Opinion: You Can't Buy Soul Music if You Don't Know It Exists

“You Can't Buy It If You Don't Know It Exists”

That was the title of a Stanford Business School study five years ago, but it could just as easily be the title of a brand new non-hit song by your favorite soul music artist. As we’ve written about regularly, we’re in a world where music sales continue to go down. But many great adult soul artists who release new music are being hit with the double-whammy: those fans who would buy their new music don’t even know that it exists, because there are too few convenient opportunities to discover it. Consequently, soul music album and singles sales continue to drop disproportionately fast, even though audiences age 35+ are still inclined to buy music.

“You Can't Buy It If You Don't Know It Exists”

That was the title of a Stanford Business School study five years ago, but it could just as easily be the title of a brand new non-hit song by your favorite soul music artist. As we’ve written about regularly, we’re in a world where music sales continue to go down. But many great adult soul artists who release new music are being hit with the double-whammy: those fans who would buy their new music don’t even know that it exists, because there are too few convenient opportunities to discover it. Consequently, soul music album and singles sales continue to drop disproportionately fast, even though audiences age 35+ are still inclined to buy music.

The beauty of 2015 is that there are more ways to find music than ever. But for all the buzz about online music services such as Spotify, SoundCloud and YouTube, those are places to find what you already know you’re looking for. So how do you discover new music, and hear it conveniently while living your life – not just while actively seeking it on your computer? How do you find music while driving, running errands, washing dishes? Of course, the answer has traditionally been broadcast radio and it is still the dominant place for music listening. But nowadays, broadcast radio’s role in discovering new soul music is sketchy, at best. The number of stations playing urban adult music is limited, and even those stations committed to that format are playing less new music than ever.

In the last decade and a half, urban adult contemporary (UAC) stations, once known for their great mixes of soul, gospel and contemporary jazz music, have changed significantly. Syndicated talk shows of Tom Joyner, Steve Harvey and others took over the morning and afternoon drive times, and during other time slots the stations doubled down on playing oldies. The result: new music was pushed out or pushed back to late night (sometimes middle of the night).  

We recently researched UAC stations in a half dozen major markets and compared them with other stations in those same markets. No surprise, we found that UAC stations played far less new music than their counterparts in other formats.  The #1 song on most UAC stations last week was Avery Sunshine’s “Call My Name.” But that song averaged under forty “spins” on each station per week. That was less than 1/3 the number of spins that the Top 40 stations gave to their number one hit, and around half of the spins that Country music and Hip-Hop stations gave their hits.  What’s worse, for songs outside of the top 10, spins became shockingly scarce, with those songs typically being played only once per day. This turns traditional music discovery on its ear. How are you supposed to find and develop an affinity for a song that is played only once a day – perhaps at 3:00 a.m.? As one music executive told me, "It's killing our music culture."

For those of us who love soul music and its artists, this is sobering, and the questions are obvious. Unfortunately, the answers are less clear. I don’t have a silver bullet solution, but there are a few possibilities:

      1. Internet Radio: Internet Radio may become a contender, once it is more generally available in cars and other convenient places. And while there are some very good  internet soul music shows, overall the scene is fragmented and of uneven quality. My challenge to internet soul music stations is…up your game. Too many shows have poor sound quality and production. If you’re competing with Clear Channel, don’t sound like you’re broadcasting from your bathroom. And tighten up your show so that it is crisp and compelling.  Then market what you’re doing in a way that sets you apart from all the other noise. Your goal needs to be to increase your audience now and to be ready as internet radio becomes ubiquitous.
      2. Satellite Radio: Satellite radio has the benefit of playing in cars, and it can take chances with playlists. But it is still an expensive luxury for too many music fans. 
      3. Podcasts: This may not be a long term answer, but it is a decent short term one that addresses some of the issues. Podcasts are easily downloadable and thus are more portable than internet radio. Still not 100% accessible, but an option for those with a smartphone who are willing to do a little bit of work. We spotlight L. Michael Gipson’s “Soul Eclectics” series, and there are others. The most compelling podcasts mimic the best qualities of radio (including spoken word song introductions), delivered in a convenient, portable fashion. What I wouldn’t give for a good weekly adult soul countdown podcast …
      4. Soul Music Websites: Websites like SoulTracks are part of the answer, and most of us have dramatically increased the number of “first listen” stories, where we introduce readers to new songs. But it takes work to click around our sites and find music. We need to continue improving to increase convenience. Ultimately, we are good for discovering new songs, but we’re not great for casual, ongoing listening to those songs. We’ll never be the full solution.

These are all partial, imperfect solutions today that are limited by technology, cost or mission. Ironically, after all my articles questioning and even bashing it, the Urban Adult Contemporary station on your radio dial still has the potential to be the best answer. It is universal, free and is already there.

So, I ask UAC stations: I know it goes against current trends, but is it possible that you could thrive by going back to what you were? Cut back the talk, moderate the oldies, stop pushing watered down hip-hop, and become stations where adult music fans can hear new music again. Take your rightful place as the Sherpa to new music.  There is a preponderance of music fans above age 35 involuntarily sitting on the sidelines when it comes to buying and listening to new music (believe me, my inbox is full of emails from them). And there are hundreds of world class soul music artists making great music that isn’t reaching these potentially receptive ears. You’ve got supply and you’ve got demand; there has to be opportunity and profit in bringing them together again.

That’s my take, but I’d love to hear yours. Whether you’re artists, music fans, record company execs or, especially, if you are broadcasters. Do you agree there is a “music discovery” problem? What do you think is the solution? Please post your thoughts below. 

By Chris Rizik (January 24, 2015)

 
Choice Cut - V3 - "Getting Better"
Listening Room - Avery Sunshine - Twenty Sixty Four
CD of the Month - Raul Midon - Bad Ass and Blind
SoulTracks Choice Cut - Toni Redd - "Underneath My Skin"

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