It’s Official: Hip-Hop Has More Hits, As CHR Tightens
Five years ago, Mainstream and Rhythmic Top 40 broke roughly the same number of hit songs. Mainstream Top 40, not yet done with an eight-year streak of mass-appeal hit music, had 105 songs crack the top 20 that year. Rhythmic, usually known for being more musically aggressive, had only 103 top 20 songs, according to Nielsen BDSRadio. Unused to Mainstream Top 40 having the buzzier music, Rhythmic Top 40 relied heavily, for a while, on pop crossovers, while stations throughout the format sought to reposition themselves with the slugline “Hits and Hip-Hop.”
Now, it’s Rhythmic Top 40 and R&B/Hip-Hop that generate the musical excitement, as Mainstream Top 40 PDs grapple with what to do with “Sicko Mode.” And while “rise of Hip-Hop/marginalization of pop” has been a consumer-press story for more than a year, new data from Nielsen BDSRadio confirms Rhythmic Top 40 having returned to the new music lead, at least as reflected by the number of top 20 songs in the format last year (106). Hip-Hop/R&B is second, having charted 104 top 20 songs last year. Meanwhile, the number of top 20 hits at Mainstream Top 40 is down sharply: 105 in 2013, 96 in 2015, 87 last year.
Nielsen BDSRadio’s Tally of Top 20 Songs by Format
Rhythmic Top 40
Mainstream Top 40
Adult Top 40
The willingness to break records doesn’t necessarily track with ratings success — many programmers interpret “radio law” as suggesting just the opposite. Triple-A and Active Rock — two of radio’s most aggressive formats by this measurement — are also two of its most niche. But strong available product — typically manifesting itself as too many good songs for radio to choose from each week, and strong secondary titles that are good enough to be powers themselves — is traditionally an indicator of a healthy format.
The last time we looked at these numbers, Edison Research’s Infinite Dial 2017 study had just shown radio slipping out of the top slot for music discovery — the punchline to an already-apparent trend line. (Last year’s Infinite Dial study didn’t even ask the music discovery question.) As that news landed, radio was aggressively imaging itself on the air around music discovery, but not necessarily taking other possible steps to engage for that image.
Since that time, the “No. 1 for new music discovery” stagers seem less frequent — or maybe they’re just becoming less noticeable. R&B and Rhythmic radio, propelled but not entirely driven by the availability of streaming Hip-Hop stories, have more product. Top 40 and Country, two formats that were engaged for young listeners with a rare simultaneous product boom five years ago, have both tightened considerably. Surprisingly, current-based rock formats all found more songs to play in 2018, despite ongoing complaints about a lack of product,
The current state of radio’s major formats is driven not just by product, of course, but by the ongoing migration of younger listening to streaming and a higher concentration of available quarter-hours among the older listeners who grew up more under broadcast radio’s sway. Streaming has focused younger listeners heavily around Hip-Hop, dispersing the mother/daughter coalition that drove the late ‘00s/early ‘10s golden age of pop. Here’s how the new music landscape looks on a format-by-format basis.
Rhythmic Top 40 is riding not just the rise of Spotify rap, particularly the Post Malones and NFs who seem as much tethered to Linkin Park as Hip-Hop. The format can also reflect the continued explosion in Latin Hip-Hop, and occasionally an Ariana Grande or Halsey title from Mainstream CHR’s current center lane. The current top three are Post Malone, Kodak Black, and Bad Bunny — between them, a pretty strong hook promo.
Hip-Hop/R&B had not just Spotify rap, but also an additional adult-friendly handful of radio records such as Lil Wayne’s “Uproar” or Lil Duval & Snoop Dogg’s “Smile B***” that recall the “club bangers” of more than a decade ago. (What PDs have cited, at least anecdotally, is not enough Ella Mai-type mainstream R&B.) Over the years, proponents have tried to portray Rhythmic Top 40 as either more musically aggressive or more selective than Hip-Hop/R&B radio. This year, neither was true.
Triple-A continues to find more music as some other formats struggle. There are, as you’d expect, a lot of different strains among the current hitmakers: singer/songwriters (Hozier), neo-soul (Leon Bridges), folk/acoustic (Mumford & Sons), blues/throwback rock (the Record Company, Greta Van Fleet), graduating Alternative veterans (Dave Matthews Band), some who dart from one sub-category to another (Revivalists), and many others. Presently, the Triple-A pipeline that sends songs to Alternative and Adult Top 40 seems relatively slow, but over the years it has opened at odd intervals, as it did during the Mumford/Lumineers era.
Active Rock, however little resemblance it may otherwise bear to Smooth Jazz, seemed headed for the same sort of format oblivion a few years ago. Amidst complaints about the available new product, many of the most prominent stations effectively segued to a newer, harder version of Classic Rock. Since then, however, the Active Rock chart has become a more interesting, eclectic place. The top three this week are by Canada’s Glorious Sons, veterans Godsmack, and Sweden’s costumed dark-metal Ghost, with a song that recalls ‘80s new wave dance. Often, it feels as if this new mix is being heard in a closed loop, but there are format success stories such as WIYY (98 Rock) Baltimore and WMMR Philadelphia that are reinventing the concept of “Mainstream Rock.”
Mainstream Top 40’s travails have been extensively (okay, exhaustively) discussed here: The format with a mandate to play the best of everything instead focused on a small number of styles (especially EDM ballads), resulting in a smaller number of available titles that instead got played longer. It wasn’t a recipe for ratings gold in 2018, but there wasn’t consensus for change, either. In the last few months, however, the “not an EDM ballad” pile is a little more robust — Panic! At the Disco, Mark Ronson & Miley Cyrus, Ava Max, Sam Smith & Normani. The EDM ballads are better, too, driven by the sudden superstardom of Ariana Grande, the return of Halsey, and a year of interesting Selena Gomez offerings.
Country had, in the early ‘10s, emerged as a “second CHR” — the other format that broke new music and attracted younger listeners at a time when Hip-Hop was still regrouping. In 2013, Country was actually third behind Mainstream and Rhythmic Top 40 for most top 20 hits. Now, Country parallels Mainstream CHR’s struggles as well (with the very non-CHR controversy of too few hits by female artists thrown in). At this writing, there is excitement about Kane Brown and Luke Combs; there is a Maren Morris single called “Girl” coming in a few hours; and there is an ongoing dialogue about the format being “too pop,” even though “too pop” may have been driving the growth of five years ago as well. Certainly, it’s the Dan + Shay and Bebe Rexha/FGL-type records that spread the format beyond its base, 2013-style.
Alternative hasn’t rebounded to its 2013 levels, but it’s up from an abnormally low 2016. If another sign of a healthy format is lateral support for its music from other formats, there’s encouragement in the five of the format’s current top 10 that are also on the CHR chart. That said, the process in getting there for a first-time crossover — whether Portugal. The Man or LovelyTheBand — is still glacial; that lateral support, when it comes, usually leads to songs like those remaining in power for a year, which also affects the overall numbers.
Adult Top 40 was the subject of a flattering Rolling Stone story last fall about the format’s new musical aggressiveness, especially on the mainstream pop that struggles at Mainstream Top 40. When it comes to the number of actual top 20 hits, the format is actually down sharply. To some extent, that’s because cracking the top 20 often seems to require some level of Mainstream CHR ratification. Without it, a song can reach the lower teens, but might as easily peak in the high 20s. And Mainstream CHR is passing along fewer songs that Adult CHR PDs feel comfortable with.
Urban AC has remained steady over the last five years — partially because it was already a gold-driven format whose currents developed on an AC timetable, and didn’t have much chance of lateral support, even at Mainstream Urban radio. The PD excitement in the format is for new R&B artists — Ella Mai, H.E.R., Queen Naija — but a lot of the chart action still goes to veterans: Keith Sweat, India.Arie, and even Peabo Bryson have top 20 songs now.
Adult Contemporary’s on-air reality is that most listeners hear only a handful of CHR recurrents — which become the top five to seven titles on the chart. Below that, there are typically songs undergoing an apprenticeship in Adult Top 40 (but waiting for ratification from Mainstream to go further) and an occasional top 15 title from a heritage artist, often fueled by night and overnight airplay. It’s possible to go top 20 in AC with barely over 150 spins; even so, the number of songs doing so was off sharply from two years ago. There’s a trick bag here — Mainstream AC is looking for Top 40 to send along records, but many of those titles are increasingly edgy-sounding. With Mainstream AC suddenly concerned about the rise of soft AC, that dynamic is unlikely to change, at least until Top 40 can pass along more music that AC is comfortable with.