I had the privilege of appearing with Ken Benson from P1 Media and Andreas Sannemann from Benztown discussing radio’s challenges in a streaming age especially during the Doldrums Of The Music Cycle. I’ll be appearing again in June discussing how to integrate streaming and social data in doing rotations.
Here is the link to the video.
I will show the numbers below after a quick refresher course on the Music Cycle and the signs that show we’re in The Doldrums.
Doldrums is the last of 3 phases of the 10-year music cycle, and in any given 10-year music cycle, The Doldrums is worst phase for music and music’s gatekeeper – Top 40 radio.
What brings back The Rebirth Phase, which is when a new Cycle happens, when a genre or an artist or a music platform brings about another change in music.
Music Cycle #1 1956 Artists: Elvis
Music Cycle #2 1964 Artists: The Beatles
Music Cycle #3 1974 The Albums: Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder
Music Cycle #4 1984 Platform + Artists – MTV and its generation of artists
Music Cycle #5 1997 Platform: The Internet and Napster allowing for free music and trading files
Music Cycle #6 2005 Platform: American Idol
Music Cycle #7 2015 Platform: Technology: Mobile Phone and Streaming Music
So, what are the factors that cause the shift in music phases during the music cycle? One factor is the differences in generations. Each generation wants something they can call their own as they mature – little sister never wants the same music that big sister or (heaven forbid) Mom/Dad are into. Music is driven by the leading-edge listeners who adopt what is hot today; and what’s hot today is yesterday’s news in a few years. So, the Cycle repeats as each generation demands its own style of music (even if it’s still a form of Rock, Pop or R&B or Country).
What else causes music to move through these phases? People argue that the dominant music platform i.e., the gatekeeper radio (and now) streaming platforms have a choice and can control the Music Cycle, so that the overall music balance you hear does not need to go through the Extremes or the Doldrums and can always stay balanced as it does during the Birth/Rebirth phase. These Music Cycle cynics believe that the music cycle itself is not real and under human control … but it’s really not! Yes, they can cause the intensity of the Extremes or the Doldrums to be more pronounced or less so but they can’t control the ebb and flow of the popular genres and songs that listeners love. The changes from one phase to the next and finally to the rebirth of a brand-new Music Cycle are simply based on human nature.
Top 40 is stuck in a rut and NOT reflecting the most popular songs as Year End charts for Top 40 Airplay Vs Year end charts for the popularity have about 50% duplication, meaning Top 40 is playing 50% of the most popular hits. There are lots of hits from other genres that could be played, but Top 40 remains too focused on pure Pop and Dance with some Hip/Hop R&B and some Rock, Country, and AC when so much more of Country and AC/Hot AC as well as a little more Rock could be played, as they are reflected in larger proportions on the Billboard Year End Charts.
2022 marks the biggest departure of Top 40 airplay from the popularity charts (Billboard). We see a drop we’ve not seen in over a decade, from the Pop + Hip Hop’s dominance and the largest proportion of non-Pop music. since the 80s. It also marks the biggest percentage of Country hits of alll times with 26% a number and a 21% average so far in the 2020s.
• 2022 marks the all-time lowest duplication between Top 40 airplay chart and the Billboard Year End chart at 46%. Extraordinarily low when you look back to 2010 and before that where the duplication was 80% or higher.
• R&B/HipHop lowest percentage in a decade on Billboard 24% (avg since 2010 is 37%) and first time in a decade where Top 40 airplay was greater for that genre vs popularity/Billboard at 26%.
• AC/Country/Rock + Latin for 2023 highest in a decade for Billboard at 48%, 2010s (23%) and highest since the 90s (31%), while Top 40 airplay is still only 19%.
• Pop which has averaged at 30% historically on Billboard’s Year End popularity charts drops slightly to 28% (avg since 2010 is 37% highest since the 1960s) And it still remains double that in top 40 airplay at 55% (down slightly from 2021)
• Dance songs were up to 24% for Top 40 airplay the highest percentage since the mid-2010s
So why is it the worst Doldrums cycle ever for Top 40 radio because over the last few years we’ve seen Top 40 radio’s average ranking in the ratings reached its lowest point ever.
During the early 2010s it was averaging 2nd 6+ in Nielson. By 2020 it was tied for 4th 2021 5th and in 2022 its 7th, In many markets it’s barely Top 7 looking at 6+, with many stations out of the top 10 completely with Classic Rock, Classic Hits and AC formats dominating.
This same weak trend for Top 40 has occurred for all 3 years of The Doldrums.
While the good news is Top 40 radio’s average has held its 18-34P and 25-54P rank position, its share has dropped dramatically since 2016 when the decline began. In 18-34P Top 40 is #1 tied with AC, but minus 50% and 25-54P #3 and minus 30%
Much of the Top 40 ratings decline is caused by an exodus of the under 30 audience and to a lesser extent 30-50P to Streaming platforms, TikTok and Satellite but also to more Gold-based formats.
Yes, we know more people cume radio than any other platforms but in total time spent consuming audio radio itself is struggling mightily especially with Gen Z and Gen Alpha.
Also, America is getting older with the median age now at 38 not 28 like it was in the 70s, but the radio listener average age in Jacob Media’s Latest Tech Survey 2022 is even older at 55.8. So, we’re seeing not only the worst Doldrums for Top 40 radio, but for radio itself.
Yes, radio itself also faces a steep decline in time spent listening – with the massive increase in use of streaming platforms and apps on the mobile phone become the number #1 way to consume audio and its future. But radio suffered through the “Death Of 1000 Cuts” to get here (and no it’s not too late for radio!). Some of this was due to the massive debt load radio overpaid for radio stations, which created a lack of continued investment like we had done prior to Consolidation after the Telecom Bill in 1987. We just haven’t done enough in protect our medium.
Here are just a few of the 1000 Cuts:
Radio’s Focus On A Ratings Service, Not The Listener
Radio essentially has become more and more of a background medium not a foreground music medium after Arbitron’s Soft Diary in 1986 which created a focus on workplace and being a utility. Listeners were asked to write down what they “hear” passively in the background and not “listen” to a radio station passionately. To make matters worse, Arbitron added the workplace as a listening location for the first time, which meant that background music stations like Adult Contemporary got 10 times the credit at the workplace as what had been a normal long listening diary to a foreground music station.
In the Summer of ‘86 after the Soft Diary took effect background AC stations that were used at the workplace shot to the top of the ratings all over America, and music formats like Top 40 and Rock dropped to #5 or #6.
So, Arbitron changed the radio landscape by exaggerating the value of passive listening and formats Like Top 40, the newly created Hot AC format and others began to focus on a strategy of getting workplace credit to succeed in Arbitron’s new methodology. Radio would never the same again after stations began to be focused on being the best background utility they could be, and as it entered the 2000s, we tried to remove irritants to workplace listening like energetic personalities and intense production.
Arbitron methodology no longer represented the value of a large contingent of listeners accurately and that strategy worked in reverse as it offered a radio offramp to Napster and Spotify for those passionate music fans who no longer were getting as much fun and energy as they wanted from music formats in radio.
Radio’s Mobile Strategy?!?
After Steve Jobs refused to include radio tuner on the iPhone in the early 00s, we did not push hard enough to get an antennae chip so mobile phones could pick up radio terrestrial analog signals on the Android phone. Even recently in order to receive Emergency alerts the FCC asked Apple to install FM Chips, but they refused. Android has an FM tuner but its hidden and has to be unlocked.
Luckily, streaming platforms for radio were created by iHeartradio along with Tune-In, but radio didn’t focus nearly enough on promoting its presence there and the benefits of listening through the app. So, the result as you can see from the Larry Rosen/Edison Research graph, only 12% of listening to radio occurs via streaming and that is a disaster!
Fewer and fewer people actually own radios, and Apps and Bluetooth enabling streaming platforms are invading Radio’s safe place – car listening With the majority of listeners consuming radio on mobile phones, radio as a medium has got to make an all-out effort to advertise the value of our medium on other platforms and convert existing audience to listening to streaming if we’re to survive in the future.
Larry Rosen of Edison Research “Share Of Ear Report” shows the following:
Commercial Load: It is very hard to compete with a streaming platform or app where you have little, or no commercials and you have at times 18-20 commercial an hour. That over-commercialization is a lasting brand impression of radio that will be hard to erase.
Personalities, The Next Generation (Radio’s Last Best Hope): Most of the great personalities of today have been on the radio for 20-30 years, and great ones like Scott Shannon have retired while others like Howard Stern moved on to SiriusXM satellite radio. Sadly, we have not invested enough in finding and developing successors to these great shows, personalities that can communicate with the future listeners of our medium: Gen Z and Gen Alpha. We so desperately need these personalities, and we need them in every daypart. We need them live AND local so they can be in constant contact with a new audience that has an ever-shrinking attention span.
Radio and the Top 40 format have lost the long time #1 position as the gatekeeper of the music discovery where the hits start, also radio has lost the large amount of listening from passionate music fans looking for music discovery. Now that’s #1 position belongs to Streaming platforms and apps.
The factor that has built hits in the past, a consensus of agreement on the most popular songs due to exposure by radio (and especially Top 40 radio). Radio has lost its gatekeeper crown and there are multiple streaming platforms (and their playlists ) and TikTok as well as radio to hear the songs. The challenge is that the star making platforms that expose music are no longer at ONE CONSENSUS destination. For 55 years Top 40 radio as a whole picked up on 90% of the same hit music – when a song reached CRITICAL MASS with a huge number of listeners after it was high on the Billboard Charts and in POWER ROTATION at the same time across the country by these Top 40 stations it became a massive hit almost automatically. Those days are gone.
So, it’s so incredibly hard to build consensus because the share of ears is spread across so many platforms streaming, apps, satellite, and of course, radio. And because with all these media platforms it’s hard to build consensus around one song and even building hits and hit artists, and that journey to the top can take a long time.
Some of this effect and loss of control of the starting the hits is reflected where we see less and less super hit titles – what I call consensus A’s, which are a majority of top 40 stations play as powers. Those numbers have shrunk every year, dropping dramatically from the number we have 5-10 years ago where this is the lowest amount of these major hits in history.
That also means the biggest hits are staying on longer, slowing all the other songs in rotation. When a song or album becomes a hit, they stay on the Billboard and Mediabase spin charts or Streaming charts even longer leaving much less room for new music and new artists.
There are a number of different ways hit songs start today:
1. A hit today can come from massive streams that a superstar artist dropping a song receives because it’s immediately embraced by streaming services. The top places for music discovery today happen to be on Spotify, Today’s Top Hits, Rap Caviar, Viva Latino PLUS a place on Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist is hugely influential in a song become a streaming hit.
2. A song that starts at TikTok and is embraced by Streaming services like Gayle’s “abcdefu” or Em Behold’s “Numb Little Bug”
3. Top 40 Radio can no longer break a song alone unless it becomes a massive hit is put in power rotation by most of the Top 40 panel and THEN gets picked back up by Streaming services…case in point was “Levitating” by Dua Lipa, which came back in June last year to become the biggest song of the year 3 months after it was moved to recurrent by the Top 40 charts and dropped dramatically in streaming.
4. If a song is extremely lucky and is included in a super-popular streaming series like Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things,’ ‘Ozark,’ Disney’s ‘Encanto’ or HBO’s ‘Euphoria’ and gets massive exposure that can have a profound impact in stimulating audio streaming.
5. “Running Up That Hill” got that massive exposure and was central to the series for entire season on ‘Stranger Things,’ so it exploded in Streaming audio. “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” by the Encanto Cast was at 30 million streams a week hit for two months until radio touched it when it was already practically burned out.
The Streaming Platforms are losing their power over the hits as well. Streaming service like Spotify and Apple are experiencing a loss of streams and TikTok is widely projected to be their successor to Streaming platforms in driving music popularity is losing its influence in driving streams. Labels are saying that TikTok is the most powerful marketing tool in music today.
We are seeing the songs at the top of Spotify’s playlist Today’s Top Hits stream a lot less than in previous years and some of that is due to the popularity of TikTok. Gen Z and Gen Alpha want something that the major streaming services do not offer. They want to take a more active role in the creative process of music making their own videos and content and not just be passive. But TikTok does not always help an artist develop a relationship with the audience as its user focused and not artist focused. It does not use the artist’s videos and instead the artist’s music is being used as background music for the user’s video. So, listeners are connecting almost as much to that artist on TikTok than they would if they were watching the actual artist video. Another problem is that so many new songs have a lifespan of just a few weeks.
Also, we’re seeing a decline in the value of TikTok breaking hits as the top 10 TikTok tracks were streamed far less in 2022 than they were in 2020, fueling worries that app usage isn’t “translating” as well to consumption.
Top 10 Singles Per Year On TikTok In The U.S.
2020 4.9 billion
2022 1.9 billion
That is a drop of roughly three billion streams, or 61%, in two years.
So TikTok is not influencing the biggest hits as much as even a year ag .
Breaking a current hit today is so very hard when 80% of what is being consumed by music consumers are catalogue titles It’s all about the sheer number of ears/eyeballs that a given song reaches through exposure in the following ways:
One of the biggest signs of The Doldrums is a resurgence in popularity of Gold music, remakes of older songs, and older songs themselves becoming currents again. Never in the history of Entertainment has there been more consumption of older music (as well as recycled movies and tv) especially from the 70s and 80s. We saw “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac make a return to the streaming charts a TikTok user posted a video of himself skateboarding to work while drinking Ocean Spray and lip-synching to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”.
Also, in the last 3 years some of the biggest music influences has come from video series like ‘Euphoria’ and ‘Stranger Things’ based in the 80s bringing back hits like Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.”
But we should have seen this changing tide from new to old coming as it’s been happening over the past 2 decades. Gold titles were becoming more popular than current music in 2004 – in the U.S., catalog titles accounted for 35% of music sales that expanded in 2014 to 50% of the revenue for music. The last 3 years has seen streaming and sales catalog according to Luminate expand to 65% (2020) then 69.4% (2021) and finally 72.4% (2022). So, in 2022 we’ve seen Current music’s share fall by a full 3% to just 27.6%.
For decades movie studios focused on creating new movies and television and labels focused on finding and developing new artists, now movie studios are looking for sure things with older movie stars being the highest paid and in most of the blockbuster movies. Also, you have older people with money being the consumers who are buying most of the music, so labels are trying to find ways to leverage their gold catalogues of older artists for repackaging as well as for song syncs with major advertising or consumer brands.
Also, you have the effect of the major streaming platforms algorithm leaning toward the same old songs because they are more familiar (and more common to most people). But with the massive amount of music available for streaming on the major Streaming platforms by their very nature will have more older music than new and so older music gets exposed, more.
Recently music industry executives seeing that over 70% of what listeners buy or stream are catalog titles are becoming more risk adverse toward contemporary music and new artists.
They believe it’s a fait accompli, a done deal before it’s finished … catalog titles will make up most of the revenue for labels and the it’s harder to justify that investment in new artists, as radio has seen in building the hits, it’s exponentially harder today for label’s marketing departments to develop new artists and hit songs because audiences are shared/split amongst SO many streaming platforms (Spotify, YouTube, etc.) as well as radio and of course that time is also shared with other forms of entertainment like gaming, streaming tv series and podcasting.
Also, some music labels are even saying they don’t want to pay huge amounts of money to established stars. Which gives a bleak outlook for future new artist development and long
term hitmakers. Just wait until the advent of “Web 3,” and when it becomes mainstream further eroding the hold of the creative community powerbrokers and places creators themselves in total control of their content. Then the share of ears and eyeballs will be spread out even further making it even harder to attain consensus of popularity for any one song artist (or video) and we may see even less songs become hits.
So, what we are seeing now and possibly in the future makes it “the perfect storm” of challenges and this is worst Doldrums of all times for hit music.
6. We need to find the next great Personalities that can communicate with Gen Z and Gen Alpha
7. We want those personalities to be Live AND Local and 24/7
8. In a mobile phone world, and with listeners short attention spans shrinking all the time we need them to have constant and almost immediate communication with listeners thru social media (TikTok, Facebook Live) and texting. If they react with you and you don’t react with them almost immediately, they will get bored and move on
9. We need to find a way to reduce the commercial load to 6 minutes and charging more for spots to make for the loss of revenue.
10. Once we fix our problems, we need to promote the advantages of our medium on platforms where Gen Z and Gen Alpha and Millennials spend the most time.
Luckily, we actually have an example to copy, almost all of the above is being done by station in Canada, consulted by Global Radio Consultant Ken Benson, 102-3 Now in Edmonton, Alberta which has 6 minutes of commercials an hour, great personalities in all dayparts, and constantly communicates with its listeners through texts.
1. “Play the F’ing Hits” and keep powering them! With Spotify TikTok as popular as they are and Shazam a frequently used method millions use to identify songs, you have 3 great tools to help you identify what new songs to play and even use to help build your developing categories. You also have Hitpredictor and Sales as well as further indications of the hits. But you can’t tell what songs are most popular with radio listeners without highly targeted callout for your audience to figure out what those songs are. These are the most important songs on your radio station – those songs are your building blocks, your spokes in building your music hours. There are only a handful of songs at any one time that are LOVED by your core and cume. Also people are listening less to radio so you can actually play songs even more weeks than we currently do as long as they still research well. This year with only 23 consensus hits you cannot wait months to add a hit song that is a massively streaming #1 song like Encanto’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” which radio waited 2 months too long to play when it was 30 million streams for weeks and it wound up being burned out by the time it was played and radio lost a precious hit song to power.
2. Play All the Hits (even the slow ones) When the People Meter first launched lead programmers in the Top 40 format developed a belief that downtempo songs were tuneouts in PPM. Yes, playing slow songs back to back on a format where tempo is an expectation should be followed but avoiding downtempo when a large portion of the biggest hits of all time have been ballads is foolish. Out of 12 songs an hour, you could easily play 4 maybe 5 slow songs an hour and still be a largely uptempo music hour.
3. Play all the Hits (even songs that aren’t Pop) We saw 54% of the most popular songs not being played enough to make the Year End Top 100 of Top 40 radio. Radio should be exposing AC, Rock, Country and melodic Hip Hop if they stream well.
4. Listen – Use Your Ears Check out music from every streaming platform and app out there and find your own hits: As a radio or satellite music programmer, don’t just depend on the labels or the charts!!! Whether it’s a new TikTok song you love, an unreleased album cut, a hit overseas, or a song from another format if it’s great and it sounds right on your station, and if it’s one of the best songs available, don’t be afraid to play and spin it enough and then patiently check our own data to verify that it’s a hit.
I know that programmers/Music Directors have 10 times the responsibility and a fraction of the time programmers like myself had to listen to music, but music is still, to quote Jon Coleman, ‘the base of our station image pyramid’ the main reason or one of the main reasons besides personalities that people listen to a music station …it was a #1 job in our time as programmers. When it comes to finding the next hit song and new artist that becomes core to your format, it may rest on your shoulders!
5. Give songs the time and exposure to be hits Give songs – especially the songs that show they are a hit in streaming enough exposure (6 weeks 6a-7p spins) to make sure they get a fair shake when you research them in callout.
Remember the average radio listener listens 15 to 30 minutes a day and that low level listening makes up 70 to 80% of the ratings. So, you need to give a song spins every few hours especially during the day each week often for 8 weeks to make sure they are exposed enough to all your listeners and then be patient and not kneejerk to early callout.
Also, do not give up on a song in callout until its 85% familiar for multiple weeks in a row then you can judge whether a song is going to be a hit for you.
I really worry about the effect of labels facing a changing and challenging world for music exposure and who are demoralized and hurting financially, if they don’t have song that are streaming but will test well at radio. They are considering a greatly diminished investment in new artists (and major artists). I know that may be a short-term recipe for financial success but it’s also a recipe for long term creative failure. It will have a disastrous effect for the music industry and the radio/satellite/streaming formats/channels that depend on new music and what was always a guarantee of “fresh new songs and artists.”
The solution for labels is not new in fact it’s “old school” and in many ways it’s just to maintain the discipline they’ve used for years.
Just like any new product that a company creates whether it’s a new breakfast cereal, a radio station or a music artist, they require:
A. substantial investment
B. time and patience
C. product expertise (producers to help mold and develop the artist)
D. marketing to create and build an image and find ways to connect with potential fans
E. management expertise (touring merchandizing etc.).
It requires from the company, who invested in this new artist, a hell of a lot of patience … often, many years (Warner’s own Fleetwood Mac took almost a decade to break). Yes, I know that is the old model, but it still works for every other industry! However, using an artist/song streaming as the new revenue model for the music industry has changed our focus away from this strategy that has always worked. If there is going to be less focus on developing new acts, that means artists will be doing their own artist development – which is good in perhaps some aspects, but it also means that our industry loses a lot of the label’s experience and expertise in developing and marketing new artists and music.
So far there have been seven other Doldrums beginning with the first one in 1960 and we’re in the 8th Doldrums now. The Doldrums usually lasts 3 years, sometimes less and sometimes more like the worst Doldrums up until now which was The Doldrums of 1991 through 1994. But oh yes, we’re living in the worst Doldrums in history for radio and especially Top 40 radio. If The Doldrums lasted through 2023 that would tie for the longest period for The Doldrums ever. But with what’s going on with new songs and artists depending on the huge spread for listening through streaming platforms, apps, satellite and radio it’s not hard to imagine a period where Top 40 radio struggles for longer than the longest Doldrums of the early 90s.
Brilliant Matt Bailey Integr8 Research’s projects: A generational influence on “the next wholesale mainstream new music evolution when today’s high school seniors turn 21 in 2026 — give or take a year or two.”
I certainly hope that we see at least a Rebirth in the Music Cycle by then because that would make it 6 years. However, with share of listening splintered among multiple music platforms and we see “User Focused” creative world approaching with Web 3 technology there is now a greatly reduced chance for consensus of popularity for music and artists and so it may be even longer before we see Rebirth.