#1 With A Bullet

September 24th, 1999

Top 40 is back with a vengeance.  In my years in this business,  I’ve presided over the demise of the format more times than Bisceglia said, “You get it?”  That’s a lot.  And I’m not that old.

The format is flourishing from coast-to coast.  Z100 New York and KIIS Los Angeles are leading the charge and their cavalry consists of hundreds of radio stations in between playing the hits.  Why is Top 40 doing so well?  Because the music sounds great.

It’s been a long time since Top 40 PDs have had so much good music from which to choose.  Record companies are producing hit records and Top 40 is responding.  What’s happening?

It was only yesterday that Top 40 was dead.  Again.  Record executives were tripping over themselves trying to sign every grunge band from Seattle to Biloxi.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the top of the charts.  Most of the bands weren’t able to deliver hit records.

For a record to make it into the mainstream, the audience has to love the music.  Love of the artist, outside a limited cult following, means little.  Unless the music reaches the mainstream, the artist will continue to be up a small creek without a paddle.

With the advent of consolidation, many predicted the beginning of the end.  Companies were more aware of the bottom line than ever before.  There was less money to be spent on developing acts.  The future looked bleak.

The opposite has happened.  It has become popular to spend less for a specific record and worry about nurturing an act later.  What most fail to realize is that hit records generate the revenue to nurture acts that aren’t quite there, yet.

I spoke with a respected promotion veteran last week who bemoaned the fact that six artists who reached #1 status this year didn’t break the Top 40 with the second release.  This gives weight to the premise that record companies are producing “throw-away” records instead of building artists.  Thus, the the end of the world is near.  However, history doesn’t prove this theory accurate.

We can’t predict superstars.  They are comets that light up the world with no warning.  record companies can, however, groom hit acts, but not at the expense of hit records.

In the golden age of Top 40 radio, the ‘70s and early ‘80s, things were much the same as they are today.  In the 1970s, 117 records reached #1 without follow-ups that broke the Top 40.  That’s almost 12 records a year.  Do you remember The Shocking Blue, Edwin Starr, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Looking Glass, Billy Paul, Vicki Lawrence, Maureen McGovern, Stories, Terry Jacks, Blue Swede, MFSB, Andy Kim, Paper Lace, Bo Donaldson, Billy Swan, Carl Douglas, Silver Connection, Sylvers, Bay City Rollers, Wild Cherry, C.W. McCall, Rhythm Heritage , Walter Murphy, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Rose Royce, Mary MacGregor, David Soul, Thelma Houston, Bill Conti, Alan O’day, Emotions, Meco, Debby Boone, Player, Nick Gilder, The Knack, M and Robert John?  All had #1 songs without a follow-up hit.

Through 1985, the ratio was 11 records a year to hit #1 without a follow-up, including forgettables: John Parr, Jan Hammer, Ready for the World, Ray Parker Jr., Patti Austin, Bonnie Tyler, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Irene Cara, Tony Basil and Vangelis.

Yet, at the same time, this system nurtured star artists like The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Three Dog Night, James Taylor, The Bee Gees, Al Green, America, Marvin Gaye, John Denver, Paul McCartney, The Eagles, Barry Manilow, Olivia Newton-John, Hall and Oates, Chicago, Fleetwood Mac, Doobie Brothers, Rod Stewart, Lionel Richie, Queen, Aerosmith, John Cougar and The Police, just to name a few.

What’s the point? Music is what makes Top 40…always has…always will.  Top 40 has never been a format to discover new trends, but to reflect the tastes of the mainstream.  Instead, of griping that radio doesn’t break more artists, maybe we should focus on artists who produce more than one hit record.

Don’t blame Top 40.  Today, more than ever, the format is breaking records.  It’s up to record companies to break the acts.  Maybe A&R people should be forced to listen to Top 40 and sign artists that are radio friendly rather than “artistic” groups that promotion will then have to “convince” radio to play.  That works about once every ten years.

Making radio-friendly records never hurt Madonna, Elton, Prince or The Eagles.  They never felt their integrity was sacrificed because their records were hits on Top 40 radio.

It doesn’t take a lot.  One hit and you’re on your way.  Two and you’re an opening act.  Three and and you’re a phenom.  Five and you don’t give any more interviews.

You’re a superstar baby!

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