THE DANGEROUS ADDICTION TO THE RULE BOOK...AND DOES ROD STEWART MATTER?
THE DANGEROUS ADDICTION TO THE RULE BOOK… AND DOES ROD STEWART MATTER?
Sometimes our biggest challenge is the rule book. Veterans of radio and music business are especially vulnerable as the rules have been pounded in for years, but newcomers are also susceptible because they tend to assume following the rules is what you "have to do" and this is magnified by the fact that their bosses also pound in these rules. Meanwhile, the audience follows no such rule book. In fact they evolve and most often the radio and music business don't. The result is that record companies, radio stations etc...are often out of sync with the needs of the fans. Nothing keeps the business more out-of-sync and potentially irrelevant that blindly following the rules.
The problem is that these rules WERE valid at one point in time which is why they became rules in the first place. But we're moving SO fast these days that many of the rules are becoming more obsolete by the hour.
One "rule" came up recently. It's where major "heritage" artists release a new CD. There are a few rules and assumptions:
*Their popularity is based on CD Sales.
*You can't play these new releases on the channels that are their natural home because those are classic based channels and this is new material
*No-one cares about their new stuff.
We have to challenge these. First off--it's pure 1980 thinking to base an artists success on CD Sales. Take a guy like Rod Stewart. He probably wont sell that many of his new CD---a big reason is that few stations are playing it--but more importantly, his popularity is bigger than ever, it just appears as concert tickets, NOT CD sales...and it's a different kind of popularity, more of a vintage one than the hottest thing sort of thing...but nonetheless he and others of his ilk ARE popular.
Secondly--I wonder about the rule that you can't play these artists new stuff on classic channels. While there is an expectation that you'll hear Classic Songs on a channel billed as such, I can't see the harm of playing a new song by a key artist of that channel. In fact, I think listeners DESERVE that. It's not very often that a major heritage artist releases a new CD, so almost as a public service, these songs should get played WHERE that artists fan lives on the radio dial. Part of succeeding in the 21st Century of radio is being a "guide" for listeners to walk them through the myriad of media bombarding them. I think every XM channel needs to be a guide for people. There's a possibility to "over-guide" people to where the channel is blurred, but smart 'guidance' even if it means breadking a "rule" is paramount today...it's something we CAN do and need to mobilize.
Finally, No one cares because they often have NO idea these new releases even exist! Granted, many heritage artists simply don't create on the same level as their early days, but if there's ONE new song that has traction, it's worth it. In many respects both the artist and the audience DESERVE to at least be exposed to these new releases...if it sucks--fine--it's really more informational than anything...and we should give listeners an opportunity to voice that. I don't think we should penalize the artists (or the fans) because they made great records many years ago...they may just have that ONE song still in them....maybe more. Let listeners decide--the artist has certainly earned the right for exposure. Again, they may not have another all-time classic to deliver...but it's really more about a service to listeners to display their new work. If it has the goods---great! If not, it is still an important informational thing to display their latest. XM is all about careers..not JUST the hits.
Of course you can't play SO many new songs that a channel loses it's definition, but these are so few and far between that I can't see that being an issue, especially if the DJ "educates" by talking about the new release. Deep Tracks is among several good examples of doing it right. While they are known for late 60s and early 70s Rock, in the style of the free form stations of that era, they will get into a new Robin Trower or Jethro Tull and do a number with it. It works.
The "rule book" fight all of the above mentioned three points...which is why at XM at least, we gotta CHALLENGE the rule book and do what's RIGHT for listeners...in 2006. We gotta fight the "we cant do that" urge, sit back and think--What do LISTENERS want today?--And give them that. If any XM channel is SO vulnerable that it can't withstand 'breaking the rules' a bit (in fact rule breaking is what makes most XM Channels good), then we have a bigger problem. "Tuneout paranoia" is something that we must avoid at XM. If someone tunes out because there's a song they don't like--great. They'll be back. A huge FM problem is that they areafraid of tune out and as a result limit playlsts to the songs that offer least tune out. Of course that backfires when they become overplayed and become tune outs themselves! The idea is recognizing that tuneout ss a fact of life, don't let it bother you. Create a complete and interesting listening experience, realize people WILL tune out, but at the end of the day, they come back because you are "interesting" (aka entertaining and complete).
A lot of this harkens back to the way it was in 1958 where Pop music was for "teens". Modern day pop music goes back to 1955. It's 51 years old! That James Dean thinking is painfully dated. And SO many people in all aspects of music and radio STILL think 1958 even if they were born in 1978. Some rules are permanent--others need to be redefined and evolved. THAT can be a bigger challenge that you think. Things like:
*The only relevant artists are new artists. (that is a line fed by labels who need to develop new acts for survival...then there's the machine pushing these artists that can convince the unsuspecting that it's real)
*The hippest artists are the emerging ones (there's a trend toward mondo respect for the legends--from Floyd to Dylan to Ray Charles to Johnny Cash that far supersedes anything new...it's more about "forget age--who matters". Wasn't always like that. In the early days of Rock, age was square--you HAD to be young, but now, with the exception of those who view music as fashion, it's all about what you put out.... Of course there ARE emerging artists that mean something long term, but you have to look at the big picture rather than the Industry picture....and the big picture is LESS era focused than it was many years ago. There's more of a "who cares who or when it is, does it turn me on?")-
*A radio station cannot deviate from its format (Is Colonel Clink the PD??...format control was a reaction to the sloppy radio that was happening in the 60's, and the free form guys---People like Bill Drake, Paul Drew and I guess myself a ways back were all about complete discipline and control. That was a long time ago. Discipline is important...but so is the ability to stray from the rules if it makes sense for listeners).
*Rock n Roll is here to stay (Maybe not---There are morphs and new styles that'll likely drive the future. Just like there was a Jazz Age, the was a Rock Age. Jazz still lives as does Rock...but maybe, just maybe, it's peaked and there's something else happening. Actually there IS something else happening and it ain't Rock). This symbolizes how complex things are, meaning--To succeed today you BETTER be in sync with 2006 listeners and not relying on the old rules or living in the last goden era.
*CD sales determine popularity (yeah--in 1975)
...the list goes on. Of course you can't blindly throw out EVERY rule. But EVERY rule has to be examined and possibly thrown out in order to flow in sync with what REALLY counts--turning on an audience. We had a slogan at XM early on---"If you want to do a break in Swahili on an A/C channel....go for it"--The point here is that NO channel should be SO locked into it's rules that you can't do something---because it feels right. One of the reasons Bob Dylan's show is SO successful (and it is) is that he knows no rules. His play list is a traditional programmers' nightmare--And it's pure magic as he goes from an INTERESTING Judy Garland song into Hank Williams into god knows what else---breaks every rule and is brilliant.
I'll be very upfront and say that we almost killed our ETHEL channel. For a brief minute we applied FM rules to it. After an audience revolt--we went back to doing it XM style instead of FM style. I credit Steve Kingston for quickly getting it, bringing in Erik Range--a Pizza delivery guy with a big passion and bringing it back to life. The point is that some of those FM rules are DEADLY...especially on XM. Steve wrongly gets a lot of shit for "bringing FM thinking" to XM--In reality though, he's drunk the kool aid and has thinks about fans and not the FM rulebook. He spent YEARS at K-Rock and Z-100 so you could expect that he'd have a lot engrained in him...and he didn't have the luxury of going through a year of bootcamps to liberate himself from the old school, but he's totally "getting it"...and that's a great thing for him, XM and most importantly the listeners. A lot of guys, in fact MOST guys with long FM histories have trouble understanding what we're trying to do at XM. Steve is not one of them.
It gets down to Listeners give us the directions, but XM Drives the car. Listeners show us where to go but XM drives them there. Things like industry hype, "rules" and playing the self serving industry big shot role are just roadblocks and exits that are barriers to getting to the place listeners want us to go. We all have to fight those urges once we are "in the system".
I went to Chicago for a few days. Flew into Midway airport. Always interesting as you are wedged between two arriving Southwest jets with controllers who talk very fast and have no patience for anything less than complete professionalism. I had to maintain 180 knots on final approach to avoid being swallowed by a 737. Fun stuff. Then, on the ground there was a classic Chicago taxiway traffic jam. The rap was " Cirrus 1XM taxi Foxtrot,follow Southwest 737 hold short of 22 Right. Southwest will turn at Yankee follow Citrus 737 coming off 22 Right, hold short of 22 Left. Follow Learjet coming off Kilo enter Atlantic from north side at Foxtrot 2, hold for King Air coming off the ramp"--all that in about 6 seconds. Easy to get swallowed up in all that, but I find it exciting...really in the flow.
Rented a car--no Satellite radio so I listened to terrestrial. Being from Chicago it was kind of sad as other than WGN, and some of the AM's---you could have been in Seattle. I always get the "But XM isn't local" rap--well, other than the ads, there wasn't anything local about the local stations either. And the SLOGANS! It seems as if practically every station is all about SLOGANS. Song, Song, slogan, ad, ad,ad,ad,ad, slogan, song, song, slogan, song, ad, ad,ad, etc….seemed to be the standard architecture of 99% of the stations.
The one thing that gets me is this addiction to Slogans. Why?? Yep--another "rule" that is so tired, it's helping kill the cred of FM radio. 90% of the stations both on air and on their ubiquitous billboards had these goofy slogans. Again, effective in 1980--now so oversaturated, they mean NOTHING.
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