The five most unforgettable years of music?
And if the radio moved away from the not so golden years 2015-19?
Earlier this week, I received advice that Alternative KROQ Los Angeles did exactly that. He does not have enough turn. When I looked at a log, KROQ was still playing a dozen songs from those years, totaling 16 rounds during the day – one hour of music in 24 hours. But dropping the late 10s seemed plausible for a while, especially after XETRA (91X) San Diego sold most of its post-2005 gold last month and Country KPLX (The Wolf) power cut last week.
In Alternative, in particular, the product of the late 10s was an easy target for format critics: detractors heard that era as a lot of anonymous pop music that never crossed over and never went to the library. The rise of Billie Eilish and chamber pop has left some conflicted. The songs that broke through – ‘Feel It Still’, ‘Broken’, ‘Trampoline’, the hits of Twenty One Pilots – held sway for a year, highlighting the lack of other hits and making even the great songs particularly sad. after a while. Only experiences with TikTok pop two years ago put these detractors even more in a “mood”.
But the late 10s weren’t exactly a product boom for most formats. Top 40 and Country had the most dramatic product issues, particularly because they started the decade with such promise. Alternative had already become a niche format, ranked No. 1 in an 18-34 cell most diminished by streaming. The same had happened to Hip-Hop and even renewed enthusiasm for the product didn’t translate to increased ratings once the hotline started to shine again.
There was a format boom in the late 10s. Contemporary Christian music saw praise and worship music intersect with increasingly brighter/poppy mainstream titles. Christian AC was one of the few formats to consistently grow in terms of number of visits. Adult Contemporary and Adult R&B were also successful formats during these years. Both formats went through a change in the type of currents they played, but in these gold-based formats, currents were less of an issue.
The whole nature of radio station gold libraries is that songs and eras come and go. The 90s were once considered a lost decade by programmers; now it’s clear that some songs will return, but we’re still figuring out how many and which ones. Throughout the 2000s, ballads by Creed and Nickelback were reliably found at the top of pop radio music tests. With the arrival of the new decade, dominated by fun and rhythmic dance/pop music, these songs were mostly gone within months. The listeners no longer wanted to ruminate.
As current formats struggle to take hold, we are likely to see many more “contemporary” stations that are not as contemporary. I decided to take a look at our top contemporary music formats and how heavily they relied on music from 2015-2019 to begin with. Looking at the top 200 most played recurring and gold tracks for each BDSradio format, the breakdown is as follows:
- Christian CA – 52%
- The country – 47%
- Top 40 mainstream – 42%
- Adult Top 40 – 37%
- R&B/Hip-Hop – 37%
- Rhythm Top 40 – 36%
- Contemporary Adult – 11%
- Alternative – 11%
- Triple-A – 10% (partly because the pipeline of even newer music continues to flow)
- adult R&B – 9%
- active rock – 4%
What would programmers of other formats lose if they decided, hypothetically, to move away or at least reduce their reliance in the late 10s?
The country is the hardest time for programmers to negotiate. The late 10s were overtaxed by a format that still wants to be “No. 1 for New Country” but not aggressive on new music. If more stations follow KPLX’s lead, some will likely lean even more into these songs.
- The late 10s saw the rise of Luke Combs, Kane Brown, and a pre-controversy Morgan Wallen, as well as the dominance of Thomas Rhett;
- But it’s also the time when “bro country” softens into “boyfriend country”;
- If you consider the era “too pop”, it’s the era of Dan + Shay, Bebe Rexha and Old Dominion;
- It is also a period when female artists are represented, but by only a handful of songs. If you listen to a hit country station, you can pretty much count on Maddie + Tae’s “Die of a Broken Heart” before too long.
Top 40 mainstream leans heavily on a few hits from late 2019 — Post Malone’s “Circles,” Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Stop Now,” Harry Styles’ “Adore You.” (“Blinding Lights” is also nominally 2019, but has stuck with almost everyone in 2020.) The late 10s saw Ariana Grande, Malone and Ed Sheeran change the way songs were released and consumed. The era began with Justin Timberlake’s latest smash, then saw Shawn Mendes and Charlie Puth reclaim his franchise.
For me, 2015-19 is a lost period for the Mainstream Top 40 in particular, marked by when producer-led EDM pop slowed to a joyless crawl and each new hit meandered across the radio heralded by a similar manipulated voice sample. It was also the time when hearing the same artist every 20 minutes became commonplace. Over the past three years, the pop product available has improved but has been limited by a scheduling strategy that makes it difficult for new songs to emerge as powerhouses and keeps the top of the charts stagnant.
Adult Top 40 by its nature leans heavily on CHR music of the late 10s. the overly sincere masculine ballads that give the era much of its sourness. Contemporary Adult, with its wider range of eras, is able to choose the era better, but still has a part of trap pop that never felt like a real choice. (The best example, Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse,” is from 2013 but set the tone for much of what followed.)
Hip Hop/R&B This is where things change the most dramatically, powered by the power of streaming. The end of the 10s was marked by Roddy Ricch, Fetty Wap, Lil Baby and a pre-controversial Da Baby. The period begins with the great moments of Kendrick Lamar and Cardi B and continues with the rise of Megan Thee Stallion and other 80s/90s inspired rappers. The early 10s were often said to have few stars beyond Drake; the end of the 10s gives us “God’s Plan” and “Hotline Bling”.
Rhythm Top 40 gives us most of the above, but even more streaming-focused moments (Arizona Zervas), more Latin reggaeton and urbano crossovers, and the rise of Lizzo and Doja Cat.
adult R&B continued its move away from heritage artists with the rise of new female ballads from Ella Mai, HER, Snoh Allegra and more. There were also Hip-Hop tracks that shared with mainstream R&B radio, but found a more prominent place in adult R&B’s library of gold – Lil Duval’s “Smile”, Wale’s “On Chill”. There are plenty of reasons for adult R&B’s staying power, but programmers seem content with a body of recent music that takes up a relatively small portion of the hour anyway.
Triple-A had many of the same hits as Alternative (“Feel It Still,” “Broken”), but was able to lean a little more comfortably into the indie/pop side of the format. Foster the People’s “Sit Next To Me”, Alice Merton’s “No Roots” and The Revivalists’ “Wish I Knew You” are among the most played here, but not at Alternative.
active rock had such a problem with currents in the late 10s that we saw the rise of the ‘next generation classic rock’ station, playing Active’s grunge and Linkin Park’s main library, but without any music recent. Unsurprisingly, almost no songs from this era “went to the library” at Active. Two of the best known are remakes: “The Sound of Silence” by Disturbed and “Zombie” by Bad Wolves. (Alternative has its equivalent; the success of Weezer’s “Africa” has also become a focal point for complaining about the format.)
When pop radio programmers turned away from Creed, Nickelback (and the likes of Switchfoot) in the late 2000s and early 10s, they were already in the midst of another music boom. At that time, it was clear that we were meant to live a lot longer. In the early 2020s, we see a slight improvement in the quality of available products that has yet to translate into a ratings boom for any contemporary format.
Whether a rebound for the current product can still happen in any format is up to radio to find the best way to both take and send music to the streaming world. It’s also unclear how the current product can thrive at such an unfortunate time, although I think now is when we need that to happen the most. How long the music of the late 10s and early 20s lasts depends on both the music and the eras that follow.
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