Perspectives, News & Opinions From The Researchers At Edison

A Shift At Pop Radio, If Not A Shift In Listener Tastes

Entry by Tom Webster | Wednesday, November 19th, 2003 | Permalink

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

For many, the early October news that all 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 singles were by African-American artists was the final confirmation that hip-hop and R&B had become the mass-appeal music of 2003. Had further confirmation been needed, however, there would have been the weekly addition of new R&B/Hip-hop stations in markets both long obvious (Tampa, Fla.) and not as obvious (Des Moines). Then there was the pop success of “crunk” rap like Chingy’s “Right Thurr” and Lil’ Jon & the East Side Boyz’ “Get Low,” a genre that was considered edgy by many R&B PDs not so long ago.

But check out the Mainstream Top 40 chart this week and it’s a much different story. With hip-hop hits tending to run their course at Top 40 pretty quickly, “Right Thurr,” “Get Low,” and “Shake Ya Tailfeather” have all peaked. And what replaced them in the top 10?

Two rock power ballads: 3 Doors Down’s “Here Without You” and Santana’s “Why Don’t You And I.”

One hard rock crossover, “Headstrong” by Trapt, which Top 40 resisted for months, part of its apparent revenge against Linkin Park and other crossover acts of the previous year that wouldn’t do Top 40 promotions.

Three actual uptempo, medium-weight pop/rock hits: Maroon 5’s “Harder to Breathe,” Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom,” and Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” which would not be thought of as a hip-hop record if it were by any other artist.

Stacie Orrico’s “(There’s Gotta Be) More To Life,” the No. 2 song at Christian Top 40 this week.

Britney Spears & Madonna’s “Me Against the Music,” which might have been considered a rhythmic record two years ago, but is now considered a straight-ahead pop record.

Baby Bash’s “Suga Suga,” a medium-weight rap record that started at rhythmic Top 40, rather than R&B.

This week’s No. 1: Beyonce’s “Baby Boy,” the only top 10 hit shared with R&B.
Even if you count “Hey Ya!,” a song that was, according to its artist, inspired by rock’s neo-garage movement, as rhythm, rather than rock, that makes this week’s top 10 70% pop or rock. And there are only four other bulleted hip-hop or R&B records climbing the Mainstream Top 40 charts: songs by Chingy, Ludacris, Bubba Sparxx (again, a record that won’t be shared with R&B), and the other Outkast single. Not so long ago, having any legit pop/rock hits was remarkable, now the surprising part is how many there are.

So if R&B/Hip-hop is still the common currency music for young adults, why is mainstream top 40 radio changing?

It’s always easiest to look at the available product, and there were certainly some records that helped alter programmers’ perception of what a Mainstream Top 40 hit sounded like. In 1982-83, it might have been the succession of “The Other Woman,” “Sexual Healing,” “Billie Jean,” and “Little Red Corvette” that helped un-do the post-disco backlash at Top 40. In 2003, it was the sequence of “Unwell,” “Harder to Breathe,” and “Stacy’s Mom” that brought PDs around. (Not coincidentally, “Harder to Breathe” was “The Other Woman” in reverse: a rock record that appropriated its feel and lyrical attitude from hip-hop.)

But as with previous musical shifts at Top 40, this one could have happened a lot sooner if programmers had been willing to embrace the product in front of them: “Headstrong,” for instance, reached critical mass as a Modern Rock hit more than six months ago—it just took programmers until now to become comfortable with it. And while both “Stacy’s Mom” and “Harder to Breathe” had some good research stories, neither has been an across-the-board “top-of-the-page” record every week, suggesting that programmers really wanted to make those songs work. So you have to look at some other environmental changes.

Three months ago, Top 40 was in danger of becoming two different formats: the 12-24-targeted stations (many, but not all, of them Clear Channel-owned) with heavy R&B/hip-hop leans and a second group of 18-34 stations that were becoming increasingly reactionary about reaction records (rock or R&B). To some extent, that split still exists. Working in a town where four markets intersect, I recently went for a drive at lunchtime and found myself punching between one Top 40 that segued from “Can’t Hold Us Down” into “Get Low” and another one that played Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why,” Live’s “Heaven,” Mariah Carey’s “One Fine Day,” and Matchbox Twenty’s “Bright Lights”—four ballads—in succession.

But in recent months, even some rhythmic-leaning Clear Channel stations have been evolving. Clear Channel’s Top 40 stations were never monolithic. But there were certainly enough large-market CC Top 40s that were fast on hip-hop and R&B, super-conservative on pop/rock (except for the most teen-oriented pop/punk records), and spinning their records in high enough rotation to help drive the musical composition of the pop charts.

If R&B/Hip-hop is still the common currency music for young adults, why is mainstream top 40 radio changing?

Stations like WAKS Cleveland and WIHT (Hot 99.5) in Washington, D.C., still lean rhythmic and embrace some rhythmic records that won’t be national hits. But they are accommodating more pop/rock records than they once did. When WAKS puts Kelly Clarkson’s country-flavored “Low” back in to rotation after it has peaked nationally or Hot 99.5 has Nelly Furtado’s far-from-a-confirmed-hit “Powerless” at No. 12, there’s definitely something changing. Add the Clear Channel stations that look a little different now to the other stations that have gone dramatically more adult and you suddenly have more of a quorum for pop/rock on the charts.

There’s also an apparent belief by some Top 40 PDs that they can’t compete for the hip-hop franchise. Top 40 survives on being every listener’s second choice, but now that Rhythmic Top 40 isn’t just for markets that don’t have viable R&B/Hip-hop stations, the Mainstream Top 40 now finds itself the third or fourth choice for hip-hop in some cases. (Philly, at this writing, has just gotten a new station wedged in between two R&B/Hip-hop outlets and a mainstream top 40 that has always been aggressive on R&B product.)

With the rapid proliferation of R&B and Rhythmic Top 40 outlets, it’s occasionally a cluster synergy that allows a Top 40 station to alter their mix. Clear Channel’s rapid deployment of new R&B outlets doesn’t explain the shift in D.C. or Cleveland, but having WWPR New York in the building did allow sister WHTZ (Z100), one of the stations that influenced the shift toward Hip-hop several years ago, to lean a little more pop.

You also have to look at the available R&B and hip-hop product at the moment. It won’t be long until records like “Get Low” or “Right Thurr” don’t sound any more extreme than “C’Mon N’ Ride It (The Train)” by Quad City DJs, but they’re not “I Need A Girl” in terms of accessibility, at least to pop PDs. And the Mainstream R&B hits that aren’t rap at the moment are, for the most part, ballads, including chilled-out hits from R. Kelly, Ashanti, Jagged Edge, and Avant. Mainstream Top 40 PDs have, in recent years, been trained to ignore that kind of record, leaving them with a shortage of R&B titles to choose from (and creating a void for the Baby Bash-type records that start at Rhythmic Top 40).

Meanwhile, there’s enough pop/rock for Top 40 programmers to choose from that they’re leaving other records on the table. In a different environment, recent John Mayer and Pink singles would have had longer to prove themselves because PDs needed tempo from superstar artists. The current Dido and Nickelback singles did show results right away, but still faced initial resistance. And Modern Rock’s bumper crop of more melodic hits is still going largely unnoticed by Top 40. Indeed, today’s Top 40 exclusives aren’t the songs that wouldn’t fit at Modern Rock or R&B radio, they’re the songs from those genres that those formats don’t want, which makes you wonder if Top 40 is playing the real hits.

So does the current Hot 100. Eight weeks after the historic Oct. 11 chart, nine of the top 10 songs are still by African-American artists and eight are R&B or hip-hop records (the ninth is “Hey Ya”). Based on airplay from all formats, the Hot 100 is heavily influenced by powerhouse large-market R&B stations that, in many cases, dwarf the reach of their Top 40 competition, but to discount that airplay is to force the question of whether “pop” music is what Top 40 plays or the songs that the most people hear and buy. And the top three albums this week are Hip-hop as well.

When Top 40 goes through a dry spell without a lot of hit pop/rock music, it’s always tempting for PDs to gorge. In fall 1993, Mainstream Top 40 (again, helped along by a shift at Z100), was starting to lean toward the pop and Modern Rock side, helped by a surplus of all-ages hits from Meat Loaf, Billy Joel, Blind Melon, Aerosmith, Ace of Base, and Bryan Adams, among others. It might have been a musical turning point, but it wasn’t the book that reversed the format’s fortunes. Those didn’t improve for another several years. And the station that provided the template for the recovery, KHKS Dallas, leaned rhythmic, not rock. So far, there are only a few success stories in which leaning more pop is likely a factor: Hot 99.5 and WERO Greenville, N.C., (which caps its rhythmic content at a third, but evolved from modern AC, so they’re still playing more hip-hop, not less).

It’s not just Top 40 PDs who tend to overcompensate by veering too far in one musical direction or the other. Country radio offered little for male listeners as recently as 2000-2001; now there’s lots of male attitude but few legitimate hits from female artists. Modern Rock PDs, after some initial hesitation about a shift away from Active Rock, are significantly evolving the sound of their stations, even though many of the best testing records are still hard rock. Historically, there’s never been a time when the Top 40 audience only wanted to hear pop/rock, and never a time when that same listeners wanted only Hip-hop/R&B. Contrary to popular belief about the Top 40 audience, it’s programmers who tend to be fickle.

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.

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