Six months ago, SBR Creative Media’s John Bradley published an article in Radio & Records calling for the Triple-A format to wean itself away from the Classic Hits and ’70s singer-songwriter warhorses who had become the aging dignitaries of the format. Too much Paul Simon, Beatles, and Rolling Stones, Bradley wrote, was no longer meshing with the important new music — Keane, the Fray, Death Cab for Cutie, the Decemberists, and other “indie rock” artists who were the format’s future.
Three months ago, R&R excerpted a client memo from Broadcast Architecture GM Allen Kepler calling on the Triple-A format to embrace new vocal artists such as like Corinne Bailey-Rae, Robin Thicke, Elliot Yamin, and John Legend. Last month, WSJT Tampa, Fla., PD Ross Block chimed in — citing his station’s addition of more contemporary vocals, which can range from John Mayer to Mary J. Blige to Michael Bublé to Natasha Bedingfield, in the station’s growth over the last nine months.
Even if you haven’t read those articles, they’ll sound suspiciously familiar to anybody who has followed the evolution of Mainstream AC and Hot AC over the last year. As extensively documented in these pages, AC has become more aggressive about grabbing artists such as the Fray, John Mayer, and Snow Patrol sooner from Hot AC. And on the Hot AC side, we’ve seen the debut of KSCF (Sophie 103.7) San Diego — a 10-years-on version of the late ’90s singer-songwriter Modern AC stations where Colbie Caillat and Brandi Carlile are now standing in for Jewel and Shawn Colvin.
There’s a lot of territory between Natasha Bedingfield and the Decemberists, of course. But there are also a lot of artists who figure into the evolution of more than one format targeting adult females: Bailey-Rae, Mayer, Bublé, Legend, Gnarls Barkley, Plain White T’s, Nelly Furtado, K.T. Tunstall, Maroon 5, Amy Winehouse, Jack Johnson, Daniel Powter, Snow Patrol, and James Blunt, chief among them. Some are relatively mainstream; some are artists who, like their spiritual big sister Norah Jones, would not have gotten anywhere near mainstream radio without building a story elsewhere — TV, the consumer press, MySpace, Amazon.com or, now, iTunes.
Indeed, the most natural way to describe these artists around the time of Norah Jones would have been either as “VH1 music” or Amazon.com artists. (Amazon’s best-known success story, Eva Cassidy, became a retail phenomenon without radio support–that would likely be different today.) You could have also called them BBC Radio 2 artists after the national U.K. radio channel that reinvented its traditional AC format with large doses of what is known there as “quality music.” And now you can call them the Gray’s Anatomy artists as well. Or the newer half of the artists showcased at Starbucks.
For our purposes, we’ll just call it the New Adult Music. It is the music that confirms that adults were never looking to give up on current artists – they just never had them delivered in the right package. And through stations’ music and survey research, one indeed sees it emerging as a viable style in a variety of different formats, even with 45-year-olds. In that regard, the New Adult Music shares more with the Lilith-era boom that gave us Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morissette than just an emphasis on singer-songwriters. Depending on the market conditions, those artists might be owned by Top 40, Modern AC, or even Modern Rock — if the edict to swap Jewel for Tool had not come down yet.
With so many formats looking to evolve at once it seems likely that ownership of the New Adult Music franchise could go to a different format in each market — depending on who best claims ownership. Doing so poses different challenges for each format, almost always evolving around what the New Adult Music should replace, whether it’s Jackson Browne at Triple-A, Chuck Mangione at Smooth Jazz, or Seals & Crofts (and the other soft ’70s) at the Mainstream AC format. Ironically, the music that “no longer fits” is often the singer-songwriter music of an earlier generation. But a 49-year-old may be more likely to recognize James Blunt as the musical descendent of Cat Stevens than a 29-year-old.
Some of the other challenges, on a format-by-format basis:
- Triple-A: Throughout the ’90s, Triple-A put a lot of work into making the female singer-songwriter explosion possible, fostering Tracy Chapman, Tori Amos, Edie Brickell, the Indigo Girls, and Melissa Etheridge, just to see Modern AC abscond with the breakthrough artists: Crow, Sarah McLachlan and Jewel. It’s not hard to recognize Colbie Caillat as the beginning of the next cycle. The hard part is figuring out how to take ownership, not be cherry-picked and play the hits enough without just becoming Modern AC.
- Smooth Jazz: Hearing its programmers reimagine Smooth Jazz as a showcase for new vocal artists, without the instrumentals and the Urban AC music sounds a lot like Eclectic-Oriented Rock, veteran programmer John Sebastian’s early-’80s format that he would later position as the forerunner of Smooth Jazz. For better or worse, that takes Smooth Jazz away from its previous functions as either an alternate universe Urban AC or the new Easy Listening — two positions that few PDs could truly embrace. And being second or third in line for Urban AC listening in any markets is likely a tougher proposition in a PPM world. That said, a format built around New Adult Music might truly fulfill the format’s alternate “New AC” moniker, but it’s not really Smooth Jazz, as much as starting over again. And if you’re going to do that, as WQCD (CD101.9) New York learned when it tried to integrate “chillout” music a few years ago, why try to put it in a package that violates everybody’s expectations?
- Hot AC: In many ways, this is what Hot AC programmers have been waiting for all these years. After a few fallow years where Jack and Bob had wrested the ’80s away, leaving them with the less viable two-thirds of “’80s, ’90s, and now,” there’s more music to work with. Hot AC’s challenge this time around is to own the artists worth owning without boxing itself in musically as it did in the early ’00s when singer/songwriter music lost its primacy. And with Mainstream AC boosting its hip credentials with a handful of songs, Hot AC has the task of playing enough of the New Adult Music to derive value from it while remaining hit-driven. Hot AC also has to create enough excitement around the songs it breaks to send them to CHR (eventually) — no longer an unimaginable prospect.
- AC: It says something about the power of the New Adult Music that WLTW New York has responded to the younger-end attack of WWFS (Fresh 102.7) by becoming even more aggressive on new music. WLTW, which did a lot to make James Blunt and Daniel Powter hits in America, has been early on everything from A Fine Frenzy to Feist in recent months. If it sometimes feels like WLTW is digging, the alternative is waiting for the next “Put Your Records On” to work its way through the pipeline from obscurity to TV exposure to Hot AC — something which happens only a few times a year. That’s fine if you only need nine currents at any given time, but it doesn’t make you headquarters for the New Adult Music if you’re still playing “Unwritten” as a power current.
- Urban AC: It too has gone through an evolution in recent years, whittling down its ’70s soul library for more Musiq Soulchild and Mary J. Blige. Many of the newer artists have gotten some help from the stewardship of syndicated hosts Steve Harvey and Tom Joyner. They’re not always getting a lot of help from Mainstream Urban, which remains quick to pass off a Jill Scott or John Legend. The new artists have currency on their side, but the Al Green and Maze records have the advantage of having been heard by everybody who was old enough to hear them on the radio.
To all of these issues, you can add the shared concern that so far few of the acts on our roster have managed more than one breakthrough song. Mid-’90s Modern AC had its Merill Bainbridge and Meredith Brooks, too. But it also had Crow, Jewel, and McLachlan. It’s worth noting that Sophie 103.7 has playing more than one song by an artist as one of its selling points–that’s harder if you’re a Mainstream AC and are pledged to play only the best of everything.
And then there’s the issue of what happens when so many formats decide they can no longer play the best of everything. If AC, Triple-A, Smooth Jazz, and Urban AC all back away from the ’70s at the same time, that creates an opportunity for somebody that wants to superserve the ’70s. In New York, that meant Fresh’s CBS sister station WCBS-FM returning to cover much of what could be called the “old” Lite FM position. In Portland, Ore., the battle was reversed with Clear Channel launching ’70s-based KPKL (Kool 105.9) so that sister AC KKCW (K103) could duke it out with CBS’s Triple-A KINK for the new music.
Finally, there’s the notion of the New Adult Music becoming a format unto itself. Sophie 103.7 is the closest station to this position. The rotating artist photos on its homepage are Maroon 5, Mat Kearney, Brandi Carlile, Hot Hot Heat, Flyleaf, Pink, Amy Winehouse, Gym Class Heroes, and VHS or Beta: in other words, anything that a 24-year-old might care about that has some level of hipness to it. At some point, that coalition will splinter–then again, it took much of the ’70s for Rock fans to decide that Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and Loggins & Messina weren’t really Rock artists.
And VH1, once the only outlet for the full spectrum of critically acclaimed artists, is still playing both Kanye West and Nelly Furtado, with an emphasis on developing New Adult artists like Feist, Paolo Nutini, and the “Once” soundtrack. VH1′s attempt to develop a hosted Internet channel that paralleled its video mix has long been replaced on its Website by multiple specialized streams. That’s a relief for AC programmers — some of whom were genuinely worried a few years ago — but had VH1 Radio persevered, it would probably be poised for greatness on the upcoming wireless broadband car radio. It also raises the question of whether one of the major groups would be better served by developing one national, hosted brand to be carried on numerous HD-2 multicast channels than the individual, minimally produced throwaways that now dominate.
So much competition for ownership of the New Adult Music is a good challenge to have. It suggests that the same programmers who finally addressed listeners’ concerns about variety are now acknowledging that artists who sell records and create passionate followings shouldn’t be ignored. How well radio now cultivates those artists will have a lot to do with the risk/reward factor in following them where the music leads — particularly when there are other entrenched audiences and artists in the balance.