by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming
In 1990, when Billboard converted its long-troubled country chart to monitored airplay, Music Row immediately decided there weren’t enough reporting stations. The panel (and the then policy of ranking songs by audience, not spins) gave too much power to the large markets and disenfranchised too many small-market stations—the stations, label VPs said, where songs really started.
Small-market stations weren’t really that aggressive on new music. The ones I had the opportunity to monitor on my travels were often 55-65% library based. As the then-radio editor of Billboard, the small-market issue seemed like a red herring, meant to obscure what I saw as many labels’ real objection to the new chart: that it wasn’t as easily manipulated. And small-market stations were seemingly more promotable.
By 1995, in any event, the labels had changed their mind. By the time I came back to Billboard and Airplay Monitor after a few years on the programming and A&R side, the country boom was grinding to a halt and the “cost of doing business” was already an issue, years before a declining market would bring that problem to a head in every format. As early as 1995, the size of trade magazines’ reporting panels had become an issue for some labels. And by 1997-98, calls for a sharp reduction in panel size were a regular occurrence.
Last month, the trade magazines finally responded: R&R by cutting its main reporting panel at market 100; Billboard and Airplay Monitor by demanding that country stations be at least 60% current and dropping 18 stations that weren’t.
Each publication was responding to different aspects of a now-familiar litany of complaints: reporters were using their status as a license-to-print-money, particularly small-market stations that offered little return-on-investment; the charts were too slow, with all but the most obvious hits needing 6-10 months to run their course.
So what happens now? Do the smaller panels stop the madness of stations asking for free concerts or fax machines? Or do they just give the reporters that remain an opportunity to really hold the labels up? Is a faster chart (and we haven’t yet seen that it will be) merely the same sort of optical illusion that existed in the days of reported airplay when we had 48 No. 1 country hits a year, at least on paper?
As much as I hate to admit it, it’s not inconceivable that goosing the charts could actually speed up what goes on the air. Stations don’t admit to making their decisions based on the charts, but any label rep has a dozen stories of PDs who would consider a song when it was No. 20, but not when it was No. 21. I don’t doubt that there will be programmers who, indeed, move songs on to the docket faster now.
Labels would, once again, be advised to be careful what they wish.
But that alone won’t be enough to get country music back to the early ‘90s, when, despite a chart that was less easy to manipulate, stations were becoming more current-based, a younger audience was discovering the format, and albums were selling in quantity without pop airplay. Country’s last boom was driven by a combination of an influx of new stations, PDs with a more musically aggressive top 40 mindset, new rock-influenced music and artists, and younger listeners, many of whom had been hand-delivered by an imploding top 40 format.
Those conditions, it’s fair to say, don’t exist in 2003. Top 40 may be having trouble again, but stations aren’t bailing out at the same rate, and those that are changing format aren’t going country-helpfully delivering younger cume to the format as they did in 1990. Musically aggressive country stations are a relative handful. And even after a concerted attempt by Music Row to bring the male-appeal reaction record back to the format, there are still a lot of current country chart titles that need 26 to 40 weeks to sound distinctive.
So what would make a difference? More active records would help. So would PDs who are able to triage them differently. Even now, many country programmers need just as long to break a novelty/reaction record such as “Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo” or “Three Wooden Crosses” as they do for that more subtle mid-tempo Diamond Rio record. And since 18-to-34 listeners aren’t just falling in country’s lap this time, if stations want listeners who respond to or purchase new music, they’re going to have to recruit them. But you can’t legislate those things.
Besides, when country PDs slowed down their playlists in recent years, they didn’t necessarily increase the number of “money weeks” a song spent at the top of the list-the weeks during which both radio and retailers got the maximum impact out of a song-they just increased the amount of time it took a record to get there, and often the amount of time it took for listeners to become familiar with a song. Speeding up the charts is hardly the thing likely to help country radio take better advantage of its hits, or help labels maximize their return on a hit.
Country label execs who pine for a faster chart would do well to check out the top 40 side these days: programmers who expect results on a song after 75 spins, and who aren’t likely to let those subtle records kick in after 16 weeks, much less 26. Even under the slower country chart, at least two label execs have complained publicly that their fast-rising hits died a premature death because radio wanted to see callout results as soon as they went top 15, even if they did so with fewer spins and less exposure than the songs surrounding them. So labels would, once again, be advised to be careful what they wish for-unfortunately, it’s easier to create more chart hits than to create the conditions that would give the format more real hits.
Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.