May 21, 2019

Should You Program 2019 Like It’s 1989?

Part four of a four-part series on music consumption trends


There are clear signs of a split in musical tastes that radio consulting legend Guy Zapoleon coined The Extremes, a predictable phase during which listeners’ tastes move away from broadly-appealing mainstream Pop songs towards the extremes of R&B, Rock and Country that don’t appeal to the same listeners. With divided musical fan bases who hate each other’s music, CHR finds it difficult to consistently delight a broad audience.

As music guru Sean Ross often points out, CHR performs best when there are plenty of fun, upbeat Pop, Rock and Rhythmic titles that mix well together and appeal to younger and older listeners alike.

If 2019 feels a bit like 1989 to you, you’re not alone.

Seemingly unaware of the Alternative Rock and Hip Hop that would soon burst onto the scene and define youth culture in the 90s, CHR plodded along three decades ago trying to duct tape together its mother-daughter coalition with Chicago’s “Look Away,“Right Here Waiting” by Richard Marx and Phil Collins’ “Two Hearts”, while hoping younger listeners would stick around for the bones they’d throw them with Bobby Brown, Poison and Milli Vanilli.

Picture it: Your DeLorean’s flux capacitor finally lands you the PD gig at your hometown CHR in 1989. Knowing what you now know about what would come in the early 90s, would you still power those tracks that today power the Soft and Relaxing Favorites revival? Or, would you scrap them for the burgeoning Alternative or Hip Hop songs that were only receiving commercial exposure at WLIR(WDRE) and KDAY back in the day?

Had you become a trailblazer and played Morrissey, The Church, and Janes Addiction along with Public Enemy, Ice T and EPMD, someone might be making a documentary about your station’s cult status. Radio geeks like me would revere you for being “ahead of your time.”

Your station would have also been a ratings disaster.

Here are three things to keep in mind when programming in polarizing times:

1) Polarizing music hurts radio.

As Gen-Xers reach the natural age for nostalgia, many are wistfully recalling the days of pure, wholesome music like “Cop Killer” and “Been Caught Stealing”.

What nostalgia conveniently forgets is how many people downright hated that music at the time—to the point of “No Hard Rock and No Rap” being a positioning statement.

2019 is no different. Many of today’s polarizing songs, particularly Hip Hop perform well on streaming because—as we noted earlier—streaming data doesn’t capture detractors. Only callout can show the love and the hate for a song.

Perhaps in 2044, nostalgic middle-aged millennials will universally look back on XXXTentacion with fondness. In 2019, however, more listeners dislike his music than like it.

2) Today’s hits aren’t always tomorrow’s favorites: Even among teenagers, the music that now comprises the halcyon days of Hip Hop and Alternative were what “the weird kids” liked in 1989. That era wasn’t unique. The songs that stand the test of time are often not the same songs that were big hits in their own time:

  • While Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” is the most popular 80s song today, it was only a middling hit when new. In contrast, hardly anyone plays the biggest 80s hit in its own time, namely Olivia Newton John’s “Physical”.
  • Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the 1970s most-streamed song on Spotify (even before the movie), while Debbie Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” has seemingly—and mercifully—vanished from the planet.
  • Etta James’ “At Last” is a staple of weddings, commercials, and playlists today. When it debuted in 1961, it didn’t even crack the Top 40. 1961’s biggest hit was “Tosssin’ and Turnin’” from Bobby Lewis—I’m likely the youngest person who knows it.
  • Today, only a few Pearl Jam titles continue to test well, while Nirvana has become “Classic Rock” among today’s teenagers.

There’s undoubtedly danger of being out of touch when CHR is too conservative with newly emerging music styles, as many CHRs discovered in the early 90s as they clung to Whitney Houston and Madonna. However, being ahead of the times fails just as much as being behind the times. Successful CHR stations are precisely in the moment.

3) Even in divided times, Pop is the glue that binds us together:  The fact that fans of Foster The People are diametrically different than fans of 6ix9ine undoubtedly makes it harder to create the big-tent Cume magnet that CHR is when it’s on top.

Without a deep bench of broadly appealing R&B and Rock titles, Pop is the glue that binds fans of different music styles together. Songs such as Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect,” “Havana” by Camila Cabello Featuring Young Thug, “Girls Like You” by Maroon 5 Featuring Cardi B and Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder” are appealing, even among listeners who aren’t primarily Pop fans.

Along with Pop-friendly Hip Hop tiles from Drake and Post Malone, these Pop tiles are the only titles that are strong on streaming, sales, and radio. As Coleman Insights discovered in its Contemporary Music SuperStudy, they’re also the songs lots of different listeners like—and few listeners hate.

“Pop clearly has the broadest appeal in our study. It not only is dramatically “over represented” among the Top 100 songs,” notes Coleman’s Warren Kurtzman, “it is significantly represented among the best-testing songs with fans of other genres. It is also the least skewed of the six major genres covered in our study in that it performs well with listeners regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, geography or even how they feel about President Trump.”

So how should you program in 2019?

Unless you’re programming a Hip Hop station targeting African-American and Hispanic listeners, playing the pure Hip Hop tiles that get played often on Spotify and YouTube could destroy the mass-appeal cume audience CHR needs to succeed.

If 2019 is in fact like 1989, however, we could be approaching a seemingly sudden shift in mainstream music tastes in the next few years. Billie Eilish could be a harbinger of a seismic shift in pop tastes on the horizon. A novelty like “Old Town Road” might mark a tumultuous point in Pop music history comparable to “Baby Got Back”’s point in time.

It’s wise to be on alert for such shifts—but also careful not to jump the gun on an underground trend that never goes mainstream.

In the meantime, Ed Sheeran and Ariana Grande might be what a 79-year-old Delilah is dedicating in 2039, but it’s the music that’s binding our divided nation together today.

As Coleman Insights’ Contemporary Music SuperStudy uncovered, in these times of both musical and political divisiveness, the one song Trump supporters and detractors can agree on is Uptown Funk.

 

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