When the “Songs That Made A Difference In 2007” column is written in a few months — the one that will spotlight songs that were not just hits but represented the changing nature of the formats that played them — the song at the top of the list has a pretty good chance of being Colbie Caillat’s “Bubbly.”
“Bubbly” has shaken things up in a number of ways. It got far more traction at radio than anything by Jack Johnson, the male artist that Caillat is most often compared to, ever has. It was the record that brought the radio to a halt in between Timbaland’s percolating beats and Nickelback’s powerchord ballads. And it helped set off a new female singer-songwriter cycle of the sort that exploded more than a decade ago and sputtered to a stop in the early ’00s.
Maybe the best illustration of the changing paradigm took place two weeks ago when “Bubbly,” Feist’s “1234″ and Ingrid Michaelson’s “The Way I Am” were all among the Top 10 songs on the iTunes Music Store. Caillat, at that point, had extensive MySpace attention, the support of a major, and a few months of radio and sales momentum. The Feist and Michaelson songs were driven by exposure in iPod and Old Navy ads respectively.
Singles sales on Feist and Michaelson have since tapered off – Caillat remains at No. 2 at this writing, behind Chris Brown and ahead of Soulja Boy. But there is still something remarkable about a Top 10 comprised of not one but three similarly folky, similarly whimsical female singer-songwriter records. Digital sales have long since eliminated the singles sales charts as the exclusive province of Rhythmic titles — you wouldn’t have expected to see Matchbox Twenty there so long ago either. But this isn’t exactly the Jonas Brothers or High School Musical either. It wasn’t so long ago that these were the types of songs that moved albums, not singles, if they sold. Now they’re selling both.
Together, Caillat, Feist, and Michaelson are further proof of the entrenchment of the New Adult Music – the artists ranging from Snow Patrol to Amy Winehouse to KT Tunstall who are “too good for the radio” until suddenly they aren’t, artists who owe their success stories to radio, TV, and commercials.
They’re also proof that there’s more of this music than radio can keep up with. Caillat, at this writing, is the No. 1 Hot AC song. It’s now No. 5 at Top 40 and No. 9 at Mainstream AC. Feist is just cracking the top 40 at Hot AC and in double digit spins at only four Top 40 stations (as well as Sirius Hits 1). Michaleson is Top 50 at Hot AC and won’t be worked to Top 40 for a while. And you can just hear PDs saying that they only have room for one record of this sort, no matter how much the others are selling.
The success of “Bubbly” also helps answer the question, “Who needs a record label?” That one has been kicked around a lot lately in light of the Madonna deal with Live Nation and Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want strategy. But Caillat is further proof that nothing turns an organic MySpace-based story into a Top 5 radio record like actually being worked by a label. If radio really wanted to shake up the label paradigm, more stations would find their own records. For today, anyway, radio is helping keep labels necessary except for artists like Madonna and Radiohead whose careers have had to transcend airplay.
And that said, the Feist and Michaelson songs also answer the question, “Who needs radio?” Even though the record is already selling, Interscope is pursuing “1234″ at Top 40, Hot AC and Alternative radio. The Danny Buch-led Sony/BMG Red team, having delivered Elliot Yamin’s “Wait For You,” a record that came out on a publishing company’s imprint with no label promotion staff of its own, is now looking to do the same for Michaelson. Which means that things haven’t changed as much as you think since Norah Jones five years ago; no matter how much of a story you can create without radio, there’s still the label urge to get airplay and really bring a record home.
Meanwhile, with Alicia Keys, Kanye West, Chris Brown, Rihanna, and Baby Bash also having iTunes singles stories these days, you can hardly say that the female singer-songwriters have elbowed Rhythmic product aside as much as nudged their own way in. That said, the sudden concentration of non-radio exposure has given that certain female singer-songwriter sound a place in the zeitgeist. So why shouldn’t Jill Scott, Elisabeth Withers, Emily King, and Angie Stone get the same sort of attention from ad agency music directors and TV music supervisors that would propel them beyond their current niche on the Urban AC chart? After all, the difference between “too good for radio” and pop culture domination often seems to be one heavily repeated TV spot.