Women in Music 2016

Why a Slow and Steady Climb Endures on Country Radio

Christopher Polk/Getty Images for iHeartMedia
Little Big Town perform during the 2015 iHeartRadio Country Festival, airing on NBC on May 27, 2015, at The Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas. 

Country label reps, used to a glacial pace for non-superstars climbing Billboard's Country Airplay chart, often express admiration for the "faster" Pop Songs radio airplay chart, aka Mainstream Top 40 in Billboard magazine. The title of one panel held during last week's Country Radio Seminar, called "The Tortoise and the Hare," illustrates the fixation.

The Country labels come by certain frustrations honestly. But the Country Airplay chart and the Mainstream Top 40 chart (both powered by Nielsen Music data) don't have comparable lifecycles, for reasons that the CRS panelists discussed only in passing. And, notably, there are aspects of the top 40 ecosystem that Country labels don't want to emulate. Additionally, it seems that Country reps have missed those articles in the consumer press over the last few years about how long it takes to break a pop hit these days.

The Country Airplay chart's molasses is a 15-year frustration - in 1999, my Edison Research colleague Larry Rosin suggested to CRS attendees that Country radio hold on to its hits longer and end the "revolving door" at No. 1, where even smashes gave way to the next label priority almost immediately. Despite that, the revolving door was never entirely disabled. Even so, the time it takes for songs to reach the top has increased.

The result is a bottom half of the Country Airplay chart area where songs often huddle for months. Even now, it's not unusual to hear a new song that's being worked to Country radio, forget about it (because you don't hear it on the radio), then look up four months later to realize that it's cracking the top 25 and moving into serious contention.

In the early '00s, when Country's product cycle was soft and the target audience was 35-plus, that long gestation period was partially a result of non-descript songs that needed many hundreds of spins at a given station to stand out. But even reaction records had slow going. Did listeners really need half a year to figure out "Ten Rounds with Jose Cuervo"? "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off"? Those songs would have been ten-week records in another time.

Audiences are younger now. Country's ratings are healthier, and there are usually multiple stations in a market to help familiarize a song. The format has a new crop of PDs trained at mainstream top 40 willing to play songs in more aggressive rotations. Yet, Little Big Town's "Girl Crush" still needed 32 weeks to climb the Country Airplay chart. Becoming a phenomenon, and not just another ballad that radio resisted, ensured it safe passage to the top three, but not swift passage.

That said, there are an increasing number of songs on a faster track at Country. At first, it was mostly superstar releases, which is why Carrie Underwood's "Heartbeat" is top five after 12 weeks, ahead of a Randy Houser song that needed 37 weeks to reach No. 7. But there are faster-breaking songs from Cole Swindell and debut artist Maren Morris, as well. The latter notably benefitted from the support of iHeart Radio's "On The Verge" artist development program. Breaking from iHR's syndicated Bobby Bones Show sent Chris Janson's "Buy Me a Boat" to No. 3 in 20 weeks.

Mainstream Top 40, meanwhile, has become more conservative. The advent of PPM ratings measurement reinforced the value of tighter, more recurrent-driven playlists. Top 40 PDs became Country PDs and brought a more aggressive programming style with them, but the traffic went both ways. When Cumulus Media, built on Country and AC, started accumulating top 40 stations in the late '00s, the chain brought that ethos with it, but that sort of conservatism hardly stands out now. Look at any list of the year's top 100 songs and you'll see that the true consensus hits usually run out after No. 30 or so.

For artists at the format's center - Ellie Goulding, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez - the trip to the top 10 can be a fast one. Demi Lovato can quickly send a song like "Confident" to just outside the top 10 before PDs have enough feedback to know that it's not a true hit, and even newcomer Tori Kelly has had three almost-hits in the time it takes some Country acts to gut it out with one song. A non-superstar song that fits the sonic mainstream like Daya's "Hide Away," but is on a small label (Artbeatz), can take months to break, but G-Eazy's "Me, Myself and I" on RCA needed weeks, not months.

It's the slow track that has gotten all the publicity lately. Pharrell's "Happy" hid in plain sight for more than six months. Songs from outside the rhythmic pop center, like Elle King's "Ex's & Oh's," frequently take the better part of the year. I first heard Fall Out Boy's "Uma Thurman" on the radio on a winter 2015 day so cold that I had to retrieve the car while my wife and daughter huddled in a restaurant doorway, but it took until late September to peak at top 40. Country label reps might not like a chart that really looks like Mainstream Top 40, as only superstar artists and core sounds would be fast-tracked, while ballads and anything not easily digested would languish even longer than they do now.

Besides, here's where it becomes clear that comparing the number of weeks that songs spend on the Country Airplay and Mainstream Top 40 charts is not a fair comparison. For one thing, Country is a 60-position chart, and Mainstream Top 40 is indeed 40 positions-deep. But all of those slow-breaking Mainstream Top 40 hits were developing stories somewhere else. For "Happy," it was Top 40 radio in other territories. For Elle King and Fall Out Boy, or anything else from outside the rhythmic pop mainstream, it was other format charts, often some combination of Alternative, Adult Alternative and Adult Top 40.

CRS panelists acknowledged that pop hits have multiple places to develop a story, not just the Mainstream Top 40 chart. What was never said is that the Country community has always fervently opposed letting its radio stations fragment. Putting the stations that more aggressively add and rotate new music on an "Active Country" chart would create more stories faster. It could also allow ballads and heritage artists an easier passage at the remaining "Mainstream Country" stations.

So far, Nashville doesn't even want to discuss letting the Country Airplay chart fragment into subformats.To some extent, it's a control issue. Labels don't want to end the revolving door at No. 1, at least not when it's their turn. They don't want to cut bait quickly on superstar releases that radio is resisting. There will likely be another discussion of the slow chart at CRS 2017. Until then, label reps are answering the question of which chart paradigm they prefer every week.