Television variety shows like Ed Sullivan had the occasional pop artist on, but they only booked the superstars, the artists that radio had made popular (think of Elvis and the Beatles). American Bandstand might play a couple of new songs for Rate-a-Record, but most of what they played were also already radio’s Top 40 hits.
Then in 1981, MTV signed on. As a video jukebox, MTV was the first serious threat to radio’s status as the main way people discovered new music.
It was a warning shot for radio. It warned that radio’s unchallenged status as arbiter of new music was not assured. Another medium could break its own artists and create its own stars.
Fortunately for radio, MTV found it could make more money discovering the next Beavis & Butthead than the next Michael Jackson. Radio regained the music discovery crown, and held it for another 18 years.
Napster changed all that in 1999. At its peak nearly 15 million users a month were sharing and discovering music on the web.
Today people are immersed in music discovery. The process of music discovery is diffused across a plethora of options including computer games, movie soundtracks, streaming, playlist sharing, social media, Rhapsody, Mog, YouTube, and on and on.
Oh, and radio too.
Radio still commands a special place for music discovery. Depending on the research, radio is either number one or close to it, but it no longer has a monopoly.
These facts are well known. Most broadcasters realize radio has lost its exclusivity. However, there’s been little discussion about what this development means for choosing what songs to play.
Picking music hasn’t much changed from the days when radio stations relied primarily on the back page of R&R. The trades have changed, but the process hasn’t.
It made sense then, but does this insular approach make sense now with people exposed to so much more new music, in many cases songs radio isn’t playing?
In today’s Call-Out songs with virtually no local radio airplay can make it into the top 10. Familiarity can reach nearly 100% for songs that no one in town is playing.
Yet most stations test and play the same predictable songs over and over.
Radio continues to differentiate music according to obsolete definitions of formats. The typical iPod owner might have hundreds of songs that cross all format lines. A person might listen to country, hip-hop, alternative, and AC songs all in the same session.
Music directors and programmers must take off the blinders and realize that hits now come from every direction from video games, movies, television award shows, as well as radio play.
No longer should radio play be the only thing that matters. Adds might be important, but only in the broader context of what’s happening across social media, YouTube, and other equally important pop cross-currents.
Arcade Fire’s Suburbs video has been viewed nearly three million times on YouTube alone in the three months since posting. Their older videos have had up to six million views.
Despite their success in other media, many in radio seem surprised the group won a Grammy, and broadcast has been slow to add the group’s music.
Is it any wonder that listener complaints about radio’s predictability and lack of variety are growing? It isn’t that radio is worse than it once was. It’s because today’s listener has different expectations.
Today’s listener is looking beyond formats. She has greater awareness and access to new music and it has raised her radio station expectations. And radio has yet to rise to the occasion.
Programmers can no longer act like radio is still in charge. Today the listener is in charge of music discovery. Time to adapt.