"Ross On Radio," the long-running, influential column about radio programming trends and history, has returned to Billboard! The column will appear every Monday in Billboard's "Top 40 Update" a free subscription e-mail newsletter which you can sign up for HERE. The column will post every Wednesday on Billboard.biz.
Country radio was clearly relieved to get Taylor Swift's "Begin Again." Having an "undeniably country" single of their own, as WDSY (Y108) Pittsburgh's Charlie Mitchell put it, allowed most stations to move away from "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together." It wasn't such a surprising outcome. We are increasingly in an era of each format having its own single from a superstar artist, but the payoff for every format hasn't always been the same.
The "country/not country" debate has been with us forever. Reactionary PDs wished that Linda Ronstadt and Olivia Newton-John would go back to pop radio, but the new generation of country PDs were sorry when they did. Tanya Tucker, country's first female teen prodigy, used her stardom to attempt a rock/disco hybrid before quickly retreating with an undeniably country B-side. Dolly Parton is considered traditional country now, but she had AC-flavored pop hits and used separate singles to accommodate occasional forays into disco and even quasi-R&B/funk.
Mitchell thinks Swift briefly jeopardized her superstar status with a pop-flavored leadoff single, but she's been pretty canny so far. Two years ago, Swift quieted an earlier period of PD grumbling with three successive country-only hits. She didn't ask country to play her "Hunger Games" singles. Ironically, "Begin Again" has some of the same arrangement tricks that would have, in an earlier time, marked it as "too pop," but any fairly neutral ballad that didn't sound like "No Scrubs" would have been just fine with country PDs.
The parallel singles strategy is now everywhere, but it's not always used consistently. Unlike Swift, Coldplay didn't enlist Max Martin, but it was clearly familiar with his work, and it wasn't hesitant to go to modern rock with "Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall." The band did employ separate singles later, rather than ask those PDs to play a Rihanna duet. Ironically, the truest hit from Mylo Xyloto was "Paradise," a song that was played everywhere and didn't quite fit anywhere.
The parallel singles strategy has been great for mainstream top 40, but perhaps less so for other formats. Top 40 has thrived since it became an exporter, not an importer of hits. In many cases, top 40 gets its own Usher, Rihanna and Chris Brown songs, and it often seems to get the better end of the deal. It's significant that when top 40 radio hadn't yet taken Brown back, he gave R&B radio "Deuces," one of its biggest event records of recent years, before moving on to parallel tracks.
Also, parallel singles haven't helped the musical cross-pollination that creates breakthrough hits. At the peak of their stardom, Prince and Michael Jackson's rock experimentations frustrated some R&B PDs, but the format still found room for most of them. Now, top 40 gets the 120 b.p.m. dance song and R&B gets a ballad. What's missing is something in between. Trey Songz' "2 Reasons"-cool, uptempo, but not a dance record-is a rarity, and the closest thing to an actual crossover that R&B has sent in recent months.
Through the years some formats have depended more on top 40 to legitimize their hits. The new excitement about the modern rock format stems, in part, from its ability to again send hits to top 40, even if it takes those songs months to get there. Country has been able to draw listeners and sell records, regardless of whether top 40 legitimizes its hits. That said, the best-case scenario was when another undeniably country song, "If I Die Young," crossed over on its own terms. Top 40 PDs left the song to country radio for months, until it was finally worked to them, something that can no longer happen with Swift's singles.
When an artist like Adele manages a string of multiformat hits, you can again feel the excitement that characterized the moment when everybody liked Prince and Michael Jackson, no matter what their musical preferences. Unless a project develops off top 40's radar, it's often top 40 driving multiformat hits and AC/adult top 40 trying to figure out what to do with "We Found Love" . . . or "Gangnam Style."
Having your own format-appropriate single is fine. Owning the hit that radiates to other formats is even better, and from where we are now, that's going to be a harder thing for other formats to pull off again.