Have you ever been scanning through the music rags at your local bookstore/music retailer/coffee emporium/tchotchke outlet and wondered, “why do I never hear this band that’s on the cover of all of these magazines on my local radio station?”
We’ve scratched our heads about this, too.
There are quite a few independent acts out there that are successful by pretty much any other measure — they sell out venues, play Saturday Night Live, can be heard on movie soundtracks, TV shows and commercials yet never seem to crack commercial radio playlists. After a while you start wondering if there’s a reason. Turns out there is – it’s just sort of complicated.
But don’t worry — FMC lives to sort this stuff out. To that end, we’ve just released a major new study of what gets spun on radio called “Same Old Song: An Analysis of Radio Playlists in a Post FCC-Consent Decree World.” Before we get into the results of this data-driven report, let’s look at some of the history. (If you wanna dive in, click here).
“Same Old Song” analyzes radio playlists from 2005-2008 to determine whether the policy interventions resulting from the recent payola investigations have had any effect on the amount of independent music played on terrestrial radio. Back in 2007, Federal Communications Commission issued consent decrees against the nation’s four largest radio station group owners – Clear Channel, CBS Radio, Citadel and Entercom – as a response to collected evidence and widespread allegations about payola influencing what gets played on the radio. In addition to paying fines totaling $12.5 million, the station group owners also worked with the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM) to draft eight “Rules of Engagement” and an “indie set-aside,” in which these four group owners voluntarily agreed to collectively air 4,200 hours of local, regional and unsigned artists, and artists affiliated with independent labels.
Using playlist data licensed from Mediaguide, FMC examined four years of airplay – 2005-2008 – from national playlists and from seven specific music formats: AC, Urban AC, Active Rock, Country, CHR Pop, Triple A Commercial and Triple A Noncommercial. FMC calculated the “airplay share” for five different categories of record labels to determine whether the ratio of major label to non-major label airplay has changed over the past four years.
Guess what? The number crunching indicates almost no change in station playlist composition the four years we examined. Specifically, the national playlist data showed little measurable change in airplay share from 2005-2008, with major label songs consistently securing 78 to 82 percent of airplay. There was a slight increase in airplay for indies on a few formats (Country and AAA Non-Commercial, in particular) but otherwise the data from year to year stayed pretty much the same.
But we didn’t just look at these big meta trends — we dug in and also examined airplay by release date. This showed that many formats leave only small portions of their playlist for new material, with current songs sprinkled in among well-worn hits. While such programming choices might make sense for a given station’s target audience, the outcome is that there are very few spaces left on most airplay charts for new music. Looking specifically at airplay for new releases, we found that new major label songs typically receive a higher proportion of spins than new indie label songs. Finally, we looked at the indie labels themselves, and found that only a handful have enough resources and clout to garner airplay consistently. For the remainder of indies, airplay is infrequent and modest, if it happens at all.
The fact that indies are still having a tough time getting airplay is something a recent survey of A2IM independent label members indicated in a more anecdotal way. The major labels’ built-in advantage, combined with radio’s risk-averse programming practices, means there are very few spaces left on any playlist for independent labels, which comprise some 30 percent of the domestic music market. Remember, this is after well-intentioned (if nonspecific) attempts to address this imbalance.
So what’s the take-away? How might the situation between radio and indies be improved? Our new report offers a handful of policy recommendations that might prove useful to the FCC’s oversight of the airwaves and improve the radio landscape for both listeners and the broader music industry. In particular:
1. Improve Data Collection
The radio and music industries participate in and employ some of the most robust and timely data monitoring systems available. There are private companies that measure audiences, that keep track of radio ownership transactions, market share and revenues, that track retail sales and box office grosses, and at least three services that monitor what is being played on commercial and noncommercial radio. Many radio stations, music labels and advertisers subscribe to these services so they can get up-to-the-minute information about their own activities, and those of their competitors.
In other words, radio stations are already very data rich. What’s now required is the political will and organizational capacity at the FCC to determine what questions need to be asked, how frequently, and of whom, and then to seek out or collect the information it needs to be an effective regulator. Nonprofit organizations like FMC have been conducting much of this oversight work on behalf of the public interest, but clearly the FCC needs to play a greater role. The FCC could acquire data from commercial sources, or it could request data from stations as part of their responsibilities as broadcast licensees, or some of both. Regardless of the method, the FCC needs to clarify its oversight role, then rigorously and consistently monitor what’s happening in radio in order to craft more effective policies and enhance accountability.
2. Refocus on Localism
Both anecdotal and empirical evidence indicate that commercial radio has become a risk-averse media that employs cookie-cutter formats across many radio properties. In recent months, commercial radio has also been the source of layoffs and downsizing as it struggles with both reduced ad revenue and huge debt loads racked up during the station buying spree following the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
The radio industry is clearly in crisis. Stations have lost touch with their local markets, but unfortunately, the industry seems to have responded by pushing for greater consolidation and syndication. FMC believes this is the wrong way forward, as radio’s chief advantage in the modern media landscape is “live and local.”
We join others in the media reform movement – and many in the radio industry itself – in calling for commercial radio to regain its local foothold and build programming in which serving its local community is its primary goal. We also simultaneously call on the FCC to revisit the localism proceeding and design clear guidelines about how to measure whether its licensees are honoring their obligations to the communities in which they operate.
We know that locally oriented programming isn’t as cost-effective as running a station using pre-programmed playlists and automated DJs, but it is radio’s strongest asset in an increasingly saturated media environment. FMC and our partners have engaged in pilot projects with small commercial operators to determine best practices for engagement between programmers and the independent sector to set goals and identify mutually beneficial marketplace solutions, and we hope that these projects help us to convey information that other stations can use in the future.
3. Expand the number of voices
This report also shows us that major swaths of the music economy aren’t currently represented on commercial radio. It outlines the many structural barriers to airplay for all types of labels, but for independent musicians in particular. Using other metrics to measure the profile of some indie artists, including retail and digital sales, TV appearances, large live shows, and licensing deals that place their songs in movies, video games and in ads, the lack of airplay on commercial radio for the same artists seems counterintuitive. Independent music belongs on commercial radio and is just as vital as the music currently receiving heavy airplay. Changing the prevailing culture at commercial radio will take a concentrated effort with all parties working in good faith basis; identifying structural barriers to airplay in this report represents part of this ongoing effort.
Finally, this also moment in time when the government can make a conscious effort to expand the number of broadcasters in this country. The passage of legislation to allow Low Power FM in more American towns and cities would provide local groups and organizations with an opportunity to serve their communities.
Feel free to let us know what you think!