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.