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Bring Back for What?

For a long time, I regarded the act of holding on to a current title after its chart run as an act of independence on a par with going “off the menu” and adding a new song not being promoted by a label. Keeping a proven hit in power might not have displayed the same enterprise as finding a new hit. But both decisions represented a willingness to curate a distinctive station and put the audience first.

In recent weeks, with Mainstream CHR in the depths of a current product crisis, programmers have been resorting to a lot of songs past their chart peak to fill their current rotations. Look at a major-market CHR now and you’re likely to see any or all of the following:

Megahits that will not go away in power: Stations still powering Dua Lipa, “New Rules”; or NF, “Let You Down”; or G-Eazy & Halsey, “Him and I.” Or something even older. (I’m still counting “The Middle” as a true power, where we know it will stay for many stations until the end of summer at least.)

“Stay Currents” that really stayed current: Former powers still in the 50-70x weekly spin zone. On most stations now, “stay current” is more important than sub-powers. And the rate at which some stations are spinning, say, Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” or Kesha, “Praying,” now is as fast as power rotation on their Adult Top 40 competitors, where those songs are often at 70x a week as well.

Songs That Finally Came Home: Hailee Steinfeld & Alesso f/Florida Georgia Line & Watt, “Let Me Go,” is the best current example. It peaked at No. 15 at Mainstream CHR. It continued to grow at those stations that held on to it, and now it’s an undeniable hit in New York/Long Island, Boston, Atlanta, Greensboro,  and elsewhere (as evidenced by those markets where multiple stations are playing it in power or significant rotation). Many are the stations that made the same sort of late-breaking hit out of Cheat Codes’ “No Promises,” which also continues to get significant rotation in some places.

Songs That Never Quite Came Home: Songs like “Let Me Go,” or now Demi Lovato’s “Tell Me You Love Me,” had a relatively unbroken trajectory, at least at those stations that held on to them. But there are also stations going back this week for Julia Michaels’ “Issues,” Post Malone’s “Congratulations,” J. Balvin’s “Mi Gente,” Maroon 5’s “Cold,” and both “Young Dumb and Broke” and “Location” from Khalid.

It’s not a new phenomenon. Last year, I had a dialogue with a CHR PD who was wondering what good it did to again power Adele, “Water Under the Bridge,” months after its peak, as PDs traded callout stories about its success elsewhere. In Alternative, keeping records in power or sub-power has been the template for years, and there are situations where “Feel It Still” is living up to its name as a 60x-a-week current. It’s a function of how hard it is for Alternative, with diminished ratings and less lateral support, to break songs, but it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy to some extent.

I’m not talking about true bring-backs of two-year-old should’ve-been-hits, or songs that were truly off the menu. WBLI Long Island, N.Y., tried to revitalize We the Kings, “Sad Song.” Both WBLI and WPXY Rochester, N.Y., had runs with Ed Sheeran’s “Galway Girl,” a worldwide hit but not even a St. Patrick’s Day event record for most stations here. WXSS (Kiss 103.7) Milwaukee was by itself on Big Boi’s “All Night,” until it wasn’t. 

Rather, these are hits and semi-hits that linger. I support each individual decision as an attempt by programmers to tame the available current music. In the aggregate, though, each vote for an older record just demonstrates the problems we are having with the new ones. It’s the same talisman of hard times as the looming prospect of a series of artist comebacks. And it’s not holding on to the hits that I regard as the issue. If there’s no stronger power for your CHR now than “New Rules,” I understand. It’s the mid-chart songs to which PDs are returning after seven months or so that I’m wondering about. It prompts these questions:

What are we solving? A few of the songs in question help address CHR’s tempo issues; e.g., “No Promises.” Few are adding any sort of sonic variety to the format. In fact, going back for, say, Julia Michaels, “Issues,” seems to happen at the expense not of another EDM ballad, but of the uptempo titles that struggle most at the moment. If anything, these songs are being used so that PDs will not be challenged by playing anything that does not sound like those songs around them.

Are these songs experiencing a resurgence or a dead-cat bounce? When a nine-month-old ballad rebounds in callout research and is propelled back on the air, does it reflect deepening listener affection that took nine months to manifest itself? Or is it briefly novel to respondents? Is it a one-week phenomenon that will not withstand even a week of airplay (but will linger on the radio for two to three weeks because the next wave of callout is not for two or three weeks)? Call it a “dead-hit bounce,” maybe.

Why are we missing these songs in the first place? It is certainly possible that an older Khalid or Post Malone title is being helped retroactively because their artists’ stars continue to rise. Certainly, “Praying” has subtext now that it did not when PDs were grappling with it last summer. But “Young Dumb and Broke” certainly seemed a pop-culture anthem when it was stumbling at radio the first time. What would two more weeks have done for it at the time? Because it’s getting those two weeks now. Taylor Swift’s “Delicate” is a good example of a song that seems to be kicking in now with the benefit of patience, and without two other Swift tracks distracting programmers.

What is the best use of our efforts? CHR programmers eagerly seize on a Meghan Trainor, “No Excuses”; Halsey, “Alone”; or Niall Horan, “On The Loose,” in an attempt to address the format’s tempo issues. Five weeks in, that kind of song typically struggles for spins in the mid-20s/low-teens chart range. It is almost as if PDs were looking not for an uptempo hit, but for plausible deniability that they tried tempo songs and they didn’t work. Regular readers know that the last thing I would suggest is hewing to label priorities, but I’d rather invest a few more spins in an uptempo or different-sounding song than to go back for mid-tempo and mid-chart titles that only underscore the morass. Because neither slot is going to a proven hit.

Is CHR’s present strategy working? Going in any way against “play the hits” as a programming strategy is a little like Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality failing to recognize “world peace” as the only correct answer for beauty-pageant contestants. A few months ago, I would have had to admit that there were a few more CHRs winning by relying more heavily on recurrents than there were by aggressively finding new music; there aren’t that many case studies for the latter, anyway. But this is mostly a format of 4-share radio stations. And in the April PPMs, some of the CHRs least affected by the format downturn suddenly developed problems as well. CHR has likely issues that go beyond “this record vs. that record.” But it doesn’t help when both this record and the next one are as joyless as they are now.

Does “fresh” mean nothing now? “Look at all these songs on Spotify that radio hasn’t acknowledged yet” is an easy shot for radio’s detractors. It’s more feasible for a streaming service to add a dozen songs a week to a playlist that competes on a different plane, but still siphons quarter-hours from broadcast radio. But if anything makes radio sound stale, it’s older songs that were barely hits.

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