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Number Two For New Music . . . And What To Do About It

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It was a trend that had been years in the offing, but it was still shocking when the numbers hit the screen as part of the 2017 edition of Edison Research’s “The Infinite Dial.

Among those respondents who said it was “very important” or “somewhat important” to keep up-to-date with music, broadcast radio had fallen out of its first-place tie as a source used for doing so. “Friends and Family” was now alone at No. 1 (flat at 68%), followed by YouTube (64%). “AM/FM Radio” was now third, down 68%-63%. Spotify was sixth, but up 25-33%.

Among 12-to-24-year-olds, where AM/FM had already lost its hegemony, YouTube was first (80%), followed by Friends/Family (77%), Spotify (59%), Pandora (53%), and AM/FM (50%).

Last year, among all respondents, broadcast radio was first outright when listeners were asked which source for keeping up with new music they used the most. Even here, it fell behind friends and family in 2017. Broadcast radio was off 28%-19%, while friends and family slipped slightly 23%-22%. Spotify was up from 4%-10% and most other choices were up slightly as well.

Broadcasters haven’t been uninterested in or unwilling to engage for the music discovery image. Listen to any format that plays currents now and you will hear a new song staged with, “Number One For New Music” or some variant. You might even hear the words “Music Discovery.”

But there’s only so much that positioning can do. Four years ago, as part of a presentation called “Radio in an Audio World,” assessing radio’s strengths and whether it was fully taking advantage of them, I sought to quantify music discovery with Nielsen BDSRadio stats on the number of songs that had cracked the top 20 that year. Mainstream Top 40 and Rhythmic Top 40 were the leaders, averaging just about two a week. This week, I had Nielsen BDSRadio run the same stats for 2015.

Nielsen BDSRadio’s Tally of Top 20 Songs by Format

Format 2013 2016
Rhythmic Top 40 103 107
Hip Hop/R&B 94 98
Mainstream Top 40 105 96
Triple-A 93 94
Adult Top 40 88 90
Country 95 89
Active Rock 82 88
Mainstream AC 83 81
Alternative 91 75
Urban AC 76 71

 

The results made official what had seemed obvious for a while. There were fewer hits in Mainstream CHR and Country. There were shockingly fewer hits in Alternative. These numbers come with various asterisks (e.g., Active Rock now is actually the merged Billboard/BDS panel of “Active” and “Heritage Rock” stations called Mainstream Rock) and deserve their own story. But, directionally, the numbers confirm a good period for R&B/Hip-Hop and Rhythmic CHR and fewer hits for many other formats.

It’s hard to be number one for music discovery with less than two new songs a week. Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” playlist sends you thirty songs every Monday. I’m still fine-tuning “Discover Weekly” to get the results I want (that, too, is a separate column). But I can usually count on at least three or four of those songs turning into a purchase.

But it’s also hard to be number one for music discovery if there’s no seeming eagerness to share new music. Taylor Swift’s “1989” album would turn out to be loaded with hits. But in its phenomenal landing week, radio played almost nothing from it until “Blank Space” was anointed as the official second single.

Now Ed Sheeran’s “Divide” is here. I haven’t tracked it in full yet, but I’ve heard at least four potential singles: “New Man,” “Perfect,” “Happier,” and “Galway Gal.” Radio’s response to the album’s No. 1 debut has instead been to up spins on “Castle on The Hill,” the song that’s been on their desktops for two months since it was released simultaneously with “Shape Of You.” As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, only KHKS (Kiss 106.1) Dallas appears to be playing “Galway Gal.” Then again, nobody in New York played Swift’s “Welcome to New York,” because it was never a single.

For the last few years, often (but not only) around Infinite Dial time, I have been offering suggestions on how radio might engage for the music discovery image. Among those thoughts:

  • Empower and encourage radio station music directors to find music again. Going on to a superstar album to find the next single was once a standard practice;
  • Make the MD an on-air presence. Have that person walk into the booth to premiere new songs;
  • Change the MD title to “Music Supervisor” and create the cult of personality that surrounds their TV counterparts;
  • Make the music process transparent on-air and on-line;
  • Give listeners more of an on-air role, beginning with having them advocate for the new songs in those new music stagers. If listeners have more time to discover songs than we do, let’s deputize them;
  • Don’t just play new music, make your station player, app and website a place where listeners can also purchase music. As the annual battle for a broadcast performance royalty comes around, radio’s claim for an exemption has always been breaking and selling music. As some listeners move to an ecosystem where music is neither introduced to them by radio or purchased ever, there should be impetus to preserve that franchise.

To this, I can now add that broadcast radio should do whatever it can to take part in the explosion in playlisting on any platform possible. That definitely means our own station sites, apps, and streaming players, but why shouldn’t our brands also be representing us on the streaming services. Playlisting is our expertise, developed many years before Filtr and Digster. We’re also a natural clearing house for listener playlists—something we started soliciting more than a decade ago when the success of “Bob-“ and “Jack-FM” suddenly meant that a listener’s random mix tape was now good lunchtime radio.

Broadcasters cannot offer listeners thirty brand new songs on the air every week, especially if they’re playing 22 currents. The tightening has happened for a reason. Critical mass takes longer for songs. But there’s self-fulfilling prophecy there; if those listeners with an appetite for new music are allowed to live elsewhere, it’s going to take even longer. And playlisting seems like a logical place to not just showcase our music discovery skills, but develop and research songs. Look at the promotional e-mail blast on behalf of any new song, and you’ll see that the industry is already incubating songs that way. It’s just that broadcasters aren’t the ones doing so.

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Sean Ross is author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and VP of music and programming of Edison Research.

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