Hall of Famer and highly respected programming and content multi-media consultant Fred Jacobs made me aware of a recent article in Billboard Magazine that led with the headline “Radio’s Honestly the Last Thing We Talk About.” The headline jumped off the page at me. It screamed that radio lacks importance to record labels and hence is unimportant to artists, which makes some sense given the common thinking that radio has lost its luster in many media circles.
DSPs like Pandora, Spotify, Amazon, and Apple would have you believe that radio is dead. It’s over. A buggy whip in an era of self-driving cars. Not true. Almost any executive that I speak to at a DSP wishes they had radio’s reach. That said, it is true that radio – and all legacy media – is eroding as the levels of competition increase. This, by the way, is also impacting the first wave of new media: satellite, video, and audio streaming are all seeing a decline in usage. More choices do not equal more listening. One’s time spent listening is their time spent listening – what they listen to is what changes.
My initial indignation in reading this Billboard interview with Big Loud executives, SVP/GM Patch Culbertson, and SVP/A&R Sara Knabe, dissipated as I drilled down into the article. They never said radio is no longer a priority for their label, but rather that radio is a) the last step applied to any marketing plan for a song release and b) added to their plan when they feel confident they have a hit song. In the words of fellow consultant and Radio Ink columnist John Shomby, “Radio is the last leg of a relay race.”
Noting that the headline was “clickbait” and not dismissive of radio at all, Jacobs pointed to an important quote highlighted in the article. “In the Big Loud model, gut-level assessments dominate in signing artists and writers, while number-crunching drives the decisions when the label takes singles to radio. But with digital consumption providing the bulk of record-company revenue, getting onto the nation’s airwaves isn’t even a consideration unless the numbers justify it.”
It’s clear that radio is no longer the “Discovery” tool for music and new artists that it was in the era prior to streaming. Streaming and online listening is where many songs start their life cycle. It’s also a way to test a song to see if it has a strong enough positive acceptance to invest in moving a song beyond streaming. Music online is today’s version of yesterday’s brick-and-mortar record store. Because of that alone, I see value in records and radio using streaming metrics to gauge the potential of a song.
Very few of today’s radio programmers take chances, given the need for continuing strong rating performance. Being risk-averse has put many programmers, and radio stations, into a position of being followers, not leaders. While there is not a 100% performance rate with using consumer streaming to predict hit songs for radio airplay, it is a strong indicator for consideration. Which makes the worth of streaming exposure even greater for a label. It’s their version of a petri dish.
Streaming delivers revenue to labels and artists. Adding radio to a marketing plan requires a promotion and marketing investment. It’s needed to create awareness for an artist with a strong and frequent sales pitch, travel expenses in visiting radio stations, and the cost of underwriting a national and regional promotion team. Big Loud, among other labels, regardless of format continues to invest in promotion for radio.
I haven’t met a single label head who doesn’t acknowledge that radio is the difference between having a song “out there” and having a huge selling hit. It’s a math exercise. If you see success streaming, then you have a song worth investing the time and money into it to create a radio hit. This paragraph from the Billboard article reinforces my statement: “Especially for developing artists, you’re talking about the 55- to 60-week debut single campaign. If you don’t have the hit in your hand, why are you going to go and do three to five months of radio setup and launch with that, and it’s going to be crickets when you are performing those records in front of the fans?”
The bottom line, as Patch Culbertson said, is radio’s status as the “end game” or “final step” to making a hit. “Radio’s honestly the last thing we talk about with any artist that’s interested in partnering with Big Loud,” he explained. “It is the last thing we talk about in terms of their marketing strategy and campaign. What I want to equip all our radio team with is the power of the audience telling those stations that [something] is a hit, not that the radio person has to convince them.”
Yes, radio is no longer the discovery platform for music that it once was, and corporate pressure to “play it safe” is the easiest path for a PD to take. Label promotion and marketing budgets for radio are decreasing and that slows the lifecycle of a song. Showing streaming of a song by listeners serves as a form of consumer research which is akin to checking record store sales, pre-internet.
But – radio airplay is still important for a song to move from “okay” to “great” and the labels still recognize this.