Saturday, February 19, 2011


Phyllis Stark from wrote an article this week in her Stark Country column elaborating more on my recent blog.

Click here to start getting her twice weekly Stark Country.

Can an artist’s “brand” make or break the success of their singles?

Programmers say top tier artists can often get a free pass with listeners, who profess to like their new songs immediately simply due to their affinity for the artist. At the same time, an artist with a tarnished “brand” might not get a fair shake from listeners, even with a great song.

Dial Global VP of programming and Hot Country format PD John Paul recently blogged about the topic after Chris Young landed his third consecutive No. 1 hit with a single his label previously tried and failed with prior to Young’s more recent chart successes. That’s evidence, Paul says, that the format is still artist driven. On the plus side of that equation, Paul says, certain superstars get high marks just for their track records alone.

“We do a daily feature called ‘The Delivery Room’ where we play a new song and take votes,” says Paul. “Many times when people find out it’s someone they know, love and are familiar with, they give it a 10. Some will even say, ‘I didn’t even hear the whole song, but I know it’s George Strait, so I’ll give it a 10.’ Even country listeners will gravitate more to the bigger, familiar and more established stars.”

Quoting consultant Rusty Walker, WCOL Columbus, Ohio, PD John Crenshaw describes it this way: “People don’t know what they like, but they like what they know.”

“Artist brand name does mean something, and I’ve clearly seen certain artists’ songs test better than reality says,” comments KAJA San Antonio PD Travis Moon. “Pretty much any non-polarizing superstar will ‘get a pass’ from the fans when you put them up for a test.”

“Any established artist with hits will get an automatic thumbs up,” says Paul, “at least at the start of the single. After some time, radio will discover that songs from even established artists could be stiffs. [But] the big acts get a free shot in the beginning.”

KEEY (K102) Minneapolis PD Gregg Swedberg agrees with Paul that even songs by superstars must still prove themselves to be hits down the line, despite getting a free ride in the beginning of their chart life. “Artist brand names can sometimes get a record into power, but after it’s really sunk in, it [might] turn out the song isn’t as strong,” he says. “That’s always a fun conversation when the song has to come out of power.”

But an artist’s name can also work against them. Paul cites Jessica Simpson as an example when she tried to switch from a pop to a country career a few years ago.

“I did an experiment when her first single was released to country radio,” Paul recalls. “I put her in my online callout the first few weeks and didn’t use her name. The song did OK. Then I put her name in the callout and the song tanked, badly. People thought the song was OK until they knew it was Jessica Simpson, and then they hated it. Not only did that happen with our online music testing, it happened when we played the song on the air and didn’t tell people who it was. I would bet that’s part of the reason why her country career went nowhere. It was mostly about the artist.”

WUBE/WYGY Cincinnati, PD Grover Collins says that’s not limited to the country format either. “I remember doing nights at a top 40 station when Donny Osmond’s song ‘Soldier Of Love,’ [was released],” he says. “I was told to put it on the air but don’t say who was singing it so people would judge the song just on the song and not be influenced by the artist.”

Knowing how an artist’s name can affect opinions about their single, KSOP Salt Lake City PD Debby Turpin conducts all of her music meetings anonymously. “I play music for the entire staff every week,” she says, “[and] I never tell them who it is, so they form an opinion of the music, not the artist’s track record. Obviously, sometimes you can tell who it is by the voice, but I definitely get more candid feedback when the singer is unknown. Even after years of doing it this way, staff members still ask ‘Well, who is it?’ while trying to decide if they like it or not.”

One record promotion veteran agrees that an artist’s brand can be a double-edged sword. John Ettinger, now a principal in Quarterback Records and Ettinger Talent, worked all of Shania Twain’s hits and remembers her brand becoming fatigued at one point.

“As we turned from the ’90s to the next decade, all of us at Mercury learned a strong lesson,” he recalls. “Shania Twain’s name alone began to provide a certain amount of built-in burn to callout research. We derived that by telling a listener they were hearing Shania, it could add as much as 20% to the ‘tired of it’ answer in callout. If you never said her name, the burn dropped immensely.

“And, of course, after the merger with MCA, we looked down the hall saw the opposite effect happening for George Strait,” Ettinger continues. “I once joked with [then BNA Records VP of promotion] Tom Baldrica that his superstar—Kenny Chesney—wears a cowboy hat, hails from Knoxville, Tenn., and radio listeners figure they can have a beer with him at any time. My superstar is from Canada, lives in Switzerland, and brought more pop to country than all other artists combined. Which one’s harder to work?”

“I do believe that some artists carry negatives,” agrees Swedberg, who groups a whole gender into that category based on his observations of listener response. “Almost all females start with a minus 15%, and if they have a big hit they erase it over time,” he says. “[I’m] not sure why, but females can’t catch a break, but the hits do eventually test, like the current Taylor Swift … It’s really important to keep testing things, and occasionally you have to ride out first results until you get consistent data.”

That bias against new acts—regardless of gender—can make it really hard for a brand new country artist to break at radio. Paul notes that it’s not just listeners, but programmers themselves who naturally choose established stars over unproven newbies.

“Labels have to work really hard to get that first hit,” he says. “Once the star has a couple of hits, it becomes just a little easier to get airplay on the next single.

“Bottom line: PDs and MDs will automatically gravitate more quickly toward songs from established artists that have some hits under their belt,” Paul says. “If you only have a few minutes to listen to music and you have a new Zac Brown Band and something from a brand new artist you haven’t heard of or met, I guarantee the PD or MD will listen to the Zac Brown Band song. It makes it really hard for any new act to cut through.”

WYCD Detroit OM/PD Tim Roberts thinks “quality” can still cut through that clutter. “Sure, artists with negative reputations are going to hurt their chances of gaining acceptance,” he says. “However, honestly, a quality record like Kid Rock had with ‘All Summer Long,’ [even though he] may not be thought of as ‘country,’ can push through because of the quality of the song.

“Certainly with our core fans, a familiar artist probably gets a hall pass and probably is taken a little more seriously,” Roberts continues. “I believe the reason is that a power artist name probably piques interest and makes the fans listen a little closer, especially if the on air talent sets it up correctly. That’s why it’s absolutely critical that air talent really talk up new records.

“Ultimately, great music always rises to the top, but a great name or power artist can help it happen faster for sure,” Roberts adds.

KAJA’s Moon also believes the way the song is positioned on the air—or in the research—can have a big impact on how listeners react to it.

“Sometimes there is some bias in how the song is positioned for the listeners to give you feedback,” he says. “I’ve always tried to keep the testing climate sterile when I do ‘Travis Moon’s Test Tune.’ I remember when we tested Jessica Simpson, I just called her a mystery artist and let listeners grade it on her own merits. Her tune did pretty well in the test. But if I came on and said, ‘Wow, Jessica Simpson is trying to go country. What do you think of this song?’ it is a veiled attempt to fish for negative feedback. I’ve always found that you’ll get the reaction you are looking for depending how you frame a new song in a testing feature.

“That goes for research questions too,” Moon adds. “You can pretty much easily predict the results of this awesome loaded question: ‘Do you prefer hit songs from superstar artists or new songs from brand new artists?’”

“When you have a new song from, say, a Kenny Chesney, he is a brand that listeners are familiar with, and they are going to be much more excited and intrigued to hear a new song from someone that they already have a relationship with than an up and comer or brand new song,” says Collins. “I can’t even tell you how many occasions that we have sat in music meetings, heard a song from a new artist, and the comment would be made ‘That would be a No. 1 song if Kenny Chesney recorded it’ or ‘That would be a No. 1 song if George Strait recorded it.’ It’s forever going to be an ongoing battle, and it’s harder now, obviously, for these new artists with the record companies not making any money, because basically you get one or two shots.”

“Ultimately, listeners like what they know, what is familiar, what has been tested and proven to be quality over time, and what they can count on,” says Clay Hunnicutt, Clear Channel’s VP of country programming, and operations manager for the company’s Atlanta cluster. “Think of George Strait as Coke and Jessica Simpson as an energy drink. There is a certain segment of the audience that wants the new energy drink, but the masses want Coke. The energy drink is important and can carve out great fans and additional usage, especially on the young, engaged end, along with helping to redefine the future with more choices of drinks. As for Coke, people know it, love it, have memories of it, and it’s part of their life. The same with George. He’s been there. His music is a part of us. It’s set time markers in our minds with key events and life changing moments.

“That said, I think that as programmers—and music lovers—we have to build new brands and try to find the next Coke, or the next great ‘brand’ in an artist,” Hunnicutt says. “Because if we only have one choice, and it’s the same year after year after year, the music becomes predictable, disengaging to our audience, and detrimental to finding hits for radio and labels.”

“When you have a string of hits that is years long, it’s hard to deny the instant familiarity of voice and style,” says consultant and veteran programmer Barry Mardit. “For instance, when I hear a George Strait song for the first time, I immediately know it’s George. I can picture George, maybe even what the performance will look like in concert, [and] the video plays in my mind. Therefore, I’m more able to concentrate on the lyrics, which completes the package. An unknown or unfamiliar ‘newbie’ doing the same song doesn’t have that advantage, so it may take longer to sink in.”

In Providence, R.I., however, WCTK (Cat Country 98.1) PD Bob Walker says things can be a little bit easier for new artists. “Our listeners use us as a ‘hit machine,” he says. “The song is usually bigger than the artist (with [Brad] Paisley and Chesney the possible exceptions). We’ve had several big names that can’t run a song up our callout over the past couple of years, while Sunny Sweeney and Thompson Square exploded onto the scene—both with hit songs—almost instantly.

“Now if both majors and newbies are releasing hit songs at the same time, then the major gets the nod for sure,” Walker adds. “It’s comfort food. But when they don’t meet our fan’s expectations, even a big artist name doesn’t get off the ground.”


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