(March 17, 2014) A surprising fact has had the music world abuzz for weeks: In 2013, for the first time in the 55 year history of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, no black artist had a #1 song. An excellent article by Billboard’s Gail Mitchell put a fine point on the issue, raising the question as to whether black R&B artists are considered by pop radio to be “commercial” enough for airplay. It is a far cry from 20 years ago this week, when 7 of the top 10 songs on the chart were by black artists as varied as Dr. Dre and Peabo Bryson, or even ten years ago when black artists had 6 of the top 10 spots.
Of course, the statistic seems even crazier because popular music is dominated by EDM (Electronic Dance Music), hip-hop, and other R&B-derived sounds. But while there are a lot of theories ranging from claims of “much ado about nothing” to equally loud claims of overt racism, the true answer is likely more nuanced. My belief is that it is largely due to centralized, corporate decisions that ignore – to broadcast radio’s ultimate peril - two essential points: (1) the unique role of black artists in consistently pushing popular culture (and commerce) forward over the past century, and (2) the “innovate or die” tenet of American business.
There is an age old problem in business that repeats itself, generation after generation. Small businesses become large ones by being aggressive, creative risk takers. But over time, tremendous size and power can slowly turn a business from an edgy risk taker into a monolithic institution whose approach changes from “playing to win” to “playing not to lose.” So instead of pushing the entrepreneurial qualities that made it grow, its culture becomes consumed with ways to simply keep what it already has. In 1989, Kodak dominated the film market with over 75% market share. GM once sold almost half the cars in the US. But after years operating as inflexible, risk averse behemoths, both ultimate filed for bankruptcy, outmaneuvered by competitors who weren’t afraid to take chances on new approaches.
Broadcast popular radio - which through consolidation is now controlled by a few major companies - is at a similar crossroad today, and it is making all the wrong decisions. In its heyday, it was both the dominant form of music delivery and the place to find new music, with local program directors creatively duking it out to break new songs. But in 2014, facing alternative music discovery sources ranging from YouTube to Spotify to internet radio, the broadcast radio industry has become a shadow of its former self in both popularity and its impact. It loses an average of 3% of its listeners per year, a pace that is accelerating. And incredibly, its response has been to combat those aggressive upstarts by growing even more conservative. Unwieldy in size, its programming is now largely done nationally, and focuses on playing smaller, safer playlists filled exclusively with established hits. The average hit song on pop radio gets nearly twice the spins that it would have gotten just ten years ago, as big box program directors have determined that the most important attractions for listeners are familiarity and comfort – and certainly not discovery. New songs and trends, and the “cool” factor that go with them, are left for its upstart competitors.
This narcissistic approach, which attempts to avoid any perceived risk in programming, yields both a less interesting product and a perverse effect with regard to race on radio. Smaller, more familiar playlists mean more songs that sound alike (thank you, EDM). More importantly, it means a shockingly reversionary view of what a “commercial” artist looks like: basically, one who is a paler shade. So, alongside the country and pop stylings of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry have come some insidiously troubling decisions. You want R&B sounds? You get Robin Thicke and Daft Punk. You want hip-hop? You get Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. That’s not to take anything from those talented artists (well, I’ll take something away from Robin Thicke, but that’s another story), but increasingly it appears that white artists are not only represented in genres created by and historically associated with African American artists, they dominate them. Is it blatant racism? Maybe or maybe not. But the foundation of it certainly seems to be a kind of twisted, cynical world view that ultimately concludes it is safer to program a guy who looks like a naughty frat boy than an equally talented, curly headed brother; and it sounds more like 1964 than 2014.
Some may counter this argument by pointing out that 2014 is different, that it is the breakout year for black artists such as Beyonce, Aloe Blacc and Pharrell. But in each case, these artists have broken out despite pop radio, not because of it. Aloe Blacc used television commercial licensing, Pharrell dominated YouTube and Europe, and Beyonce won the PR and marketing wars, all creating their own hits and buzz. Broadcast radio simply accepted those artists’ hits once they were established in other mediums, further cementing its new role as a meek follower of buzz created elsewhere; the musical equivalent of Overstock.com. But for every Aloe Blacc, there are a dozen talented artists who are increasingly shut out from a pop radio world that appears to view them as a risk for reasons other than their music.
In the end, while the “whitewashing” of pop radio is both frustrating and maddening, a historical perspective provides some solace: From the demise of once-mighty corporations to the fall of empires, history has consistently shown that those organizations that stifle innovation and creativity and instead fight to preserve the status quo end up accelerating their own fall. So at a time when broadcast radio could better survive by becoming more creative, more inclusive and more local, it is moving the other direction, laying down a welcome mat for every innovative competitor. Artists who recognize this – as Aloe Blacc has done so masterfully - can stop worshiping at the altar of popular radio and begin aggressively focusing their music marketing on alternate media – internet, satellite and mobile - that are both more open to their music and more creatively reaching their natural audience. And perhaps those artists now left on the sidelines by pop radio – many of whom share the skin color of artists who drove the music industry to unprecedented heights over the past half century - can ultimately find themselves front and center in new models of music discovery and delivery, while the current, unattractive shell of popular broadcast radio slips further and further into irrelevancy.
By Chris Rizik