Last week in Nashville, the Country Radio Seminar took place. This yearly affair is where executives from the Country Music business meet with executives from the Country Radio business. I’ve been a part of this conference many times in the past 15 years. In full disclosure, I’ve also spent time serving on both the agenda committee as well as the marketing committee. I did not attend this year as I’ve shifted my business focus to my multi-genre label DigSin. Given what I read about the discussions there, I wish I’d have stopped by. It seems the normal labels vs. radio discussions took a new turn that has a high likelihood of stagnating the country music business at a time it needs to move forward.
Regular readers of my blog and my book Futurehit.DNA know that I’ve been a big proponent of short intros. I’ve regularly shown that songs where vocals start in under 7 seconds have a greater chance of succeeding. Country music hits have had longer intros in the past few years than pop music, but that’s mostly because they make few songs with short intros. However, per capita, those short intro songs tend to do better. Taylor Swift’s biggest selling single last year was the zero-second intro “Mean”. 2 of the top 5 selling Country singles of last year had vocals start less than 5 seconds in. One of those songs (Luke Bryan’s “Country Girl”) didn’t reach #1, which means it outsold 90% of the songs that did.
Radio, on the other hand, is asking for the intros to get longer, which in my opinion doesn’t benefit record labels. In a panel about PPM (Portable People Meter), two respected Country music programming leaders asked for songs to have longer intros, which was met with applause from the audience. Their reasoning is that their research shows this will enable them to have more content on the station without stopping the music, thereby keeping ratings up. This may serve radio’s purpose well, but it will harm sales, which affects the quality of new product that radio receives. It won’t appear that way. Since radio still remains the top sales driver for Country music, long intro songs will be amongst the top sellers. But I would guess that the inability for these songs to successfully find new audiences on the internet will likely result in a Country sales dip overall while other genres grow in popularity. This may mistakenly be a sign that the genre is not as popular, but I would contend that it would be radio’s reluctance to play songs that fit into modern listening habits.
But once record labels give radio what they want, then the labels put forth an agenda that doesn’t benefit radio. In another panel entitled “Are These Country People Freakin Nuts?”, the VP of Programming for CBS Radio, Mark Adams, called the labels to task for choreographing the #1 hits. “It’s label manipulation,” Adams said. “It has no bearing on reality.” Without getting into details, he’s right. The impact a #1 record has on songwriters and the touring business, not to mention egos, makes the act of what gets there less about what’s truly popular and more about what math formula results show which station needs the most persuasion. I regularly see #1 records outsold by lesser charting records. In fact, one of the Top 5 selling Country songs of 2010 didn’t even make the Top 10 at radio. I don’t want to diminish the importance of a #1 song, but if radio were given looser reins there might be fewer #1s with longer stays at the top, but radio’s ratings might go up with airplay that better reflects what the audience is feeling.
The need for Music Row creators to embrace digital has never been more important. The song that’s tracked today, given the pace of the chart, has an outside chance of being at the top a year from now, but most likely later than that. Additionally, the Country music audience is only going to be further defined by its digital exposure. As Capitol/EMI Records president Mike Dungan said last week (and reported in the Radio-Info newsletter), “Pandora is showing up bigger in our own research among fans of country music.” This will only be a larger slice in 2013. To stay stuck in production and arrangement techniques from the previous decade will only make it that much harder for the format to thrive.
Conflicting goals between radio and record companies are nothing new. Yet in the nineties and parts of the last decade, there was enough money going around that the struggles were mere quibbles while cash rolled in on both sides. Now, both sides are squeezed for revenue which means they both dig in their heels. At a time when they need to be finding common ground for both of their businesses, instead we get a power struggle where neither side maximizes their potential.
Knowing the players like I do, I don’t reasonably expect any solutions I suggest will be enacted. However, some give and take on both sides could lead to drastic improvements. Rather than demanding longer intros, radio should creatively figure out how to make their format more entertaining with music that can successfully play on multiple platforms. Subsequently, labels should be pushing to “convert” to bigger airplay only the songs that might last for a generation or so. The net result could be a more energetic sounding station that’s filled with true hits. The PPM rating “lost” due to a short intro will be more than made up for with a song that truly deserves to reside in power rotation.
Allowing for this give-and-take will then likely make more digital-friendly Country songs a chance to become successful. The two elements working in tandem should result in higher sales and revenue overall for the format. Knowing the entrenched interests like I do, the more likely scenario is that the status quo will remain for awhile. I truly hope that more artists, producers and songwriters follow those who are breaking the mold and push for music that is strong across all platforms. Otherwise, presumed successes for the format today might actually lead to an empty bank account tomorrow.