by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming
If you worked in Alternative radio in 1991, the Candyskins’ remake of “For What It’s Worth” was just another one of the one-off reaction records that typified the format’s first decade, perhaps running together in your memory with Candyflip’s version of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Grunge purged most of those songs from Modern Rock libraries, but “For What It’s Worth” endures as part of an ongoing controversy of music testing: the notion of a “halo effect” for remakes.
Over the years, the Buffalo Springfield original of “For What It’s Worth” has become a powerhouse research record for Oldies, Classic Rock, Triple-A, and even a handful of Mainstream AC stations that will test it. And if you test the Candyskins version with adult listeners, chances are that it will come back playable as well.
For Triple-A KBCO Denver, which plays the Candy Skins record several times a week and has spun it nearly 600 times over the last six years, “For What It’s Worth” remains a secret weapon. But other PDs regard it as a fluke: if not quite a false positive, proof perhaps that the audience doesn’t always mean what they say. It’s not far afield from the eternal debate over whether the adult respondents who loved “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy were just voting on its sample from “Every Breath You Take.”
To some extent, the belief that remakes have an instant research advantage is apocryphal.
To some extent, the belief that remakes have an instant research advantage is apocryphal. The combination of a well-liked act and the right song can ignite instantly with listeners, see Sheryl Crow’s “The First Cut Is The Deepest,” Michael McDonald’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” or the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Give A Little Bit.” But Britney Spears’ “My Prerogative” entered most folks’ callout at the bottom and stayed there. And even at the peak of her career resurgence, covering the still-beloved “Take My Breath Away” didn’t do much for Jessica Simpson.
We’ve also seen in the Christmas music testing that Edison Media Research did in 2004 that listeners are pretty clear on which versions of songs they like. Respondents heard multiple performances of most holiday standards. And while a handful of new interpretations showed surprising strength, there were many more versions of the same well-loved songs that did not perform. The same applies during the rest of the year. Sadly, the strength of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” doesn’t extend to the Otis Redding original, and the power of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” doesn’t help Otis’ remake.
So even the listener who isn’t thinking, “Hey, that’s the Candyskins’ remake of ‘For What It’s Worth,’ which I like almost as much as the Buffalo Springfield original” is probably making a conscious decision about the combination of performance and song. Does that translate to leaving the song on when it plays on the radio? Well, the hook of a familiar song–even a different version–is, if anything, probably more representative of the rest of the song than the average hook.
And these days, there are a growing number of indications that programmers are starting to believe in the concept of remakes as secret weapons. Recently, there have been examples both of remakes starting to usurp older originals as the version of choice and programmers aggressively looking for remakes as a way of allowing them to play hit songs that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to play.
Consider the 1978 Aerosmith cover of “Come Together,” notable for many years only as one of the few semi-hits to emerge from the movie soundtrack of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the “Glitter” of its time. At the time, “Come Together” peaked at No. 23 on Billboard’s Hot 100 (and, if memory serves, a pretty soft No. 23 at that). The Beatles’ version was still definitive and only nine years old. Aerosmith was at the end of its first hit streak its rendition was serviceable, but not special, and there was no reason for most PDs to keep their version in the library.
But in 2005, “Come Together” is one of the strongest Beatles titles, partially because it’s also one of the newest. Oldies PDs who once worried that it fell on the other side of the Oldies/Classic Rock divide have long discarded that concern. Meanwhile, the Aerosmith version has become a consistent tester itself. Halo effect or not, it has the advantage of being able to play on Active Rock outlets that would not play the Beatles. Subtract the airplay opportunities for the original that are being lost every week as Oldies stations go away and that’s how the Beatles version’s 456 Mediabase spins last week could barely edge out Aerosmith’s 454 spins.
Then there’s the Robert John remake of the Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Even as the newer version, Oldies PDs ignored it until relatively recently. In 1989, when library decisions were being made at Oldies stations that would stick for the next decade or so, a 1961 record was better than a song from 1972. Now the early ’70s are the center, not the fringe of many Oldies stations, and the new version is getting more spins (45 last week) than the earlier hit (41). And while I’ve seen some Oldies tests where the newer version does well, but not as well as the Tokens, I’ve also seen it do better than the original for other stations. Of course, the surprising part is how many stations are just not playing any version of what was one of the format’s warhorses until relatively recently.
Beyond the individual instances of newer versions usurping older ones, there are also a handful of stations aggressively pursuing remakes as a secret weapon. Remakes have become a noticeable part of the arsenal at Infinity’s Jack-FM outlets and other like-minded Hot AC/Classic Hits hybrids. I first noticed the Georgia Satellites’ version of “Hippy Hippy Shake,” from the “Cocktail” soundtrack, being passed around. Since then, I’ve seen John Mellencamp’s “Rave On” (also from ‘Cocktail’) show up on the Infinity Jacks, as well as “Mustang Sally” by the Commitments. (So maybe the magic here is “remake plus hit movie soundtrack.”) The latter has been playing a few times a week on New York’s Jack-FM, which, as the former Oldies WCBS-FM, had the Wilson Pickett version embedded in its DNA. But it also played five times last week at KJKK Dallas, which has a very extant Oldies station next door in KLUV.
Then there’s Infinity sister WNEW (Mix 102.7) New York’s classic dance format. WNEW is already one of the most fascinating stations of the year–digging in the crates to go beyond the “Got To Be Real” and “Best Of My Love”-type titles that are already plentiful in the market on WLTW, WKTU, WRKS, and WBLS. “Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet” by Gonzalez and “Ain’t Nothin’ Gonna Keep Me From You” by Teri DeSario are playing just as often each week as “Brick House” and “Stayin’ Alive.”
And even before WCBS-FM went away, I’d heard the remakes popping up on WNEW, but now they’re a noticeable part of the station, and not just the obvious ones, such as “Love Child” by Sweet Sensation or “Please Don’t Go” by K.W.S. that were national hits. On Mix 102.7, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” are by the Boys Town Gang, “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” is by Gloria Gaynor, “La Bamba” is by Antonia Rodriguez and “Give Me Just A Little More Time” is by Angela Clemmons. And PD Rick Martini reports that the Bonnie Pointer version of “I Can’t Help Myself” and Shalamar’s Motown medley, “Uptown Festival,” have just gone in to the library as well.
So does the remake halo work backwards? Are there oldies that might have gotten some reinforcement from more recent versions? Well, the Cher version of “The Shoop Shoop Song” (again, with the help of a movie) seems to have helped the durability of the Betty Everett original, and vice-versa. And about a year ago, I found a market where a remake had become a major local hit on AC radio in the mid-’90s. The original, when we tried testing it on an Oldies station in the market, came in playable, if not massive–not much love but a lot of like. I’ve got at least two other candidates that I want to test, but unfortunately, these days the left-field titles on Oldies stations are newer, not older, as stations look for more useable ’70s records.
Ultimately, how you proceed with a decent-testing remake depends on your objectives. For the PD who would rather play Aerosmith than the Beatles or Robert John instead of the Tokens, there’s not much impetus to mull over whether the audience really liked both versions. Beyond that, it comes down to whether you’re one of those PDs who goes into a music test intent on finding records to play or records to cut. But the songs that truly suggest any sort of halo effect for remakes are still few enough that you can proceed with confidence that the audience really did mean what it said.
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.