Fresh Listen: Quickhitz (90.3 Amp Calgary)

By: Sean Ross

In the decade that it took for the “Quickhitz” format, or something like it, to get to the radio, it seemed inevitable that an artist would complain about a format that relies on edited versions of contemporary songs. It didn’t happen when Quickhitz finally debuted on WYDS Decatur, Ill., last September, partially because the small-market station’s modest debut didn’t generate sustained industry attention.

Then Quickhitz debuted Aug. 1 on Newcap’s CKMP (90.3 Amp) Calgary, Alberta. In its first few days, the station’s buzz was among Canadian radio people—notable enough since it’s been a while since even an industry person called me to talk about a new station. Then there were local press stories that explained what the station was doing, although on-air Amp says nothing more explicit than “twice the music.”

On day 6, Jann Arden weighed in. Arden’s one top 15 U.S. song, 1996″s “Insensitive,” was one of the first Modern AC hits. In Canada, she’s up to 13 albums and three books. You may remember that song’s mix of earnestness and pre-Alanis annoyance, but Arden’s tweets have little of the former:

“Don’t listen to #AMP radio Calgary . . . they are fucking with art that took thousands of hours to create. #dickheads.”

“Dear AMP radio Calgary. Please don’t play my music. Thank you you dorks.”

“How the fuck would you play any of Leonard Cohen’s songs cut in half? #ampradiocalgary? Impossible and unethical.”

“Just don’t listen to them. It’s such a giant pile of bullshit. #ampcalgary.”

“Apparently #ampradiocalgary doesn’t like things that are big and long. Hhmmmm?”

Within hours, Arden’s contretemps with Amp was a national news story.  Through Amp’s first week, I had wondered if listeners would even notice the change. Amp was already CHR and already based around music quantity. By last Friday, that was no longer the issue.

Edison Research works with Amp-owner Newcap. We do not work with Amp or Quickhitz, but Edison’s Larry Rosin is a fervent longtime supporter of the concept. And I had some nice things to say last year when I took my “First Listen” to WYDS, long before Newcap became involved with the format.

There were early execution issues on the first QuickHitz affiliate. There were two syndicated dayparts on WYDS that did not match the rest of the station. The initial slogan, “twice the music in half the time” was confusing, and the promised 24 songs an hour didn’t always materialize. But I liked the energy rush of the station. I liked the additional slots for new songs. And at a time when the hits reach critical mass quickly, I was happy to have some of the most saturated hit songs over with after two minutes or so.

Nine months later, that’s true for me listening to Amp as well. And from a radio standpoint, a lot of the initial issues have been worked out. I’ve listened a few times and been able to hear the seams of only one edit. I’m tired of Zedd’s “Clarity” at any length at this moment, but I can listen to it for two minutes on Amp. Confronted with its full length, I would have punched it out. Amp has also been spotlighting imports and new releases in a way that few North American Top 40s do at the moment.

The press reports (and angry tweets) have Amp playing songs at half their length. With many songs, it’s more like two-thirds, although that’s unlikely to sway anybody opposed to the concept to begin with. Here’s a half hour of the station and the approximate length of Amp’s versions vs. the regular radio versions. (In the case of some Canadian hits, I didn’t have access to the radio version and used the length of the song on the iTunes Music Store.)

Kiesza, “Hideaway,” 2:10 (vs. 3:41);

Sia, “Chandelier,” 1:56 (vs. 3:34)

Shawn Desman, “Electric,” 2:14 (vs. 3:11)

Nico & Vinz, “Am I Wrong,” 2:17 (vs. 3:39)

Lorde, “Team,” 1:52 (vs. 3:32)

Clean Bandit, “Never Be,” 2:23 (vs. 3:45)

Magic!, “Don’t Kill The Magic,” 2:13 (vs. 3:39)

Iggy Azalea, “Fancy,” 2:07 (vs. 3:16)

JRDN, “Can’t Choose,” 2:20 (vs. 3:57)

Sam Smith, “Stay With Me,” 2:02 (vs. 2:53)

Marianas Trench, “Pop Music 101,” 2:11 (vs. 4:07)

Zedd. “Clarity,” 2:00 (vs. 3:56)

There was one ironic moment here. The Marianas Trench song is literally about the construction of a pop hit (as well as a poke at the conventions of today’s hit music). At 2:11, I still got the joke.

For those applauding Arden on Thursday and Friday, and there were many, their beef with Amp was often not just that it could potentially edit Leonard Cohen, but that radio wasn’t playing him (or any other “quality music”) in the first place. Many opined that mainstream radio sucked. Nobody tweeted, “I love today’s hits. Please don’t mess with them.”

I wonder if that listener exists. Arden and I are a few months apart in age. So perhaps she remembers rock stations and certain top 40s bragging about playing long versions as a point of differentiation from those bogus other stations. Perhaps the press coverage of this dust-up will give that concept new currency, but until this week, it’s been a distant memory. Before QuickHitz debuted last year, PDs were already experimenting with shorter versions of new songs (and longer versions of established hits) without incident. More telling, top 40 and R&B listeners had long become used to hearing very truncated versions of songs in the mix shows that are some stations’ most-popular features.

Mostly, however, listeners have been voting on all songs with their index finger. One Twitter reply to Arden decried “stupid changes . . . such as this” as a “main factor to why radio is becoming obsolete.” Programmers know that if anything truly threatens broadcast radio, it’s the inability to match Internet radio’s skip button with anything of similar intent.

In some regards, QuickHitz is an easy lightning rod for artists’ frustration with a new generation’s odd relationship to music in general – streaming, not owning; listening to songs, not albums; and, yes, hitting skip. Instead of going to see live music, they pay to see superstar DJs deconstruct recorded music. But unless you’ve never decided you just weren’t in the mood for all 6:28 of “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” at any point over the last 38 years, you’ve been callous toward somebody’s artistry as well.

Arden has allowed her label to release radio edits of her own songs. On the Friday morning after the controversy broke, she released her new single, “Karolina” — a new version of a song from her recent album with additional vocals from a Canadian country act, meaning that she does not consider the original to be a final, non-negotiable statement. She is not one of the handful of artists unwilling to let their songs be sold as individual downloads, outside the context of the intended album experience.

But I understand that making hard decisions about your art is not the same as having someone make them for you. Arden comes by her beliefs honestly. And now I’d like radio programmers to get the same respect for their artform – or at least an acknowledgement of the right to practice it – that artists would want for themselves. These days, attacking another recording act for sampling or interpolating an existing work would mark an artist as a crank. But attacking radio for seeing music as similarly porous is an easy applause line. And I can pretty much guess what Arden would have to say about research.

As to the prospect of an edited Leonard Cohen, I can only offer the following. The generation of listeners whose attention spans have led broadcasters to the QuickHitz concept are the same ones who nevertheless made his “Hallelujah” a standard over the last decade.

Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah” is 4:38. Jeff Buckley, whose version is definitive for many, made it 6:53. The British hit version, by X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke, deleted three verses, brought it in at 3:37, and sold more than two million singles and albums. The answer to “more of a good thing?” or “less of a good thing?” has variously turned out to be “yes,” and listeners seem to gravitate to the answer that’s right for them.

26 replies
  1. Tom Pagnotti
    Tom Pagnotti says:

    Sorry… it’s not your “art” to change. And it doesn’t matter that a four minute song is now 2:10. Most listeners hit the scan button within six seconds of “the next” song starting. So what’s the point?

    Reply
  2. Rodney Ho
    Rodney Ho says:

    “American Idol” has been making its contestants sing 2 minute cut versions of songs for years. Often times it’s not a bad thing but it was pretty rough to hear “Bohemian Rhapsody” cut by two thirds. :)

    Reply
  3. joe patti
    joe patti says:

    I’m torn on this one. Today’s CHR music isn’t my music anymore, and what I’ve heard of it I’m not sure I like, or even get. So for me, a CHR doing QuickHitz or something similar would elicit a, “meh.” Now, if an AC, even a Hot AC did it, I’d be concerned. But then again, I’m not certain that kind of a “quickness” would fit adult radio to begin with.

    I can, though, see Arden’s point. It’s one thing to cut an unneeded verse or break from a tune to trim an extra 30 or 45 seconds from it – lord knows Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” has a repetitive bit at the end that could go, and in the olden days we made minor edits like that ourselves – but I’m not sure that if it were me, I’d want my work cut as much as QuickHitz is doing. When I write for our website and our web editor chops it down by half, or even a third, I get upset because I spent the time to write the post, and now that time was wasted.

    Closer to home, when I programmed a station, and the owner decided to do evening infomercials “…to add some gravy to the mashed potatoes…” – the potatoes being a very successful music format – I felt my work was being trashed. These days the daytime is trashed, and they’re stuck surviving on the gravy, but as Alton Brown would say, “…that’s another show.”

    This much I do know. Any artist that was on the fence regarding a performance royalty will probably not side with radio now. Now it’s the difference between the “promotion” argument and artist’s work “just being used.” In which case, we get what we deserve…

    Reply
  4. Keith Berman
    Keith Berman says:

    Interested to hear if Jann or any other artist takes issue with a record label making a radio edit of a single…?

    Reply
  5. Norm Fisher
    Norm Fisher says:

    I haven’t listened yet so I suppose I should not have an opinion, but I do not like the idea of abbreviated hits, just the same as I do not like remixed versions of hits I have heard as originally released.

    I did read recently that Quickhitz is not so much about keeping the attention of the listener and giving the listener the impression of a lot of songs in a row, but more about keeping the listener from tuning out when something comes on they do not like. If the listener knows it will only be two minutes or less before the disliked song is over they may decide not to bother changing stations.

    Reply
  6. Norm Fisher
    Norm Fisher says:

    I thought I posted a comment last evening but I don’t see it here this morning so some of the following will be a repeat if my first posting shows up.

    I have not actually listened to Amp’s Quickhitz yet so from that prospective I should possibly not have an opinion one way or the other.

    However, I do not like the idea of abbreviated versions of hit songs. I do not even like re-mixed versions of songs. Don’t mess with the music.

    I did read recently that the Quickhitz format is not so much about holding the short attention span of listeners, but to reduce listener tune out when a song comes on they do not like. If a song comes on that the listener does not like and they realize it will only be about two minutes they may not change to another station.

    That being said, I think it would be more to the point for Top 40 to play more curents and new music instead of keeping some songs in regular rotation for months on end. That, to me, is the cause of tune out and station change. There have been many songs which I really liked, but after 9 to 12 months of constant airplay I never want to hear again.

    One other thing I have noted is that the songs in highest rotation at Amp are getting about 135 spins per week. That is about every 11/4 hours. How fast will those songs burn out?

    Reply
  7. Bill Stephney
    Bill Stephney says:

    Urban radio has experienced over 30 years of listener comfort with “master mix” programming blocks, where current and classic hits can be sliced down to a duration as short as :30 seconds. I’m just surprised that this concept has taken as long as it has to gain any substantive traction.

    Reply
  8. Dan Shields
    Dan Shields says:

    I am from Ottawa, Ontario, the capital of Canada and I have to say that if radio stations in Canada did not have to play 35 per cent Canadian music hacks like Jann Arden would be hosting open mikes.

    D

    Reply
  9. Sean Ross
    Sean Ross says:

    Thanks to all for the comments.

    Joe: Interesting point about editing. At Billboard, I was lucky enough to have an editor who could indeed cut my stories without my noticing what was missing, or feeling like anything crucial had been cut. When I was faced with losing 75 more lines at deadline, I was often just as happy to turn it over to Ken Terry, because he would see what was important more easily than I could.

    Keith: Yes, Jann has issued radio edits of her recent singles although not always. And the remixed “Karolina” is still the LP length. “Insensitive” came in right around single length, although I’m pretty sure that radio did not/(and in Canada) does not play 4:50 of her first hit “Could I Be Your Girl?”

    Alan Furst did indeed stunt in Syracuse, N.Y., by playing a research hook tape on the air — essentially the long version of a radio station hook promo (although with bad songs as well as good). As Ed Shane almost certainly knows, there is always a person or two who will come up to you after the music test and ask if they can get a copy of the hook tape. To be clear, NOT suggesting that as a format, but it does show that you can’t tell somebody what they should enjoy.

    Reply
  10. Scott Lowe
    Scott Lowe says:

    This reminds me of those awful K-Tel compilations from the 1970s that would cram 22 hits onto one LP by cutting down current songs in a similar fashion to Quickhits.

    Reply
  11. Tom Barnes
    Tom Barnes says:

    Howie Miura and I used to discuss this in the late ’90’s (his idea – I loved it!) as pointed out, as long as there have been hits they’ve been edited. It’s great. Kudos to you Sean for identifying this as a real innovative option for radio. If radio is to remain relevant, intellegent experiments like these must be undertaken. Artists should have the right to not participate or provide an edit that meets the spec. I’d listen to a station like this in almost any format-particularly one focused on new music.

    Reply
  12. Jeff Green
    Jeff Green says:

    Excellent piece, Sean. To readers who have commented on the motive of QuickHitz as a way to retain listeners through songs they may not like: That’s a double-edged sword, because QHitz also shortens songs one loves. From discussions with Garry Wall, whose company licenses QHitz in the U.S., I can add that the strategy is in recognition of the fact that a consumer’s average time spent per occasion with radio is around 10-11 minutes (the reasons for which are numerous and quite variable). This new format enables consumers to hear more of their favorite music in the limited time they have available for radio listening, especially with stations programming so many commercial units. Artistic issues aside, QuickHitz’s extra spins can generate more revenue for music publishers, songwriters and artists, for whom spins determine airplay chart positions that influence concert bookings, TV opportunities and ancillary business opportunities.

    Reply
  13. Vinny Marino
    Vinny Marino says:

    It’s the K-Tel format. Decades before the “NOW” series, K-Tel put out dozens of hit based LPs with heavily edited versions of top tunes. I still have one called “Believe In Music.” 10 “songs” on each side.

    Reply
  14. bdpd
    bdpd says:

    Artists should be less concerned about what’s happening to their art and more concerned about doing whatever it takes to market themselves, and therefore sell concert tickets and merchandise because that’s all they have left. If record labels weren’t still imprisoned by the reality that commercial radio remains a primary source of music discovery and marketing I suppose they could pull their product from the stations in a huff, but they don’t because it makes no sense. This will double the exposure for songs on this radio station and that means more spins, marketing, and money. By the time a song becomes a radio hit, it’s a commodity. Yes, there’s art there, but it’s also a means to an end. AMP Radio is providing you with a dream platform. In a city where there are as many as four or five stations playing the same songs, this one shortening them doesn’t change their value or their relevance. If they’re hooky and well-made, people will buy the song, the concert ticket, and the t-shirt. Come on guys – if you were so concerned about art you wouldn’t be doing half the stuff you do because it would all be too commercial. It’s just another way of selling your stuff. Let ‘em do it and smile and wave.

    Reply
  15. Howard Kroeger
    Howard Kroeger says:

    Terrestrial radio is often taken to task for its perceived lack of innovation and the “sameness” it breeds across the dial in every city across North America. I think Quickhitz is a step in the right direction of thinking out of the box and trying something new. Ratings and revenues will decide if it’s a winner or not.

    Reply
  16. Eric Wilson
    Eric Wilson says:

    I guess it’s a good thing that we don’t have ‘story songs’ as hits anymore, like “Escape (Pina Colada Song).” If you took a verse out of that, the song wouldn’t make sense.

    Reply
  17. Tony Mariani
    Tony Mariani says:

    Back in 1980 working at CKDR in Dryden Ontario we were playing edited songs. The station had repeaters in small towns within about a 100 mile radius and when we would run 2 minutes of commercials of businesses all located in Dryden, the repeater stations would hear edited the edited 2 minute songs. And if memory serves me correct they were all Canadian artists. And Gordon Lightfoot or Anne Murray never called us names!

    Reply
  18. Sean Ross
    Sean Ross says:

    Shortly after the above round of comments, Newcap pulled the plug on QuickHitz in Calgary, citing threatened lawsuits from the Canadian music industry. Jann Arden became somewhat more conciliatory in her comments, although I got a tweet from one of her followers yesterday: “Artistic endeavor it is not. It’s like covering half a painting. Clever ploy at best. Glad the plug has been pulled for now.”

    I’m not a neutral observer, but personally, if you want to stay with that analogy for a moment, I think it’s more like sneering at a stranger at the art gallery for not lingering as long at a painting as you do, or responding to it in the same way. I’m sorry the audience didn’t get a chance to decide for themselves.

    Newcap’s Steve Jones has said that he hopes to try QH again under different circumstances, including more of a ramp-up time for the music industry to buy in. Labels have, of course, allowed a lot of malleability of their copyrighted material in the past: not just radio’s own edits, but hook promos (including the not-so-flattering “you don’t have to sit through this to hear this”), and, increasingly, grey area remixes. Perhaps if this had been set up in advance as a format that plays free two-minute commercials for songs and encourages listeners to actually buy the full-length, things might have been different.

    Reply
  19. Sean Ross
    Sean Ross says:

    One other thought, labels do a lot of work these days to secure TV and movie syncs that sometimes publicize a song for just seconds at a time. I finally got around to seeing “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The edit of “Come And Get Your Love” by Redbone is shorter and far clunkier than the average QuickHitz song and would constitute a butchering if you heard it on a K-Tel album. And yet, it is, of course, a great match of movie and song and nobody minds that the seams on the edit are awkward and obvious.

    Reply
  20. Jeff G
    Jeff G says:

    I always wonder if there would have been the same sort of backlash if the station and the industry had NOT touted the format change. What if they had kept the same branding and formatics but only quietly changed up the library? Instead of promoting “twice the music” or even the QuickHitz bradning, just do the subtle edits on the library and maybe promote “always more music” or something like that – just don’t call attention to what your intention is with the format and see what happens. Yeah, some people will catch on, but I’ve played QuickHitz for teens and pre-teens and I don’t think they even get that the songs are shortened.

    Reply

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