Panel Cuts Didn’t Speed Up Country Chart

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

Five months ago, after years of urging by Nashville labels, both major Country trades made significant cuts in their chart panels: Billboard/Airplay Monitor by dropping stations that weren’t at least 60% current; R&R by cutting its panel at market No. 100. While the obvious motivator for most proponents of tighter chart panels was the spiraling cost of promoting a record at Country radio (an issue in most formats), labels also insisted that a more current-based panel would speed up the slow, expensive trip to the top 10 that all but the most obvious hits endured, and help Nashville break new artists.

Well, only a label VP can tell you whether the tighter panels helped stop the “promotional support-for-adds” madness of recent years, (or, as some predicted, actually exacerbated it by putting more influence in the hands of fewer stations). But if it was a faster chart or more developing artists that you’re looking for, that hasn’t happened yet, at least judging from this comparison of the Airplay Monitor Country chart from Oct. 3, 2003 (covering late September airplay) right before the panel cuts took place and Feb. 20.

We also compared the
Billboard 200 albums chart for a year ago, early October, and last week.

We included Kid Rock’s “Cocky” and “The Very Best of Sheryl Crow” because both contain Country chart hits. With or without them, the number of Country albums among the 40 best selling is down from a year ago. With Crow, the number of Country acts in the top 40 is up by one from last October; without her, it’s flat. Either way, Country’s representation in the top 10 is flat from October and off sharply from a year ago.

The only positive sign is that there’s actually a debut artist, Josh Turner, in the top 40 this year. The newest artist represented a year ago, Blake Shelton, was on his second project. Turner, like most debut acts in the recent past, has spent the better part of the year climbing the chart: despite peaking at No. 13, it’s still hanging in after 41 chart weeks.

As Turner’s story indicates, it’s still a long slow trip up the charts in Country—even with a chart panel that’s 20 stations smaller than it was last September. Last fall, in an article entitled “A Faster Country Chart: Now What?” we thought it was conceivable that culling the Country panel might indeed speed up the chart, if only because many PDs were more attuned to chart benchmarks than they might care to admit. Instead, it takes even longer to get to the top 10—so the only case you can make for a tighter panel is that without it, the chart might have been even slower.

Turner is also a pretty good example of why you might not want the charts to go too much faster. By many accounts, it was the sales story that brought programmers around on “Long Black Train.” But Turner’s album didn’t debut on the Billboard Country Albums chart or the pop Billboard 200 until “Long Black Train” had been at Country radio for roughly 5 months. If Country PDs had followed the lead of their Top 40 counterparts and used callout research to cut bait sooner, “Long Black Train” would have likely suffered. And while it may frustrate Music Row to have 41-week-old songs on the chart, the sales and airplay tenacity of “Long Black Train” suggests that song may have found its sweet spot, where sales and airplay are maximized, only recently.

Country radio remains a conservative format, and one that still moves in relative lockstep.

Even with 20 slower stations gone, Country radio remains a conservative format, and one that still moves in relative lockstep. Stations like KPLX (the Wolf) Dallas, KEEY (K102) Minneapolis, and WGGY (Froggy 101) Wilkes-Barre, Pa., which aggressively add and spin new music, are still the exceptions. So stations that need five months to feel comfortable with a new record are still, by far, the majority of the chart panel, even if the stations that need eight months to feel comfortable with those songs are gone.

Beyond that, even a station that wants to break new music needs the sort of music that will react quickly. Last October, we argued that Country’s real issue was a lack of “active” music and the failure to recruit younger demos. Now, looking at the top 10 and talking to PDs, there may actually be fewer reaction records than in October. Country radio has done a good job restoring tempo and attitude in recent years, but that doesn’t always translate into records that people are passionate about, and the sales figures prove it. Only four of the 10 most played Country singles for the week we looked at came from Top 10 selling Country chart albums.

There is good news in Country. The format is doing a better job with younger listeners, judging from Arbitron’s national format statistics. In 18-24, Country was up 6.9-7.5 summer-to-fall, its best numbers in that demo since winter ’00. (It was still short of its 8.0 share from fall ’98 and probably well short of a decade ago). In 18-34, country was up 7.4-7.6 summer-to-fall vs. an 8.6 in fall ’98. 18-24 recruiting is probably going to get a little harder, however, since Top 40 radio is now making a concerted effort to broaden its hip-hop-heavy mix with more pop rock.

It was 18-34 listeners who swelled Country’s ranks in the early ‘90s (making healthy 8-share stations into really healthy 12-share stations) and helped the format really sell records for the first time. They managed to find the format even though the Billboard Country chart itself was at its most conservative, having just switched over to monitored airplay. What drew them was a bumper crop of new artists and a Country radio that was aggressive about playing them. We need that now, but it can’t be legislated, or gerrymandered.

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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