Radio & Records: How SoundOut, HitPredictor, RateTheMusic, Mscore Help Radio Get A Handle On the Hits

Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” may be exactly that at the moment, but what if top 40 had a crystal ball to predict which Dragons track was next to breathe fire at the format?

For many PDs, that crystal ball already exists in the form of such research as SoundOut, HitPredictor, RateTheMusic and Mscore. Some of that research predicts that Imagine Dragons’ “Demons”—which is already a factor at alternative and adult top 40—has what it takes to impact  mainstream. “Demons” is already playing on CBS Radio’s “Tomorrow’s Hits Today,” the Radio.com station based on SoundOut’s research of music consumers.

WHAT LISTENERS WANT: MSCORE AND RATETHEMUSIC

CBS Radio VP of research and audience measurement Gary Heller notes, “It wasn’t long ago when all radio had was callout, requests, sales and gut to help determine a song’s potential.” How things have changed.

While using callout research to test music has been around for half a century, the introduction of RateTheMusic nearly 10 years ago moved the process online and keyed in on super-active database members in order to get a read on songs well before what would normally be seen in callout, and sometimes before release. According to Mediabase/­Clear Channel executive VP of integrated music marketing worldwide Alyssa Pollack, who oversees the service used by 200 stations, “Rate­TheMusic is usually four to six weeks ahead of the curve. If PDs want to know what songs work with women 25-34 listening in afternoon drive, we can get that deep.”

On the label side, Rate­TheMusic tests songs before going to radio as well as after, to gauge hit and crossover potential. One major-label senior VP of promotion says, “If a song starts strong in Rate­TheMusic, chances are you’ll finish strong on radio. Once you’re down the road, it’s a pretty good indicator of whether you’ve got a chart-topper or your song will stall. It’s also a great tool to cross a song to top 40 if I’m seeing the female 18-24 cell looking strong on an alternative track.”

What if consumers’ actual radio listening behavior runs counter to the music opinions expressed in RateTheMusic? Enter Mscore, using Arbitron’s Portable People Meter (PPM) and Mediabase airplay data to measure station-switching activity during a song’s play. Philippe Generali, president/CEO of Mediabase-Media Monitors-RCS, which developed Mscore, says it can be “very effective in the hands of a great programmer. In cases where there is a very favorable Mscore in the early life of a song, PDs need to recognize that there is less need to be conservative and that they should play it more.”

Pollack stresses that Mscore is “a partner [and not] a replacement for Rate­TheMusic. Looking at multiple data platforms, across-the-board smashes like Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ stand out early.” Among stations using both is WHTZ (Z100) New York. PD Sharon Dastur says, “RateTheMusic and Mscore are some of the valuable indicators that help us evaluate the music each week.”

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Working the Modern Tools of the Trade: Rob Cisco, Philippe Generali, Gary Heller and Guy Zapoleon (Clockwise from left)

THE LONGER VIEW: HITPREDICTOR AND SOUNDOUT

Longtime record executive Don Ienner says, “Once the artistry and production have gone into creating a great song, being able to tap into consumer perception of the work to help understand how it will come across to the public and listeners is a powerful tool.” That’s the intent of such research tools as SoundOut and HitPredictor.

HitPredictor, co-founded in 2002 by Clear Channel senior VP of programming research and strategy Guy Zapoleon and music industry veteran Rick Bisceglia, was created with the purpose of testing every song before it went to radio. One early believer was industry icon Clive Davis, Zapoleon recalls. “Over 11 years working with every label, Clive was one of our biggest supporters. HitPredictor data said ‘Miss Independent’ was the hit from Kelly Clarkson’s first album even though RCA originally wanted to go with a different song. When the label wanted an uptempo single for Christina Aguilera, HitPredictor showed that [the ballad] ‘Beautiful’—which became her landmark song—was the way to go.” More recently, HitPredictor research has determined the hits on albums by such artists as Bruno Mars, Ke$ha, Phillip Phillips and Taylor Swift.

Two years ago, U.K.-based SoundOut entered the American market with a different take on determining future hits. Song reviews written by randomly selected and musically diverse “scouts” seek to forecast a track’s success by format or genre, according to Rob Sisco, president of SoundOut’s North America operations. “We analyze everything every reviewer has said to understand genre tendencies, overall likes/dislikes, passion for a track and what parts of a song might or might not be working. It all goes into a comparative database of every track we’ve ever tested against 43 different genres. We can measure a song’s market potential based on every track overall as well as in its particular genre.”

For radio, Sisco says, it means that stations “have the info if they want to lead on a piece of music. Soundout bridges that gap between [a song’s] release and seeing results in callout, so PDs can add the song with confidence.” CBS Radio’s Heller, one of the biggest users of SoundOut, can vouch for the data. “I remember it highlighting One Direction’s ‘What Makes You Beautiful,’ Neon Trees’ ‘Everybody Talks’ and Imagine Dragons’ ‘It’s Time’ early on. While that doesn’t mean every song that scores well is going to be a hit, SoundOut deserves to be in the conversation. It’s like another voice in a music meeting.”

At the labels, according to one VP of promotion, SoundOut “confirms your suspicions that your song’s either a big hit or doesn’t belong on the radio. It can serve as a tie-breaker when you have three great songs and don’t know which to go with first. It tells you which song will work in which demo, which can be a multiformat hit vs. just a one-format hit. The deeper, layered data can help you make more informed decisions as to what songs have a greater chance at radio.”

BETTER HITS THROUGH SCIENCE?

Those overseeing these research tools agree not every song that tests through the roof is meant to be a hit. Pollack says, “Some songs that test great just don’t get their proper chance.” Sisco adds, “Just being a great song isn’t enough: You need timing and marketing.” 
What about the scientific methods of predicting hits, like measuring brain waves or song chord progressions? Sisco observes, “That’s like looking at Monet and saying, ‘If you had three flowers in the righthand corner, it would be more along the lines of what people like these days.’ You have to take artistry as artistry.”

Zapoleon says, “I’ve never seen anything better than traditional listener feedback. At the end of the day, it’s about the song.”