The State of Radio

These Three Singles Broke On Radio Instead Of Streaming: Here's How It Happened

Dillon Francis and lovelytheband Lindsey Byrnes

Promotion executives explain how they drove lovelytheband's "broken," MAX's "Lights Down Low" (featuring gnash) and Ava Max's "Sweet but Psycho" up Billboard's radio airplay charts

As much as radio is derided for its late adoption of discovering new artists in the streaming era, the medium has proved it can still break acts. Ella Mai's "Boo'd Up" is the best recent example: The song reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2018 thanks to a wave of nationwide airplay that started in the Bay Area, at KMEL-FM, when DJ Big Von played the track after someone requested it at a club DJ gig. But as exemplary as "Boo'd Up" became, it was not alone, and multiple songs during the past couple of years have found wide success on radio before streaming, proving the format's enduring strength as a launching pad.

Danny Buch, senior vp promotion and artist development at RED Music, a label division of Sony Music Entertainment, has a simple philosophy when it comes to breaking artists on the radio: "It's not how high you go, it's how long you go," he says. By that, he means focusing on key station adds and growing support incrementally instead of gunning to achieve "most added" status for a track. In doing so, says Buch, new artists can compete in a marketplace dominated by superstar acts without the risk of spins decreasing -- a signal to programmers that a song’s popularity is slipping and it’s time to move on to something new. "We can't compete in the 'most added' dichotomy like with the majors," says Buch. "You'll go up and down before you really know what you have."

This grind-it-out model was successful for alternative rock group lovelytheband's "broken," which reached No. 9 on Billboard's Radio Songs chart dated Nov. 17, 2018, and pop singer-songwriter MAX's "Lights Down Low" (featuring gnash), which hit No. 5 on Radio Songs on March 24, 2018 -- both on RED's roster. (Neither track appeared on the Streaming Songs chart.) By giving them "enough time to marinate," says Buch, both songs were able to develop stories market-by-market and eventually register greater familiarity from callout research, driving airplay even further.

Lovelytheband, “Broken”

For lovelytheband, after SiriusXM’s Alt Nation channel gave "broken" early national airplay, Buch targeted regional alternative rock stations that also provided ahead-of-the-curve support -- WLKK-FM Buffalo, N.Y.; KYSR-FM Los Angeles; WKQX-FM Chicago; KTCL-FM Denver; XETRA-FM (91X) San Diego; and WEQX-FM Albany, N.Y. -- in August 2017 to create a foundation for his promotional campaign. The track first charted at No. 40 on Billboard's Alternative Songs chart dated Dec. 9, 2017, and, after the year-end holiday season, ascended to the top 30 in early 2018. It steadily climbed the charts during the following months before hitting No. 1 on April 21, 2018, where it spent nine weeks. It then crossed over, topping the Rock Airplay chart -- where it spent a record nine weeks at No. 1 -- and Adult Pop Songs in June and November, respectively. In July, "broken" also charted on the Hot 100, generating 22 million radio audience impressions and 4 million U.S. streams a week.

"We did a lot of radio promotion," says Scott Burton, vp promotion at RED Music. "Radio was getting very interested in this band, and they liked the way the song sounded. Usually that means the next question from a radio station is, 'Hey, can they do a show for us?' And there were very few shows that we didn't do. We got on as many bills as we possibly could. The guys traveled an insane amount. They worked their asses off. They kissed babies and shook hands with a lot of programmers across the country. That made a big difference."

MAX featuring gnash, “Lights Down Low”

RED Music's Buch emphasizes "generating a holistic story" for a single that encompasses both radio and streaming using what success it has already achieved. With MAX's "Lights Down Low," it took two years for the song to reach its peak at radio following its commercial release in March 2016. It initially clicked as a stream when it was added to a Spotify playlist in Holland, but that was enough to interest Erik Olesen, head of pop radio promotion and radio strategy at Crush Music, which was then managing MAX: Among the song's first 10,000 streams, there were few skips and roughly 8,000 saves, says Olesen, adding with a laugh: "That's called an indicator."

From there, Olesen says he began conducting "hand-to-hand combat" with MAX, working on station adds one at a time, wherever he could get them. He found early pickups at top 40 stations WNCI-FM Columbus, Ohio, and KDDB-FM Honolulu, then SiriusXM's Hits 1 channel and Radio Disney followed nationwide. Slowly, adult top 40 stations around the country added the single, then adult contemporary. As the song gained momentum, Crush and MAX created dance, rap-free, Spanish- and even French-language versions to maintain its rise, which resulted in the song peaking at No. 5 on the Radio Songs chart.

"In order to get the monster streams [that followed], we needed the radio play, and the reason why the record still gets a million streams a week to this day is because radio brought it home," says Olesen. "We could never have gotten there without the support of radio, and radio was the difference-maker -- the others were all indicators."

Ava Max, “Sweet but Psycho”

In some instances, U.S. radio will break a single stateside after it gains traction overseas. That was the case with Ava Max's pop hit "Sweet but Psycho." Released on Aug. 17, 2018, the track first gained popularity in Scandinavia before spreading throughout Europe. That early international success helped land the single on Spotify’s coveted Today’s Top Hits playlist in October 2018, along with airplay from SiriusXM's Hits 1, KYLD-FM and KMVQ-FM San Francisco; WBBM-FM and WKSC-FM Chicago; KDWB-FM Minneapolis; WZPL-FM Indianapolis; WXKS-FM Boston; and KHKS-FM Dallas. As “Sweet but Psycho” went on to top the charts in over 20 countries, including the United Kingdom's singles chart for four consecutive weeks in December 2018 and January 2019, the Atlantic Records promotion team used its success in some of the world’s top markets to help drive the stateside top 40 radio campaign. The single hit No. 3 on the Radio Songs chart on May 18, 2019, and a month later peaked at No. 27 on Streaming Songs.

"Radio does break a lot of music, but sometimes you have to bring a story to them to get it," says Atlantic senior vp pop and rhythmic promotion John McMann, who worked "Sweet but Psycho" to radio. "We had a significant story to tell, and fortunately, radio listened."

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