As Mumford & Sons flex retail muscle, alternative radio is finding that hits don't always have to be hard.
The biggest sales week for a rock album since 2008 wasn't set by a veteran act like Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers or U2. Nor was it tallied by a band synonymous with crunchy, speaker-shattering guitars like Linkin Park, Shinedown or Three Days Grace.
In rock in 2012, you can't beat a banjo, as Mumford & Sons showed when the indie folk-rock quartet stormed the Billboard 200 last month with "Babel," which arrived with 600,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan (the largest sum for a rock release since AC/DC's "Black Ice" bowed at No. 1 with 784,000 units the week of Nov. 8, 2008).
Alternative radio has championed Mumford & Sons, with "Babel" lead single "I Will Wait" topping the Oct. 20 Nielsen BDS-based Alternative Songs airplay chart. The song's rule is indicative of a softer sound infusing the format of late, with hits of a similar vein by the Lumineers ("Ho Hey") and Of Monsters and Men ("Little Talks") also topping the tally this year.
Non-folk-leaning but still less in-your-face leaders from fun. ("We Are Young," "Some Nights") and Gotye ("Somebody That I Used to Know" - at 12 weeks, the year's longest-running No. 1) - have also recently reigned.
Chart statistics back up that the format is less interested in peddling metal: for the Nov. 10 chart week, 10 songs show on both the 40-position Alternative and harder-edged Active Rock airplay rankings. That's down from 16 a year ago this week and 17 five years ago. Ten years ago this week, 23 songs appeared on both lists - more than twice as many as this week. (Alternative radio hasn't given up on head-banging hits entirely; current shared titles include Papa Roach's "Still Swinging," Stone Sour's "Absolute Zero" and Three Days Grace's "Chalk Outline.")
Alternative programmers and record executives say that by following the public's lead, the format is satisfying audiences by making left-of-center choices - as it's historically sought to do. "It's relieving to see alternative radio get back to the original vision and core values that it was founded on by playing eclectic music," says GlassNote head of promotion Nick Petropoulos, who, along with celebrating the label's success with Mumford & Sons, appreciates the format's acceptance of acts with electronic elements, too. "Mumford & Sons are getting a lot of alternative airplay right now but so is Two Door Cinema Club and even Deadmau5. That's quite a broad spectrum of styles on the airwaves and it's very exciting."
"Alternative was founded on taking chances and that has really helped the format find itself again," concurs James Steele, WROX Norfolk, Va., PD. Cases in point: the station has jumped out on "Same Love" from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' "The Heist," which debuted atop the R&B/Hip-Hop and Rap Albums charts last month (26 plays in the Oct. 29-Nov. 4 tracking week). As-yet-uncharted ballad "Litost" by Ambassadors and the pop-leaning "Wild" by Royal Teeth also populate the station's top 10.
WBRU Providence, R.I., PD Wendell Clough remembers that in the '80s the station helped break folk acts Indigo Girls and Tracy Chapman. WBRU listeners, he says, thus expect the unexpected. "The cycles of alternative help make different movements viable on our airwaves. By trying to preach balance to our listeners, and casting a wide net in the sea of music, we've made it so that they're not surprised when they hear a style that isn't our bread and butter," Clough says. He adds that without a triple A station in the market, WBRU is freer to explore softer sounds than an alternative station battling a triple A competitor whose core sound is the organic rock in which acts like Mumford & Sons specialize. "If it's smart and good, our listeners will give it a shot," Clough says. "With Mumford & Sons' 'Wait,' they found that they loved it after only a few listens."
As musical styles cycle through the format, PDs feel that the heavier sounds that defined alternative a decade ago were bound to recede. "Alternative radio has never been about being hard, it's been about welcoming cool and different styles," says WSUN Tampa, Fla., PD Shark. "The early '00s gave us Disturbed and Papa Roach but the heritage of this format is in artists like Jane's Addiction and Depeche Mode. Alternative can play pop, hard rock, techno ... and folk."
"I think every genre has a breaking point where something new, something that doesn't sound like anything else cuts through and then the flood gates open," says Julie Pilat, KSYR Los Angeles PD. "A few years ago, pop radio had very little dance music on the air. Kanye West's sampling of Daft Punk on 'Stronger' sort of changed the course of history," she says, the song paving the way for dance-leaning acts like Black Eyed Peas, David Guetta and Lady Gaga at top 40. Similarly, "A decade ago, alternative was hard and guitar-driven. Then, poppier bands like Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie came along.
Ultimately, "Phenomenal music connects with our listeners and audience," Pilat says.
Clearly, those invested in alternative on both the radio and records sides hail a shift to a style that has found favor with the buying public. In line with its history, the format's risk-taking is paying off. "The last couple of years of alternative radio have been incredible," says Republic SVP of promotion Dennis Blair, who helmed the label's introduction of Gotye. "Labels are always waiting for that next wave of fresh new music to break through and it finally has.
"These acts have been breaking through because the quality and musicianship has been outstanding. I really believe it's that simple."