By Sean Ross of @RossOnRadio
I’ve been impatient with the current hit music at CHR these days. You might have noticed.
I’ve come up with a half-dozen clever(ish) ways of deriding the dense, repetitious, midtempo hits that predominate at the format now—songs with all the textural aggression of EDM but none of the energy. First, I went for “mid-turbo,” then “CHRobotics.” For a while, based on the 1-5 tempo scale used in music scheduling, I had dubbed them “Angry 3s.” Now, after enough of those endlessly chirpy, manipulated vocal samples, I’ve decided they’re “broken smoke alarm records.”
But who has the great music now?
During previous soft periods for CHR, that wasn’t hard to answer. In the downturns of the early ‘80s and early-to-mid ‘90s, Top 40 wanted to be Album Rock radio, then Alternative. It ignored R&B and then Hip-Hop during those phases, even when it meant giving short shrift to “Super Freak” or “This Is How We Do It.” Top 40 also chased AC, although that was because of better demos, not better new music.
But in the last ten days, I’ve had three separate, but nearly identical discussions with radio station programmers in three different formats about the product available to them. The discussions always end up in the same place, “Should we cut down on the number of powers? Should we cut back on the percentage of currents? Because the current music just isn’t there.”
In some cases, the drought has been long and sustained enough to turn “today” formats into library-based formats. Most Active Rock stations have trimmed currents, and the new handful of “Active Rock That’s Really Classic” stations aren’t bothering with them at all. Encouragingly, Alternative radio has worked its way back from being a ‘90s-driven format over the last few years, although the benefits aren’t obvious at the moment. So looking across the format landscape, who has hits now?
Alternative: There have been a few great, uptempo pop songs at the Alternative format at any given time for at least five years. Until now, I blamed Top 40 myopia for the lack of crossovers. But a few months ago, AccuRadio’s John Gehron listened to some of my suggestions. “I don’t hear any hits,” he said. And I fumbled for a reply—“maybe he heard them on a sustained basis,” I thought—but I was ultimately forced to admit that there’s a lot in Alternative now that is poppy, but not pop.
Alternative also seems to be many fringes without a center now. Besides its own set of slightly-less-immediate EDM pop titles, there are also the Triple-A crossovers, and the ‘90s and ‘00s heritage acts, with Beck, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Weezer still needed for a lot of the starpower (something that was concerning a decade ago). I still hear songs that I’d want to hear in other formats from Saint Motel, Weathers, Bastille, Zipper Club, and others. But I don’t know that I’d convince John Gehron.
Country: Nine months ago, the discussion at Country radio was about the lack of tempo. When the tempo arrived, it was often in packages that made programmers uncomfortable. I wasn’t surprised at the reaction to Thomas Rhett’s “Vacation.” But I thought Dustin Lynch’s “Seein’ Red” did a good job of supplying energy without pushing the boundaries of the format too far. Now that song is losing spins, too.
I actually feel like Country product has improved in recent months. But songs climb the chart glacially and PDs need powers now. So while PDs bemoan the second-tier artists in power, there are a lot of records I like that are halfway down the chart—Old Dominion, Maren Morris, Rae Lynn. That means they’ll be powers in three or four months, if they get there. But it’s nice to see Blake Shelton back with the sort of reaction record that helped energize the format 15 years ago, and he is in the top 10.
Adult Top 40: They’re still following Mainstream CHR on to some aggressive records (Chainsmokers, Calvin Harris), but it also seems like Adult Top 40 is asserting itself a little more lately on its own music. For a while, you had to go down into the lower reaches of Hot AC’s top 20 songs to see the songs that differentiated the two formats. Now they start popping up right outside the top 10. And Adult Top 40 has one of the best developing songs of any format. Wrabel’s “11 Blocks” is one of those songs, like Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out,” that you know could be a hit at CHR today, but will probably take three more months anyway.
Urban: All the new tools available to broadcasters, from streaming stats to the just-released Spotify charts, make R&B and Hip-Hop product look stronger than it has in the last decade. It still shows only in subtle ways if you look at the format’s ratings. (They have continued to grow from their post-PPM panic, but there’s still not the sort of market-domination we saw in the early ‘00s.) Or if you look at the amount of crossover airplay at CHR. But that’s up, too—largely because of Drake and his associated projects. It’s also significant that pop is acknowledging the current Urban Rihanna hit instead of waiting for a pop song of their own.
I thought Urban would start exporting hits to Top 40 again when they began producing more medium-weight hits with tempo. But after “Hotline Bling” and “The Hills” last year, that turned out not to be a requirement. That said, having three mid-to-up Drake R&B songs has clearly played some role in his fortunes and those of Urban radio and crossovers. It’s also notable that Tory Lanez and Wale are making the sort of records that brought hip-hop back to the fore in the mid-‘90s: medium-weight songs with familiar samples.
Rhythmic Top 40: For a few years, Rhythmic Top 40s were forced to chase their Mainstream counterparts. Some began billing themselves as “hits and hip-hop.” Some kept going and became Mainstream Top 40. It would seem to be a pretty good time now for a format that can cherrypick CHR’s rhythmic pop, and fast-track the best of Urban’s burgeoning supply of hits. That said, most of the major market rhythmic reporters tend to play mostly hits or mostly hip-hop. You have to get to about market No. 50 before you encounter the stations that play both.
Triple-A: Acoustic singer/songwriter music resurfaces in the pop mainstream at lengthy intervals, like Brigadoon. It’s been only three years since the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey,” and that means we could still be waiting a while. Plus, the brief-lived fascination with bringing CHR spin counts to a handful of Triple-A stations has faded. KTCZ (Cities 97) Minneapolis did a lot to propel Triple-A hits to the mainstream. But it transitioned to Hot AC some time ago. I still hear uptempo pop/rock records that would sound good at Mainstream or Adult Top 40: Joseph’s “White Flag”; Michael Kiwanuka’s “One More Night”; Revivalists’ “Wish I Knew You.”
And any trip through the formats leads us back to Top 40. I worry that the relatively narrow focus of the format hurts both itself and other formats. It isn’t Top 40’s job to legitimize other formats’ music, but it helps both parties when it happens. Also, there are more new sounds that can cross-pollinate when CHR is drawing from more places. I’ve focused a lot on whether formats are manufacturing crossovers as an indicator of format strength, but it’s rare when other formats can be hot without Top 40 ratifying their hits. And even rarer when a format is so hot that it doesn’t matter if its hits are crossing over.
I haven’t had trouble finding readers who agree with my dystopian vision of CHR right now. But for the final word on who’s hot, and the state of CHR music, let’s go to Justin Bryant, PD of WMGB (B95.1) Macon, Ga. In response to a Facebook post on the topic, Bryant wrote that he “couldn’t politely disagree more. We’ve had hits from every part of the format: pure pop with Justin Timberlake’s song; Drake from ‘Pop/Hip-Hop’; Chainsmokers from the Dance realm; Sia from the Pop/Rhythmic side, Twenty One Pilots from Pop/Alternative, not to mention Justin Bieber’s hits.
“Selena Gomez had a big first six months of 2016, and don’t forget the emergence of G-Eazy and Lukas Graham. Pink came back with a top 10 record. And, oh yeah, some lady named Adele started the year with a song that went No. 1 everywhere across the world, and now has another potential No. 1. The format is on all cylinders. Maybe the labels could slow down their releases a little [emphasis mine]. The defense rests.”