Radio used to be emphatically not in the business of selling records. Any convention panel on the radio/record relationship would usually end up with some programmer proclaiming above angry crowd murmurs that his job was to play the hits, not make them. In real life, there were always a number of PDs who prided themselves on finding the hits as well, but more believed labels and radio were diametrically opposed businesses.
Now, radio is very much in the business of selling music. The last two years have seen the launch of multiple artist/label initiatives at the major broadcast groups. In recent weeks, new superstar releases have become like the every-cover-of-every-magazine lead-up to “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” with a Katy Perry or Lady Gaga or One Direction event wherever you turn. Even Paul McCartney, whose newer music isn’t typically heard on the radio, was unavoidable. McCartney’s “New” got roughly comparable airplay to “Ever--Present Past,” the lead-off single from his last radio project, but it was particularly noticeable in an AC format that rarely plays veteran artists or songs without top 40 support.
The problem is that radio has decided to sell music at a time when fewer people want to buy music. Perry’s "PRISM" album debuted with a bigger first week than her "Teenage Dream." But the sales of both "New" and Lady Gaga’s "ARTPOP" were down significantly from their predecessors. As is increasingly typical, both require an asterisk since Gaga’s "Born This Way" benefited from deep discounting, while McCartney had a Starbucks partnership last time out. Working closely with radio this time did mean that McCartney was front and center in pop culture (a former Beatle never disappears entirely) and that his 2007-to-2013 drop-off was less than the overall album sales decline in that period.
Meanwhile, Miley Cyrus, who basically created her own events, has spent the last four months atop pop culture. Cyrus is a constant on-air topic and the seeming subject of every fifth radio station tweet. After two top 10 hits, including the current No. 1, "Bangerz" is just approaching a half-million albums sold at press time. That “We Can’t Stop” was first established as a hit with the help of massive streaming figures just confirms the number of listeners who would rather stream its music than buy.
Broadcasters could be part of that business as well. Cumulus-owned Rdio has a robust album library. Clear Channel’s iHeart Radio lets you stream songs on demand, but the promotional emphasis has been on listening “to hundreds of radio stations or create your own.” In their eagerness to position Pandora and Spotify as mere replacements for listeners’ own collections, broadcasters seem to have overlooked that opportunity for themselves.
But if broadcasters actively want to sell music, how could they be most effective, at least among those people still buying music?
Spread the love: Superstar album launches seem like an easy and logical focus, but two-thirds of the way into Q4, it’s starting to feel like the mega-events are running together. The sort of hits that the music business needs are built over time. Adele’s "21" was still reaching new consumers after a year.
Emphasize depth: Trying to emphasize the value of an artist’s entire project, and not just a single track, may seem quaint now that the battle has moved on to digital dimes vs. streaming cents. But it’s significant that Perry, who beat her previous album’s first-week sales, had four songs in rotation somewhere when "PRISM" came out. That was driven by a label decision more than radio enterprise. But finding the next great song on a superstar album used to be something that radio did in service of its “playing the hits” mission.
Use more of the canvas: At a time when radio has been taught not to break format, the artist specials are running at night, likely reaching more of the stream-not-purchase audience. Why not use a hook promo telling me what else is on "ARTPOP" or "PRISM" during the day to replace the streaming stop set filler I hear?
Build artist equity: The issue of back-selling was often at the root of these contentious panel discussions. Songs are frequently enough identified these days. But after thousands of spins for “Clarity,” I can honestly say that nothing I now know about Zedd or Foxes comes from the radio.
More inventory: Today’s radio is a store window where the displays barely change: one or two new songs a week lost among dozens of others that you’ve been hearing for six months. If doing otherwise is contrary to playing the hits, then there needs to be more emphasis on vehicles like CBS Radio’s “Tomorrows Hits Today” that create excitement for new music.
More formats: Two formats currently have the critical mass to sell music -- top 40 and country -- and the former is historically known for selling songs, not albums. And now top 40 is setting the agenda for other formats. When alternative and R&B/hip-hop are more robust nationally, more music will get more exposure.
Make the sale easier: Spotify exposes entire albums, but doesn’t sell them. iTunes sells entire albums, but offers only an occasional album in its entirety. iHeartRadio will send you to iTunes or Amazon to buy a song, after a few clicks, but it’s not prominent. There is no reason that the portal that combines produced radio, personalized radio and both streaming and owning music couldn’t come from broadcasters, except that they haven’t had the seeming inclination to do so until now. But if radio is now in the business of selling music, it needs every possible tool at its disposal.