Ross On Radio: Why Q1 Is Different Now

More Songs In The Queue, More Emphasis On Summer

Not so long ago, there was a regular calendar in the music industry and thus at radio. The fourth quarter belonged to superstars. The first quarter belonged to new artists. Q1 was when those songs or acts with an established story elsewhere were finally unleashed at top 40. It was when a song like Londonbeat's "I've Been Thinking About You," already an international hit, would ignite instantly at radio. And nothing about the subsequent trivia-question status of that song or act should in any way obscure how perfectly they were teed up at the time.

At the end of 2013, there were a few songs that I was hearing about as likely to be worked at top 40 radio for Q1: "Rude" by Magic!, already a proven hit in Australia and Canada; "Forever" by Haim, the song that would crystalize a year of international success and consumer press love; and "Hero" by Family of the Year, the triple-A/alternative hit that had been proven to be a pop hit as well in Germany. Like Passenger's "Let Her Go," "Hero" was rumored to be transfering from Nettwerk to Warners. 

We're a month in the second quarter now. "Rude" was finally impacted late in Q1 and is growing steadily. "Forever" was worked a few weeks later. "Hero," which sure sounded like the next "Let Her Go" when I was hearing it on German top 40, has not been worked pop yet. 

There were definitely Q1 hits that had an international track record by New Year's Day, although most of them seemed to be further along in the process in various ways. There was the six-month overnight success of Pharrell Williams' "Happy" (also a movie and a viral video phenomenon), John Legend's "All Of Me" (an urban/urban AC hit), and Jason Derulo's "Talk Dirty" (from an established hitmaker). Aloe Blacc's "The Man" was the most traditional Q1 hit, and even that came with its own marketing story (the Beats ads and the iTunes sales they generated, as well as full-length sponsored spins at top 40). 

It's not as if Q1 was dominated by the superstars of Q4 2013. Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, and Beyoncé all had a presence, but got there along a slightly uneven path; even Perry was coming off the relative disappointment of "Unconditionally." If anything, it was a good quarter for the quality acts that ought to be core acts, with Williams and Legend's chart status finally catching up with their body of work. They shared Q1 with repeat hitmakers who are somewhere between brand new and top tier: Ellie Goulding, Derulo, OneRepublic, Demi Lovato.

So what was different in Q1 2014?

Beyoncé: She disrupted a lot of game plans at the end of 2013 and took two of the "left-field" slots at top 40 with "XO" and "Drunk In Love." And given her album sales, any discussion about whether either of those songs have been real top 40 hits is largely academic.

There's more of a chart backlog: The longer incubation time for any non-superstar hit record means that the song with an international success story elsewhere in Q4 has a lot of competition. What would once have been the Londonbeat slot for a just-released song instead goes to Bastille's "Pompeii" or American Authors' "Best Day Of My Life," obvious smashes now, but somehow not as obvious at the outset of their six month journey from other formats.

There's more of an internal backlog: Sony seemed to have Haim and Magic! ready to go. But they also had "Happy" and "All Of Me" and Beyoncé and "Turn Down For What." Warners is friendly to pickups and seized opportunities like Passenger or Family of the Year, but has Nico & Vinz and AJR. How many phenomena can you accommodate at once?

The continuing EDM boom: At a top 40 format most geared to deal with rhythmic pop, the secondary slots are going to Tiesto, Avicii, and Martin Garrix. And if the big DJs are already selling out major concert venues, doesn't playing Tiesto actually increase the superstar quotient of top 40?

The increased competition for "Summer Song 2014": More than a month before Memorial Day, some of the likely "Summer Song 2014" candidates are already in place, from superstars (Katy Perry) to the kind of acts that would have been typical Q1 releases before (Nico & Vinz) to those who were already one-song-away from U.S. massiveness (Ed Sheeran). 

The new emphasis on spring/summer doesn't just mean that some of the most likely Q1 songs are diverted, it also means that anything released in, say, late January/early February has less of a window to break through. Add that to the longer incubation time and you're hoping that a song can somehow complete a 24-week process in eight weeks before the next wave of hot releases comes.

During the worst of its various doldrums, some argued that the top 40 format could still have hits if only PDs would take matters into their own hands and create some.  Even with the format's current success, not every top 40 PD is happy with the number of mega-hits at any given moment. Yet the current 24-week gauntlet that the format has set up for any non-obvious top 40 hit almost guarantees that some perfectly valid candidates with a proven track record elsewhere will spoil on their way to market.