Did Fragmentation Kill Rock Radio?
Is it time for current-based rock radio to become one format again?
His focus was mostly country radio, but during his keynote at Tuesday’s RAIN Summit Nashville, Big Machine Label Group President/CEO Scott Borchetta talked about rock radio’s recent travails. Rock’s weakness, he said, was due to its splintering into multiple charts—modern rock, active rock, and, in some cases, mainstream or heritage rock. That was why, Borchetta said, he had personally opposed any attempt to fragment the country chart.
While the opposition of Borchetta and many on Music Row to fragmentation goes back for decades, you think he might come around now that Big Machine and radio group owner Cumulus have partnered on a NASH Icon record label specializing in heritage artists, like Reba McEntire. Labels like having radio move in lockstep, but two charts might have speed up the brutal 26-to-40-week incubation time of some hits.
But it’s easy to understand current-based rock radio as a precautionary tale.
Alternative has been considered more aesthetically successful for a decade, but has never matched its mid-‘90s footprint. It’s either a format with great variety or no center: a mix of heritage acts, EDM/pop, and triple-A crossovers. Broadcast radio has felt the digital-savvy alternative audience showing less enthusiasm in recent years, and yet there’s little representation of alternative on streaming charts.
Active rock programmers have bemoaned a dearth of current product for years. Many have responded by becoming more library-based and adding some surprisingly mainstream classic rock (Queen, Steve Miller, Tom Petty). Now stations like KVRK Seattle and KFMB-FM San Diego have emerged that simply eliminate most recent music altogether.
Alternative regularly produces music that would sound great on pop radio, but few crossovers are even attempted. A five-year-old alternative hit, M83’s “Midnight City,” has influenced much of what’s on CHR now, but pop radio would rather foster its own midtempo EDM/pop now.
Little more than a decade ago, active rock was able to send some unlikely post-Linkin Park hits to CHR. Trapt and Three Days Grace as the sound of mainstream top 40 are hard to imagine now. Active rock’s reduced commitment to currents almost guarantees that few records will have the topspin to cross even to alternative, much less to pop.
There’s also the odd phenomenon on the rock universe—now two decades old—where any record that can be started at alternative will be. But that sometimes means that any band can be tagged with “too weird/not rock enough” for active rock. For a while, that included even Cage the Elephant, even though “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” was “the song that sounds like AC/DC” when it was new.
The notion of one current-based rock format is intriguing, especially if it has the power to influence CHR and adult top 40 again. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine anybody easily pooling the hits from a format that rocks too hard with a format that barely rocks. But some stations are trying, such as the Cumulus active rockers that are now playing Twenty One Pilots. Both formats have music influenced in some way by EDM, and it’s the EDM scene of recent years that most often recalls the vitality of rock music and radio twenty years ago.
There’s also not a lot of nostalgia at alternative radio for the late ‘90s/early ‘00s era in which alternative and active rock radio were surprisingly similar formats, exacerbated by stations that programmed active, but chased the more desirable alternative reporting status. When alternative stations played Trapt, alternative PDs felt trapped.
But in considering Borchetta’s theory, also dwell on the alternative/active rock dynamic of those times. When the two formats were musically similar but nominally separate, there was no discussion of whether rock radio was too fragmented and thus too weak. Alternative stations were afraid to give up the hard-rock fans who’d come for Nirvana and Pearl Jam, even if what they now liked was Godsmack and Tool. But by being musically similar, it was easy for a certain type of record to achieve critical mass.
The same dynamic has been on display in the pop radio world now. While they seem to be pulling apart a little now, CHR, Hot AC, and Mainstream AC have recently differed more in timing than texture. I often wonder if it’s a good thing for listeners or the formats themselves. Do fewer truly distinct choices and more stations playing the same music help radio overall? And yet, there’s no question what the hits are now. They’re the songs like “Love Yourself” or “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” that can find a home across the pop spectrum.
In other words, what’s good for the label community has actually been multiple charts with the same hits playing on three or four stations in a market. Country radio has been criticized for moving as one entity, all unwilling to diverge too much from the charts. But there are times when pop or rock radio have become that, and having multiple charts is a mere technicality.