Mainstream AC Moves On To Hot AC’s Territory

Over the last 10 years, many AC stations quietly crept away from the Soft AC position, recasting themselves as Mainstream or “Bright” ACs. With the canny use of an increasingly contemporary library, these stations mastered the art of being uptempo without being abrasive. But nobody would have confused them for Hot AC–which was more current and had more of a pop/rock edge.
So take a look at a recent week’s Top 10 songs on the Mainstream AC chart:
#1 – Snow Patrol, “Chasing Cars”
#2 – John Mayer, “Waiting For The World To Change”
#3 – The Fray, “How To Save A Life”
#4 – Rascal Flatts, “What Hurts The Most”
#5 – Natasha Bedingfield, “Unwritten”
#6 – Christina Aguilera, “Hurt”
#7 – Rob Thomas, “Street Corner Symphony”
#8 – Corinne Bailey-Rae, “Put Your Records On”
#9 – Nickelback, “Far Away”
#10 – KT Tunstall, “Suddenly I See.”
Every record in the Top 10 that week was a multi-format hit, and most could be described as Mainstream Top 40 hits of some magnitude. But what is most remarkable is the combination of Hot AC core artists (John Mayer, Rob Thomas) or songs that were Hot AC calling cards just a few months ago (“Chasing Cars,” “How To Save A Life”) You’ll also find Nickelback–an act that was a pretty good dividing line between Mainstream and Hot AC until not that long ago.
It’s been well documented elsewhere that Mainstream AC has gotten hipper recently. But to the extent that Mainstream AC’s hits differ from those of Hot AC, it’s now more a matter of timing than texture. At the same time, AC has been taking possession of a lot of like-minded Modern AC artists of the ’90s, most notably Melissa Etheridge, Sheryl Crow, Hootie & the Blowfish and Sarah McLachlan. And the format that morphed from Soft to Mainstream AC has evolved again.
You can’t call it Hot AC, exactly. You can’t really even call it “Soft and Contemporary.” There are still too many ACs playing a lot of ’70s titles that are neither hot nor contemporary. But there is a new musical coalition that is usurping a very key part of the functionality that Hot AC stations–and particularly Modern AC stations–used to enjoy, particularly as Hot AC becomes more of an Adult Top 40 format in more than just name.
So how did the evolution happen?
1) Hot AC has been giving Mainstream AC a lot of room to maneuver for more than a decade. In 1996, it jettisoned Rod Stewart and Phil Collins to follow the Modern AC music of the time. That was an understandable decision at the time–there was an exciting new body of music to play and most Hot AC PDs were more personally inclined to play “Plush” than “One More Night.” But over the next few years, the new singer-songwriter music dried up, leaving Hot AC dependent on an ever-edgier supply of Alternative crossovers. And as Hot AC narrowed, Mainstream AC became more of a big box format than ever. It was able, for instance, to acknowledge the teen pop boom of the late ’90s when many Hot ACs could not.
2) When some of the Lilith-era singer-songwriter music stopped working at Hot AC, it became a natural fit for Mainstream AC, which still played the similarly textured singer-songwriter music of the ’70s. For many Mainstream AC fans, the synth-pop of the ’80s did not fit with James Taylor and Elton John, but Sheryl Crow and other ’90s singer-songwriters did. (In fact, that music had been what lured some listeners back to pop radio in any form after several years of listening to Country because of the James Taylor/Garth Brooks connection.)
3) What was initially thought of as the softer side of “indie rock” has actually shown itself as a new generation of singer-songwriter pop music. After all, Carole King and James Taylor were considered Rock artists for a while, too. Just because you’re now hearing Snow Patrol and the Fray on Mainstream AC doesn’t (necessarily) mean you’ll hear the Shins or Death Cab for Cutie there any time soon. Then again, not all of the early ’70s soft rock made it into the mainstream either–for every Seals & Crofts there was a Batdorf & Rodney that few remember today. And the “indie” music that has made it through fits surprisingly well with the ’70s and mid-’90s singer-songwriter music.
4) Mainstream AC has gone for the best part of the last decade with only one major core artist of its own, Celine Dion, who has long since passed the point where many AC PDs would be comfortable using her in their outside marketing. After several years where Top 40 was Rhythmic leaning and most of AC’s new music was coming from Country, Mainstream AC PDs are just happy to have some new pop music to play as their Top 40 counterparts.
5) Without major artists of its own, Mainstream AC had been reaching out to Country for a lot of its currents in recent years. One of Country’s advantages was that its records had been warmed up for nine months and were getting 40-50 spins a week, thus ensuring that they would get traction sooner than Mainstream AC-only currents that got 15 spins a week. But what can put records on the docket even faster than Country? How about TV? From Daniel Powter and James Blunt to Corinne Bailey-Rae and “Chasing Cars,” TV has had a lot to do with the newer, hipper Mainstream AC.
6) Finally, just as its transition in 1996 altered the landscape, Hot AC has again gone through major changes. First, the Bob- and Jack-FMs came along and tore the “’80s, ’90s, and now” coalition apart. Then Hot AC responded to the new listeners moving into the 25-54 demo window by becoming more of an Adult Top 40 format and adding two sounds–rhythmic pop and teen punk–that worked for some 29-year-old women, but not necessarily for 39-year-olds. It’s probably also an issue for the people who came back to pop music in the mid-’90s because Hootie & the Blowfish had the same rootsy feel that had brought them to Garth Brooks a few years earlier.
Some of this may just sound like the normal passage of time that always moves music from Top 40 to Hot AC to Mainstream AC. But age and music preference no longer fit together as neatly as they used to. There are 30-year-olds who like Hip-Hop and 18-year-olds that are relatively indifferent to it. There are 16-year-old Classic Rock fans. There are 25-year-olds who, not having grown up with either decade, prefer ’70s music to ’80s music.
So it’s not surprising when music testing suggests that there is definitely a person who liked England Dan & John Ford Coley’s “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight” in 1976 and James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” in 2006, without caring for everything that came in between. So if Mainstream AC hasn’t become Hot AC, what it may have become is the new “Soft Rock” format, a more mass-appeal distillation of singer-songwriter music than Triple-A or “Indie Rock.”
For some listeners, it also has the advantage of being a more mass-appeal distillation than Hot AC. At this moment, Hot AC has plenty of singer-songwriter music itself, from Paolo Nutini to Lily Allen to Mika. And at this writing, there seems to be less flirtation with Rhythmic Pop, although Teen Punk, even more of a dividing line for some listeners, is still there. But Mainstream AC has its “mile wide/inch deep” advantage of being able to cherry pick and let Hot AC take the chances.

2 replies
  1. Michael W. Lowe
    Michael W. Lowe says:

    Sean:
    You knocked it out of the park! The influence of TV is a definite plus for Mainstream AC. It allowed us to get away with Snow Patrol and The Fray. It also gave us a reason to play Chris Daughtry’s “Home.” 35-64 year olds are getting their hits from their prime-time TV viewing. Even when Oprah features artists for some of her themed shows, we get a bounce from them. I’ve always said that AC needs new artists. Michael Buble and Josh Groban. Celine Dion is the only “core” AC artist under 50. Rod, Elton, Bolton,etc. The “geezer alarm” went off and we had to respond. A full library of classic 70s, 80s and 90s, sprinkled with a taste of Motown will only take us so far. We need to break some new ground somewhere. Pop radio is coming back and we need to avoid the Hot AC/CHR squeeze.

    Reply
  2. Bob Bronson
    Bob Bronson says:

    Excellent article! WZID in Manchester, NH is a prime example of what Mainstream AC is all about now.
    Another factor for AC the past few years is the American Idol phenomonon. It has made pop stars out of unknowns that our audience is wholly familiar with.
    Bob Bronson
    Program Director WZID

    Reply

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