by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming
During any format’s doldrums, programmers’ first instinct is to blame the available product. Good PDs will find their own hits, of course, but you can only invent so many useable records and, looking back now, it’s easy to remember when the Spin Doctors were the only thing that Top 40 had to play in early 1993, or when the Dixie Chicks were the only thing worthwhile on Country in fall 2000. From a few years’ distance, the available product seems like a pretty plausible culprit after all.
Modern Rock needs to see its Entertainment Weekly-friendly acts turn in to People Magazine-friendly acts.
So how do you explain what’s going on with Modern Rock radio? For two years, there’s been general consensus within the industry that the format’s available music is getting better. And yet Modern Rock hasn’t been able to parlay the White Stripes, Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Modest Mouse, “Garden State” Soundtrack, or, for that matter, a triple-platinum Green Day album into improved ratings, or even a reason for stations like WPLY (Y100) Philadelphia or WHFS Washington, D.C., to hang around.
There’s more to it than the much-bandied explanation that Modern Rock suddenly got too hip for the room, but there’s certainly truth there as well. The inroads made by KBZT (FM94.9) San Diego were enough to trigger a sea change throughout the format. Suddenly, the same PDs who weren’t sure five years ago if they could even still play U2 were standing at a buffet table with old Morrissey and new Morrissey, old Social Distortion and new Social Distortion. After all those years of Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, it was hard to expect them not to gorge on the sort of music that made them wanted to be in Alternative radio in the first place.
Clearly, not every listener’s tastes evolved quite that fast. Maybe the best indication of that came a few weeks ago when Entertainment Weekly issued a withering dismissal of the new 3 Doors Down album “Seventeen Days.” “Rock keeps evolving, so why do 3 Doors Down stubbornly stick to the genre’s dull old ‘Days’?” asked one headline. The review itself declared, “Albums like ‘Seventeen Days’ make it easier to understand why so many have begun gravitating to friskier, more idiosyncratic newbies like the Killers or Franz Ferdinand.”
Well, maybe not so many listeners have made the switch. “Seventeen Days” debuted at No. 1; (a few weeks later, it’s now No. 12). The album’s first week was enough to give the opening single “Let Me Go” some extra juice at Top 40, where many programmers needed a nudge as well, but not enough to keep the song from peaking at No. 14 at Alternative. Interesting to note: the record’s best numbers now are on its home turf in the south where “Modern AC” isn’t quite as reviled a concept.
Back at Active Rock, the format that Modern finally diverged from after several years of moving in relative lockstep, things aren’t looking a lot better. The two most universal testers of recent months have been Green Day, who have finally become naturalized citizens after 11 years as Modern’s core act, and Motley Crue, who reclaimed the 3 Doors Down/Nickelback power ballad slot with “If I Die Tomorrow.” And by multiple accounts, the music that now excites 18-year-olds is harder Classic Rock, not today’s new Active-only artists.
What has become apparent over the last year is that while it’s nice, in theory, to see Alternative and Active Rock becoming separate formats, those stations are no longer helping records reach critical mass. While it may pain readers to see Kid Rock and Linkin Park mentioned in the same breath with Pearl Jam and Nirvana, both those eras represented a time when multiple Rock constituencies were willing to listen to the same music for a while, although the novelty of Rap/Rock clearly wore off sooner for many Modern listeners. And it’s no accident that the Country boom of 1990 also represented a moment when multiple groups of listeners came together.
Country, by the way, is particularly relevant here. Looking at the number of exciting new acts that haven’t translated into ratings, one is reminded of the late ‘80s when the Kenny Rogers MOR mush that had typified the format for years gave way to Rosanne Cash, Mary Chapin Carpenter, the Desert Rose Band, Steve Earle, Foster & Lloyd, and the Kentucky Headhunters. It was much better music, but it didn’t move the needle ratings-wise. That job fell to Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Brooks & Dunn, Travis Tritt, and other acts who represented a more commercial distillation of the class of ’87. Even Modern Rock had parallel developments as the first acts to incorporate hard rock, such as the Cult, gave way to Jane’s Addiction, then Pearl Jam and Nirvana.
So Modern Rock doesn’t necessarily need to bail on the indie rock sound, but it does need to see its Entertainment Weekly-friendly acts turn in to People Magazine-friendly acts. For a format that’s well known for making a big deal of its own acts, it doesn’t seem to have built much of a cult of personality around the new bands of the last few years. Or have gotten much mileage out of Green Day. Or manage to turn “Garden State” into its own “Saturday Night Fever.” The soundtrack’s biggest crossover, “New Slang” by the Shins, peaked around No. 66 at Modern Rock.
It would also be helpful to see more of Modern’s current product ratified by Top 40. If the Killers’ “Hot Fuss” has developed sales legs that the Strokes, White Stripes, and Hives didn’t, multiple-format airplay probably has something to do with it. A few years ago, the handful of Top 40 PDs who tried to play, or even test, the White Stripes, Strokes, and Hives found that music hadn’t extended any tentacles into the pop world. Now that barrier is down and both the rock and pop sides should be taking advantage of it.
When Modern Rock radio experienced its mid-‘90s growth spurt, PDs were careful to stake their claim on any new rock music, even if it didn’t really fit. That’s how a roots/rock act like Hootie & the Blowfish, which really fit better on the Heritage Rock side, ended up as an Alternative act, at least for a few years. The downside of that approach is that by the time Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit came around, Alternative didn’t feel like its old self at all. The upside is that Active Rock was kept from ever having its own music.
It may be time for Rock radio to think along those lines again, and for stations to become more “Middle of the Rock,” with the best of all styles. Stations like WIYY (98 Rock) Baltimore in the late ‘80s or WWDC (DC101) Washington in the late ‘90s were just a little broader than typical programming wisdom would have dictated, and in doing so managed to control multiple rock franchises. With many owners now realizing that you can control the “wall of rock” in most markets with one fewer stations, the opportunity to be broader may very well exist again. That doesn’t mean that Rock radio shouldn’t keep bringing the new music that makes PDs passionate to their audiences. It just means that, as with 3 Doors Down, that they shouldn’t tell the listeners what they’re allowed to like.
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.