We live in a format-less world now, with the iPod playlist and so forth.”
That was Republic Nashville president Jimmy Harnen telling Billboard about the decision to take Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” to top 40. “When you get a record that goes to No. 1 in country, you know there’s a bigger audience.”
Most of us have anecdotes now that support the notion of a post-format world. A colleague’s teenage daughter has mostly mainstream pop tastes, but she knew Empire of the Sun’s “Walking on a Dream,” even without U.S. airplay. And she thinks Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried” was played on top 40, even though it wasn’t, because it’s a song she and her friends know.
A wider group of teen girls knew Taylor Swift at a time when neither country nor top 40 had fully come around. They knew the Band Perry’s “If I Die Young” well before it went to top 40. When that song arrived at pop radio, it became an instant success story nine months in the making because of its built-in audience. And they’ve probably known “Cruise” for a while, too, although that one had some help from SiriusXM’s top 40 formats.
People have insisted for years that their favorite music style was a little bit of everything, but the iPod gave that claim some weight. So did the mid-’00s success of the Bob and Jack FM formats. So did the influence of “American Idol” and TV/movie/commercial syncs that made hits out of songs that didn’t neatly lend themselves to any format, but, like Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars,” ended up on almost a half-dozen of them.
It’s hard to separate cause and effect, but one reason this may seem like a world beyond format is because so few formats are strong right now. At a time of mainstream top 40 dominance, formats that were initially built on not being top 40—adult top 40, mainstream AC, rhythmic top 40—have less focused identities as they try to figure out to what extent they can be like top 40. Alternative, despite strong available music, is a less central presence. So is hip-hop/R&B, especially as its incoming audience fails to understand why Rihanna’s “Pour It Up” belongs on one format, while “Stay” belongs to another.
Yet, if this is a world beyond genre, top 40—the format that should be best suited for such a thing—doesn’t always act that way. Beyond SiriusXM Hits 1 and 20 on 20, songs like “Cruise” reach top 40 only when there’s a remix. Alternative hits, some of them proven top 40 smashes worldwide, wait nine months for one of the two rock slots to open up. The parallel releases of R&B ballads and pop dance songs by superstar R&B artists has made the two formats more distant, although Chris Brown’s “Fine China” is an interesting exercise in reuniting them.
Besides, the places beyond FM radio where people seek out music are often organized in more specific ways than mainstream formats. New York country fans are grappling with Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and Brooks & Dunn’s 20-plus-year-old “Neon Moon” together on the new WNSH (Nash FM), but many of them were already punching between SiriusXM’s the Highway and Prime Country, respectively, to hear them separately.
Single-decade formats have largely failed on FM radio. We learned 20 years ago that the ’70s, as bookended on the charts by the Carpenters’ “(They Long to Be) Close to You” and Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker,” were not most people’s frame of reference. And yet, satellite’s “decades channels” have made that term a generic, and the way that music is often organized elsewhere.
Beyond that, “mood service,” the need that hastened radio’s fragmentation decades ago, is acknowledged now more than ever by such services as Aupeo’s “Music matching your mood” function and, now, iHeartRadio’s “Perfect for ______.” Clear Channel’s Panama City, Fla., cluster just rolled out a beach-themed format online. Players of the “name that tune”-like social game SongPop compete with playlists that feature genres and decades, but also “break-up songs,” “New Year’s Party” and the “Worst Songs Ever.”
It’s proof that format still exists, but may transcend musical genre. The Canadian gold-based AC stations branded as Up! FM are the first real acknowledgement of that. Ironically, the opposite need for something soft and relaxing is a mood that radio once understood well, and yet station after station has fled from fulfilling it during the last 25 years. Listeners aren’t necessarily format-less yet. But their formats may not again line up neatly with radio’s offerings.