No Format Collapse, But A True Doldrums?

Last week, two very different takes from Ross On Radio readers on the health of the mainstream top 40 format prompted us to examine the format's vital signs.

If ratings are the indication, the format was typically healthy in October. Some markets with two top 40 stations have no clear winner, but in Los Angeles, both linger near the top. There was no sign of a post-summer, "kids back in school" ratings implosion, although much of the summer bonus seems to have gone to country anyway.

If traffic in and out of the format is key, top 40 is mostly in a holding pattern, partially because most markets are now saturated. Clear Channel recently switched two top 40 stations to country, one of them in a market (Raleigh, N.C.) where it owned two top 40 stations.

But how is the music? Last week's column appeared in tandem with a front page Billboard Top 40 Update story called "Top 40 Slows Down the Songs," citing current entries from Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, One Direction, Passenger and the new Britney Spears title. So let's start there.

Tempo: Because production styles in any genre have a half-life as today's hits influence the hits that are still being written, the 120 bpm "turbo-pop" that defined the top 40 boom a few years ago has hardly disappeared. It lives in recent hits from the alternative side (Capital Cities' "Safe and Sound") and in the crossover EDM boomlet that turbo-pop helped usher in.

The glut of piano ballads that defined the format in the spring has passed, for now. More songs inspired by Bruno Mars' "When I Was Your Man" and Rihanna's "Stay" will undoubtedly materialize at some point. What we have now can still be best described as "mid-turbo." Spears' "Lipstick" and Perry's "Roar" aren't exactly ballads of that type. But they're not fun and uptempo. In fact, with the thread of singer/songwriter gravitas that Swedish House Mafia, Avicii, Zedd and Onerepublic have crossbred with EDM, tempo doesn't necessarily guarantee fun, either.

The best indication of where we are now with tempo is that I recently heard a prominent mainstream top 40 station, one that leans slightly to the pop side, going into a stop set with its "coming up" hook promo. The three songs in the prom—Travie McCoy's "Rough Water," Justin Timberlake's "Mirrors" and Lorde's "Royals"—were all mid- to slow tempo records.

Legitimate hits: Avicii's “Wake Me Up!,” “Royals” and Cyrus' “Wrecking Ball” are all the type of hits that top 40 PDs hope for. The first two are multiformat records that have propelled their artists into pop culture. The third, for better or worse, pretty much defines pop culture at the moment. And with all of country’s recent successes, why did the Country Music Assn. Awards feel the need to dwell on Cyrus? The issue isn’t the few songs at the top, though.

Depth: When top 40 rebounded in the mid-'80s, stations expanded their playlists because of the available product. (The same thing happened with country a few years later.) The format didn’t just have great hits; it had depth. If you’ve heard of “A Fine, Fine Day (For a Reunion)” by Tony Carey, it pretty much guarantees that you were listening avidly to top 40 in spring 1984. But it’s the sort of song that people who were there at the time cite as proof that even the mid-chart records were pretty good and that there were 40 songs worth playing.

At this point, there are more like 15 strong songs in play at this format rather than 40. It's not necessarily a function of available product. Viable candidates from alternative pile up waiting for a “rock slot” to open up, and anything that’s not rhythmic pop is competing with it. Metered ratings measurement has resulted in narrowed lists, and the number of PDs looking for something to play beyond those songs that are actively being worked to them is a relative trickle. The throttling of non-rhythmic titles affects another indicator of format health as well.

Variety: Every great top 40 period from the '60s forward is remembered for its stylistic breadth. Kids of the 2010s may indeed hold forth in 20 years on the format where you could hear everything from Lady Gaga to Passenger, but they won't be able to cite much R&B or hip-hop (except when Jay Z and Eminem had a new project) or even country, despite its current surprise place in their lives.

In the early '80s and '90s, "doldrums" was a euphemism for "a format collapse." Top 40 has not collapsed and is in no seeming danger of doing so. Other formats still take their cues from it, not vice versa. No other format besides country has its own exciting body of music that might show up top 40's music. But if the doldrums imply stasis, that's an easier case to make now.