Listening To Every New Song In Every Format

It’s been a weekly ritual for as long as I’ve had access to monitored airplay. On Sunday nights, just before the new chart week begins, I begin with the Mainstream Top 40 chart and listen to any new songs I haven’t heard yet — usually those cracking the 100-spin mark for the first time. I work my way through most of the current-driven formats.

It’s not a perfect listening exercise. In Country, there’s always a point around No. 20 in a song’s ascent where that initial spin is too distant to remember, but I’m not yet encountering songs on the radio, and have to re-listen. In Active Rock, I may never hear most songs on the radio later, unless I seek out those stations that still have a significant current footprint.

But each week’s listening still leaves me with thoughts on individual songs–both debuts and current hits–and on the state of various formats. Few are involved enough to prompt an entire column; some are a little too involved for a tweet. So here is a week’s worth of observations.

It’s interesting to see G-Eazy and NF, and the streaming-driven young-adult Hip-Hop confessionals they represent, controlling the No. 1 and 2 slots at Mainstream Top 40 for the past few weeks. That genre does nothing to lift CHR out of its current down tempo or mood, and yet is clearly the one that speaks most directly to listeners at the moment. We’ll hear it everywhere and around the world for a while. And this one got to No. 29 in Canada in December.

We’re nine months away from the next “Songs That Made a Difference” wrap-up. But I expect Migos’ “Stir Fry” to be there. The ethereal feel of today’s CHR hits was the influence of Atlanta Hip-Hop and R&B. “Stir Fry” proves that it was not just BPM but bounce that was missing from both genres. Currently, it’s top 5 at Rhythmic Top 40 and R&B/Hip-Hop. It’s just below the top 40 at Mainstream CHR.

It is dramatically winter outside as I write this, but you can see the name artists starting to assemble — Meghan Trainor, Charlie Puth, Halsey, Chainsmokers. By May, some will be favorites in the Song of Summer 2018 battle. By May, there are always artists whose March releases ran their course quickly as well, and are already issuing follow-ups.

When the tallying of Summer Song contenders begins, Zedd’s “The Middle” will likely still be at or near the top of the CHR chart. Now that “The Middle” has given Maren Morris a top 5 pop hit, maybe pop radio should go back and play “’80s Mercedes,” the poppy, uptempo single that Country radio couldn’t quite decide how to handle last year. Or “Rich,” the song that Country is grappling with now.

While everybody agrees that the charts are a confusing maze of multiple metrics, even those charts measuring airplay only have expanded to include more non-traditional outlets. It is possible for songs to crack 100 spins in both Mediabase and NielsenBDS without airplay at a traditional FM station.  “Fake Ass Friends” by Dustin Atlas & Erin Bowman is a one-listen for me. But its 120-130 spins are all at Sirius XM Hits 1, SXM Venus, and (in edited form) Radio Disney. And what does it say when Radio Disney gets to a song called “Fake Ass Friends” before even our most reaction-driven local programmers?

When I listened this weekend, the top 5 at Adult Contemporary were still the same five songs that I wrote about a month ago. Over the course of the week, Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” cracked the top five.

To go through the No. 35-50 range of the Adult CHR chart is to see songs that would be great for Mainstream AC — Keala Settle, Country crossover LANCO. But those songs need Adult CHR (or better, Mainstream CHR) to be considered at Mainstream AC.

It’s interesting to see Max’s “Light’s Down Low” in the top 10 at Mainstream AC, after its own long march to the CHR top 10. Also interesting that it continues to get only a handful of Rhythmic CHR airplay, when it was the three Rhythmic outlets in Honolulu that first flagged it as a hit nearly 18 months ago.

Urban AC is now populated by some large-market stations that play as few currents as any pop AC station. Thus, Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” sits in the top 5 after more than a year, with Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” close behind. At today’s Urban AC, Khalid and SZA share the charts with the ‘90s acts now powering the throwback Hip-Hop and R&B format. There’s new Johnny Gill, En Vogue, and Xscape at the moment.

Seeing David Byrne’s “Everybody’s Coming to My House” crack the top 10 at Triple-A makes me wish that he had been willing to again make songs that sound like ‘80s Talking Heads sooner, and that there was any chance of such a song making its way to Mainstream CHR. Same goes for Sting being willing to make songs that sound like the Police, although “Don’t Make Me Wait” does have Adult CHR airplay.

As George Ezra’s “Paradise” cracks the teens at Triple-A, I’m already hearing it as a pop hit, partially because it’s already that (No. 7 airplay) in the U.K. this week.

To work through the Triple-A and Alternative charts is to always wonder if and when or if songs will make it to pop. With AJR’s “Sober,” it was always a matter of when. But what about Moon Taxi? The next Portugal. The Man? Lovelytheband? Blue October’s “I Hope You’re Happy,” still mid-chart at Alternative? James Bay’s “Pink Lemonade,” not the single being worked to Adult CHR, but the one that sounds like Neon Trees (which, to be clear, is a compliment in my world).

For all the widely publicized product issues that Active Rock has had, it’s the home of two of my favorite currents now: Dorothy’s “Flawless” and Myles Kennedy’s “Year of the Tiger.” Both are sitting in the 20s now; the songs that make their way up that chart more easily are remakes of familiar hits — the most recent being the Bad Wolves cover of “Zombie.”

I’ve never felt Chris Stapleton was nearly as eclectic as Country PDs seemed to think. I was still happy to see “Broken Halos” at No. 1 (although Luke Bryan has already moved into position for next week). That Stapleton has his consensus hit while Kacey Musgraves, whose transition from writer to chart artist began around the same time, still struggles for a format home probably is a column unto itself.

I never understood the initial resistance to Kane Brown either. Because he was youthful? Because of the traditional-sounding vocal? I always heard him (in a good way) as a traditional-sounding Sam Hunt, which perhaps tripped both alarms for programmers. With the very mainstream “Heaven” in the top 10, they seem to be past their objections. And Brown is poised to be the format’s next calling card artist.

Back to Maren Morris. “Rich” came out of Country Radio Seminar with great buzz and big spin gains. Now it’s sitting in the mid-40s, gaining only a handful of spins. Right behind it is Cam’s “Diane,” still waiting for its explosive week, but which I’m coming across a lot in my Country radio listening on big radio stations (WKLB Boston, KMNB Minneapolis, KKBQ [93Q] Houston). Are they really not hits? Or just waiting their turn on a glacial Country chart. Each week prompts a new set of queries for me, and not all are related to the debate over the format’s treatment of songs by female artists. Because Chris Janson’s “Drunk Girl” is in those doldrums as well.

Finally, Bebe Rexha & Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant to Be” is poised to enter the Mainstream CHR top five momentarily, and Country soon thereafter. There’s a lot here, I realize, about what songs CHR should be taking from other formats. That may seem quaint at this moment when the discussion has again begun about whether CHR will ever again be the center of the chart universe. That is also a column unto itself. But I am convinced that what made this pleasant-enough song a real hit in either format was airplay in both. 

At this moment when taste in music so transcends format, it is odd how elusive multi-format hits remain — at least outside the CHR/Hot AC/AC triad. Wherever the epicenter of musical taste may be at any moment, more multi-format hits would mean more big hits — something that still seems to be in short supply at the moment.

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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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