By Sean Ross of @RossOnRadio
For nearly two decades, even before they could articulate it in those terms, labels and programmers have been looking for “Moneyball”-type metrics. Whether through pre-release testing, or now looking at a combination of streams and Shazams in a song’s early days of airplay, the industry has been in search of the factors that show an undeniable hit for what it was, and allow them to cut bait early on stiffs.
Once labels began coming to radio with the story already formed on a song, it became impossible to do otherwise. A phenomenal song might break from a movie or TV or commercial placement, but it eventually reached the point where if a song didn’t begin with a marketing story, it seemed like there was something wrong. Then there was Shazam. Then there was streaming. And programmers report finding themselves overwhelmed by just how many stories there are. Here are some thoughts on what matters from the beginning of the process through a song becoming a consensus hit.
It’s Really Two Processes. The first is getting a record on the radio. The second is clearing the hurdle of callout, MScore listener retention data, or whatever pushes a song from secondary and/or sub-power to power rotation. What has changed and expanded is the first process. There are an endless number of stories that labels can site in a promotional e-blast servicing a record. Those are basically to get you to a point where you can move on and start quoting chart numbers or research stories.
In Country, It’s Three Processes. There’s getting on the radio. There’s getting past the mushy middle where songs can sit forever without anybody really deciding whether they’re hits, on either the label or radio side. And then there’s the revolving door at No. 1, where legitimate number one songs and label work records alike are moved aside after a week. Radio hears that it needs to stop throwing away the hits, but instead what happens is that the ascent, not descent stops. The chart gets slower, except at the top.
The Number One Indicator Is Still Promotion. Nothing happens without a song being worked. The sort of music director enterprise that would allow a record to develop entirely organically, without being designated as a label priority, has all but vanished. In Nashville, industry veteran Jeff Green has come up with “Moneyball”-type metrics for whether a song will be a hit. They include things like a song’s Shazam to sales ratio. But Green still notes that “being No. 1 Most Added is the No. 1 early indicator of a hit.” And that’s not a matter of what’s in the grooves, that’s the chart game (as well as the tendency to want to play consensus hits rather than taking a chance on something by yourself).
Not All Stories Are Based In Metrics, Or New Ones: I recently looked at about 80 promotional e-mail blasts from record labels to see what stories they were telling. Not all were even based in stories/facts/figures; (for a new Selena Gomez or Miley Cyrus single, you might only need to tell PDs the song is now available). But the most quoted story wasn’t even a metric, it was tour dates, “opening for…,” etc. Here’s what topped the list:
Touring (cited 28 times out of about 80)
Other Airplay/Call Letters (26)
Spotify Streaming/Playlist Ranking, etc. (20)
Chart Numbers (19)
TV Appearances/Syncs (13)
Blogs/Consumer Press Reviews (12)
iTunes Sales or other Dowloads (11, shockingly lower than it once was)
YouTube Views (9)
PDs Are Not Sure What To Do With Streaming. The sort of “yes, but is it the pop audience” discussion that you used to have with radio about SoundScan sales data 25 years ago is the sort that you have now about streaming. The availability of streaming data has helped put Hip-Hop and R&B back on the charts, or at least halfway up the charts, which is a lot further than, say, “Black Beatles” might have gotten a few years ago. But it’s still the same discussion as the early age of SoundScan where “Wicked” by Ice Cube would top the sales charts but never end up at Urban radio, much less Top 40. And the same discussion exists about Chris Stapleton or any other Country format outliers.
The Old Stories Are Still The Best, or at least one is. A decade after “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol, a sync in TV or movies remains the best way to get a left-field record into contention, and perhaps the closest anybody can still come to circumventing radio. “The Night We Met” by Lord Huron has a lot of stories that it can cite on its e-mail blast these days. The promotional blast doesn’t just cite a Spotiify story—it names multiple indicators (U.S. Viral Chart, Global Viral Chart, Today’s Top Hits chart, daily streams, percent rise in streams, streams this week, streams to date). Then it does the same for iTunes, Apple Music, Pandora, and Shazam. But it still took TV to get it there.
PDs Still Don’t Want to Hear about Satellite Radio (But Should). Programmers have long asserted that satellite radio stories were worthless to them because Sirius XM was not under the same ratings pressure that they were. I think that’s just bravado. Sirius XM’s Hits1, The Highway country, and Alt.Nation have had an undeniable influence on the format landscape and on the record community. Even if you don’t think they’re playing the hits, or trying to, they are still often providing lateral support on a song in every market. But only two ads mentioned them.
And now turn your attention from the early days of a song’s radio career to midchart, where…
We’ve Created a Sub-Power Purgatory where songs wait to become power, or don’t. For those songs that radio embraces enthusiastically right away, it’s not unusual to see a brand new song zoom as high as the No. 9 to No. 14 range until it becomes a consensus hit or, in the cases of “Down” by Marian Hill or “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles, does not. For a record that radio has to be nudged to take seriously, such as Lady Gaga’s “Million Reasons,” there’s a satellite parking lot—those songs are more likely to wait in the lower 20s.
Would More Callout Speed Up The Charts? Create More Real Hits? One of callout’s early champions once told me that research made him more musically aggressive, not less. With callout, he knew when his hunches had paid off, and he knew that he wouldn’t be stuck with his mistakes for long. Proprietary information on callout is not as easily obtained as Shazam data, of course. But these days, callout is often bi-weekly or every few weeks for stations. So there’s less ammo to move a song up, and more temptation to drop a song, because living with a possible stiff for one more wave of research can mean living with it for a while. So it’s harder to get out of “Sub-Power Purgatory.”
The Lack of Activist MDs Is Felt Here, Too. It has been noted here repeatedly that there is less PD and MD enterprise on new music—fewer people scouring a superstar album for the next possible single or looking at the international charts. That means fewer left field records entering the system, and a greater reliance on label priorities. But it probably also has something to do with the lack of songs converting from mid-chart to real hit. If you didn’t help find a song at the outset, you’re less inclined to fight for it and help it negotiate the slow patches in its development.
More Stories, Fewer Hits. The impetus for pre-testing took hold at a time when the impact of unpaid downloads was starting to be felt, but before the quest by radio for promotional consideration had been slowed by the payola investigations of the early ‘00s. It was at that moment that you could see the industry looking to save its way to prosperity, and there is certainly no less pressure now. In an ideal world, metrics such as the one that Green codifies in Nashville would allow labels to generate more hits for the same amount of money. Looking around at the concerns that nearly every format has about the available product, we certainly have not gotten there yet.