September 6, 2017

Context is King

For a few hours on August 21st, 2017 was 1983 all over again, much to the horror of Soft AC radio veterans everywhere. That day’s total eclipse of the sun sent millions of Americans searching for the perfect song to accompany the astrological wonder—and they found it in Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 #1 hit Total Eclipse of the Heart.

Just how much did listening spike during the total eclipse compared to Americans’ normal appetite for the Delilah-esque power ballad?

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  • 2,859% increase in Spotify plays in the U.S.
  • 4,136% increase in spins on Pandora for the week
  • 500% increase in digital download sales

It was also the #1 song on iTunes and the most-played song on YouTube during the peak of the eclipse. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising, Len’s Steal My Sunshine and Pink Floyd’s Eclipse also topped YouTube.

It doesn’t take a once-in-a-century astrological wonder to increase interest in a song or artist:

  • When Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” during the 2016 Presidential campaign, it boosted streaming of Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” on Spotify by 250%.
  • When an artist headlines the Super Bowl halftime show, such as Lady Gaga, Beyoncé or Coldplay, they typically see their streams increase by several hundred percent.

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While not every event has the power of the Super Bowl or a solar eclipse to make music relevant, these events do highlight that listeners’ interest doesn’t exist in a vacuum based solely on musical merits: Songs have meaning to listeners because of their context.

Sometimes the context is a communal event.

Sometimes, it’s highly personal, such as the song you played at your wedding.

Sometimes, it’s practical, like your workout playlist or your kids’ naptime music.

Sometimes, it’s far more mundane, such as that song that sounds great on rainy days or keeps you from flipping off other motorists in traffic jams.

Radio is uniquely capable of providing context for the songs they play every day because—unlike every new way to hear music—radio has real people playing it. For brand new songs, radio personalities can tell listeners the story that inspired the song, or some catchy line in the 2nd verse to listen for. Air talent can tell listeners how a brand new artist was discovered and help listeners relate to the artist. Giving listeners context for new music gives them a reason to care about a song they would otherwise simply find unfamiliar and unwelcomed.

For older songs, radio personalities can tie the song to current events in unexpected ways to breathe new relevance into a song, giving listeners a new reason to care about it for at least one more spin.

Context keeps listeners tuned in when they might otherwise tune out.

Neither Pandora’s algorithms nor Spotify’s playlists can match a human being’s ability to tell a story or to find a surprising contextual connection. Arguably, providing real human context to music is radio’s real weapon against online competitors, even more than being live, local, or convenient.

Ten years ago, PPM® scared many stations away from all kinds of talk content. Even then, the reaction was short-sighted: The content that drove away 5% of the audience in the moment might have been a key reason 20% of the audience tuned in. Today, as radio battles online on-demand competitors, it is essential we re-deploy our best weapon.

For music, context is king. And radio personalities are the kings and queens of context.

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