Winds Of Same

November 19th, 1999

I was speaking with a record company president last week who felt a change was coming. In music? No, in the way radio responds to music. This president went on to say that although Top 40 is currently enjoying huge ratings, Top 40 PDs are looking for artists to carry the flag in the future.

We continued talking about the perceptions of record executives regarding programmers.  Unfortunately, the perceptions turned out to be more wishful thinking than a concrete movement of change.  Record executives have misunderstood PDs since music became a staple on radio.  Although the record and radio industries are tied together symbiotically and each needs the other to survive, the end results expected from the divergence are often diametrically opposite.

Although many PDs pay lip service to the needs of record companies, the majority don’t care.  And why should they? Whether or not record companies are able to establish an artist’s career isn’t a primary motivation for programmers.  It isn’t even secondary.  As a matter of fact, it doesn’t even cause a blip on the radar.

If you’re a promotion executive and you really are naive enough to believe PDs are interested in the development of your artist, let me sell you an ad in the Country Network.  Forget that deep, emotional conversation.  Just put it out triple-bonused with a big promotion and see what happens.  When you take the PD to dinner, talk about his career.  You’ll be much better served.

Top 40 programmers are interested in hits.  Nothing more, nothing less.  (Okay, also promotions and independent dollars that must accompany the hits.)  Expecting a PD to buy into a lifetime plan for establishing an artist is like expecting to get laid on a first date.  It might happen, but it ain’t likely.

Record executives moan about the shortsightedness of Top 40 programmers.  They complain about the throw away mentality exhibited with their records.  It’s a waste of time.

If PDs had their way, every record would be uptempo and three minutes long.  They don’t care whether the artist in question has a string of hits later.  They’re only interested in the first.

Why? because their jobs depend on ratings.  PDs don’t have time to build careers.  Like a developing artist, they’ve got to have a hit…now.  No owner is willing to invest money in “developing” a programmer.  PDs are hired to generate ratings.  And those ratings have to be generated today.

Have you heard of a five year plan for a programmer? It doesn’t exist.  Five trends is more like it.  That’s why there is such a dichotomy between PDS and record executives.  Record companies want hits, but executives want those hits to establish careers.  The strength of an artist enables record companies to thrive and prosper.  Hit records make radio stations thrive and prosper.

Although its easy to blame programmers for the lack of artists in today’s music world, the fault lies just as much with record companies and more with the times. With the exception of a few superstars, most artists don’t make enough records to satisfy programmers.  Not so long ago, artists established careers by generating a ton of hit records.  Today’s artists record less.

Who can blame them? Artists make more money from touring than record sales.  Record companies can sometimes bribe the artists by upping the royalty rates, but this drives up the already huge cost of making records, cutting profit margins further.

In the golden days, when Top 40 ruled and acts became artists by producing a string of hits, all was well.  Radio stations were able to choose from a stack of potential hits, record companies put out albums like donuts and artists toured for $10,000 a night if they were lucky.

Today, its a whole different ballgame.  PDs are less interested in the welfare of artists and record companies because the pot of gold isn’t at the end of the rainbow.  Record companies are bottom line accountable.  And artists become rich on the road.

We all know that the future of the music business, and with it, the future of music radio, is all about artists.  When superstars sell, the music business profits.

But don’t expect radio to lead the charge.  Programmers are interested in today’s hits, not the promise of tomorrow.  Top 40 has always been a reflection of today’s culture, not a magic mirror into the future.  The winds of change are the winds of same in radio.

If a programmer tells you he wants to help establish the artist, don’t be fooled.  He either wants a trip to Hawaii for himself and a few listeners, or a job in A&R.

Or maybe a production deal.

Probably all three.

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