By Chris Rizik
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
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