio is still letting go of some songs that they thought were no longer relevant or hip with their P1s, something that happens a lot once they cross over. Once listeners who are P1s to the format start hearing those songs on "their little sister's or brother's station," they often change their opinions of it.
Just because an artist gets picked up by multiple formats doesn't mean that we should stop playing it in drive time. After all, isn't that what we want? As a business we may be over-thinking this issue because of the complaints of a very vocal few in the audience. Not that we don't care about those vocal few. We do, but we're in a mainstream business, which means we have to cater to the desires of the majority. If it's an artist you consider still important to your audience and the format, you should support it. But it's also important that the artist(s), their management, and label know that imaging the artist with the station will be necessary for the station to consider treating them as core artists instead of song-to-song.
Consumer Spending & Marketing
Despite the economy, what is also emerging in 2012 are statistics that show the tremendous buying power that still exists in the estimated $300-billion consumer market created by African-Americans. Projections for population growth by the end of this decade show increases to at least 35 million consumers. Disposable income should grow at the same pace to exceed the $300 billion now available to advertisers, including music purchasers and concertgoers.
The size of today's Black population, coupled with the propensity of African-Americans to spend a disproportionate share of their disposable income on music, continue to make marketing to them essential to the music industry.
The smart thing to do going forward is combine all these elements and then leverage what the audience remembers best. Urban stations do have a responsibility to develop new artists. Artists are remembered for their hits. A hit is remembered for its hook and a station is remembered for its "audio snapshots." In 2012, an endless recombinant and fundamentally social process can generate countless hours of creative product. To say that this poses a threat to the music industry is simply untrue. But the music industry has become the characteristic pivot of the turn of the last two decades.
As challenging as today's climate may be, it clearly represents historic opportunities for the survivors. Programmers that can take advantage of these opportunities and also integrate their gut and research findings in a thoughtful and value-preserving manner will emerge not only as survivors, but also as strong players.