Once upon a time, knowing what songs were dominating the music charts was easy: You turned on the radio.
Instantly, you'd be rewarded with a spin of a hit record - by the Beatles, the Bee Gees, U2 (depending on your era). Even if you touched that dial, chances were you'd encounter the same songs on a different station.
These days, it's not that simple. The choice of new music offerings can be overwhelming, coming at listeners via video games, iTunes, television shows, music videos, social-networking sites, online radio, satellite radio and, yes, old school, terrestrial radio - where the hit-driven Top 40 format is making somewhat of a comeback, according to some industry watchers.
With the unprecedented choice comes unprecedented fragmentation. The new multiplatform universe may mean the end of multiplatinum records. "Pretty clearly the days of selling 10 million albums are done," says Nic Harcourt, music director of the influential Los Angeles radio station KCRW and host of Sounds Eclectic. "There's probably less than 10 records that sold two million [copies] this year. I think it's a different world."
So how, in this new world, does a song make its way through the mass of available music, and emerge a hit?
A select group of international music-biz movers and shakers, Harcourt among them, gathered in Vancouver this week to discuss that issue during a boutique-style, invitation-only music and digital-technology conference, focusing on the challenges created by the new musical landscape.
The event, now in its second year, and more think tank than convention, was co-conceived by Brad Josling, who works on the marketing side of the music industry in Toronto. Struck by the contradiction of declining record sales and soaring appetites for music consumption, Josling wanted to create a forum where the issue could be tackled in a meaningful way by key industry leaders. "We hope that overall, the opinions of this group can be used to sort of move matters forward," he says.
It is a critical time for the record industry (which may be now somewhat of a misnomer). Getting music out to people who will listen to it and, please God, buy it, has never been more challenging, the methods never more varied. Radiohead offers an album online at a pay-what-you-want price. Television shows like The O.C. and Grey's Anatomy release soundtracks. Feist explodes onto the U.S. market thanks to an iPod commercial.
Terry McBride, founder of Vancouver-based Nettwerk Records (its artists include Avril Lavigne, Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan), says things have changed radically over the last three or four years. It used to be, says McBride, that "if you had a No. 1 single [on] radio, you could guarantee [it would be in the] Top 10, Top 20" on the sales charts. "That's not the case now."
McBride prefers to think of hit records not in terms of sales or spins, but exposure. He says a tune on the soundtrack of a popular video game like Madden NFL can be as widely heard as a hit song played on a Top 40 radio station. "The metrics of measurement are not really accurate," he says.
McBride believes that, for a rock song, too, exposure on a hot-selling video game can be more valuable than radio play. Getting a song featured on a hit TV series can create a huge impact as well. And a strong Internet presence is key.
The music industry, he says "is a very vibrant place to be, but it's not hit-driven. You have lots of artists sell lots of records and lots of concert tickets without getting an awful lot of radio play." Think Feist, Arcade Fire, Joel Plaskett - all of whom developed a substantial fan base before breaking out on mainstream commercial radio.
How important radio remains in this new equation is one of the questions the industry is asking itself. While there's no doubt terrestrial radio's influence has waned, there are those who argue it is still critical for creating a hit record. The Internet might get the ball rolling, they say, but your local radio station is the final arbiter of what becomes a bona fide hit. After all, Feist and Arcade Fire eventually became radio stars, and Plaskett is on his way (thanks, in part, to a Zellers commercial that featured one of his songs).
"Radio is still the overall primary source for listening to music," says radio programming consultant Guy Zapoleon, President of Zapoleon Media Strategies, based near Houston. "This is why the record labels still spend millions of dollars a year promoting new music to radio."
Zapoleon says that Top 40 radio, also known as contemporary-hit radio (CHR), which plays the roughly 40 most-popular songs over and over, has recently enjoyed some of the best ratings the format has had in years. He also points out that CHR is the format with the most influence on music charts, appealing especially to teenagers.
Results of the all-important fall ratings period for Canadian radio, released this week, indeed show growth in CHR in some influential markets. In Vancouver, for instance, the Top 40 station, The Beat, is now the No. 1 music station in the market - racing past its nostalgia-heavy competition over the past year.
Zapoleon says Top 40 is at the top of its game right now thanks to a climate in which all the key styles for current music (pop, R&B and rock) are very "pop" in nature and can be played on one radio station. Playing Timbaland and Michael Bublé on the same station creates a broad appeal - so mothers and daughters, for instance, can listen to the same station.
Zapoleon says that society's current love affair with celebrity culture has also helped push Top 40 radio ratings higher. "Let's face it, people young and old always want to know what's happening in pop culture, and no format does a better job of featuring music from, and information about, the hottest artists."
Still, radio overall is bleeding its younger audience. Statistics Canada data released earlier this year show a steady decline in the number of hours people aged 12 to 24 are listening to radio. Teenagers spent about seven-and-a-half hours a week listening to radio in 2006, down from more than 11 hours a week a decade earlier. And teens are a key target market for record companies.
Young consumers are finding their music elsewhere these days - mostly online, of course. "The power's really been put back on the consumer to make the choice of what they like," says Josling, "versus there being ... gatekeepers to drive who the pop stars are going to be."
But while a 16-year-old might enjoy spending hours online sifting through the overwhelming amount of music available and looking for cool new tracks, her 50-year-old mom, who might also want to know what's happening in music these days, may not have the time / skills / inclination to investigate.
For that consumer, the sheer volume of uncurated music available can be daunting. Without the easy filter of pre-Internet days, where a radio DJ or music director selected what relatively few songs got to air, finding music becomes a more active, rather than a passive, pursuit. There may be more music available, but you have to go looking for it. And that's not always convenient.
Still, Nettwerk's McBride has no interest in returning to the less-complicated old days - even if his company, like others, has taken a revenue hit. (Although not as extreme a hit as the big, more traditional labels. Overall, the Canadian Recording Industry Association says, retail sales of physical formats brought in $676-million in 2006 compared to $1.3-billion in 1999. Sales of digital music comprised about 6 per cent of the market in 2006, not nearly enough to fill the revenue gap). "What was played on radio was the gospel for such a long time, but it was such a small amount of the music that was actually released," he says. "So radio became a huge filter, but a filter that basically suited their commercial needs."
McBride loves the way the Internet has created options for fans of all types of music. "It's much easier than going into a [now-] defunct Tower Records, and trying to get the kid behind the desk who has a Mohawk to tell you about something new, maybe, on the bluegrass scene."