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Guy Zapoleon’s 2021 10-Year Music Cycle Update

January 4, 2021

As the great Maya Angelou said, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.” To me, it’s always important to look back at history to understand the future, which is one of the fascinating aspects of the 10-year Music Cycle that I’ve written about since 1991. In 2020 the music pendulum had swung back to the Doldrums phase of the 10-year Music Cycle, a music cycle that began in 1956. We know the Music Cycle repeats in 10-year periods and that decades are often similar. There is an eerily strange similarity between 1970’s events and the Music Cycle that resembles the events of 1970, as well as the Doldrums that occurred 50 years ago.

Sports: NFL Superbowl winner Kansas City Chiefs 1970 and Kansas City Chiefs 2020
Pandemic: Hong Kong Flu vs. COVID-19
Politics: Authoritarian President Nixon vs. Authoritarian President Trump
Economy: 1970 in Decline vs. 2020 in Decline (Pandemic)
Generational Divide: Young vs. Old
Issues: Women’s Rights 1970 and 2020
Music: Doldrums, Country Crossovers, Remakes, less Pop Hits, Top 40 radio ratings lagging

There are some remarkable similarities between 1970 and 2020. The Kansas City Chiefs played and won the Super Bowl in 2020 for the first time SINCE winning the 1970 Super Bowl.

In 1970, Baby Boomers were still making music about Peace and Love, but 1970 also saw the rise of Anger against the government with the Vietnam War continuing. After the creation of the military draft lottery, thousands of young American men were shipped off to fight in that war, which created a massive divide between kids and their parents in the U.S. This inspired the song “War,” written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and turned into a formidable hit by Edwin Starr. Authoritarian President Richard Nixon billed himself as a Law-and-Order President, and Republican governors used force to stop protests like the one at Kent State University that resulted in the shooting of students by the Ohio National Guard, which in turn led to Neil Young writing “Ohio” for Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

In 2020, what should have been a time period of protest music against Donald Trump was tamped down with fewer recording sessions due to the pandemic, but protest songs against our president were still being released. Songs like “Commander In Chief” by Demi Lovato, Public Enemy’s “State Of The Union,” and at least 10 others were released in 2020 and appear on Spotify, but most of these songs received little or no support from radio. Why? Because it’s no secret that the country has been deeply divided during the Trump presidency—really split almost right down the middle in terms of support for Trump or Biden—so radio would have been alienating half of its audience by playing these tracks.

Beginning in the late ‘60s and continuing in 1970, social activism began with teens and young adults fighting with older Americans and the Establishment for voting rights, civil liberties, and especially Women’s rights: reproductive rights, equal pay and equal opportunity in the workplace.

For President Trump in 2020, progressive voters, especially the young, fight for the same causes that their parents/grandparents fought for in 1970. But now, the establishment is made up of those same teens from 1970, who are now parents/grandparents. Many have taken on the conservative role that they were fighting against in their youth.

There was a pandemic in 1970. The Hong Kong Flu that began in 1968 extended into 1970, killing an estimated 4 million people globally. And now, we’ve had COVID-19 in 2020, which has infected 2.4 billion people worldwide and killed over 350,000 and infected 16 million Americans and counting.

The economy back in 1970 was in a slow decline from the past year, but the U.S. entered a recession for most of 1970, which, along with rising inflation, made the ‘70s the worst economic period in the U.S. since the Great Depression. Due to COVID-19, what was a flourishing economy in 2019 and an unemployment rate of 3.5% grew to 13%, but many estimated it was higher (16%), and 46% of Americans admitted having problems paying bills. Between COVID-19, the shutdowns and the economy struggling, more Americans were stuck indoors watching more videos, playing games and listening less to music via streaming. And less travel time in the car meant less radio listening.

Core Top 40 Sounds Then & Now

Pure Pop: 1970 Jackson 5/Bobby Sherman vs. 2020 The Weeknd/Justin Bieber
Pop R&B: 1970 Spinners/Temptations vs. 2020 Chris Brown & Da Baby
Pure Pop: 1970 Jackson 5/Bobby Sherman vs. 2020 The Weeknd/Justin Bieber
Pop R&B: 1970 Spinners/Temptations vs. 2020 Chris Brown & Da Baby
Country: 1970 Kenny Rogers & Anne Murray vs. 2020 R&B Dan & Shay Maren Morris
Pop Rock: 1970 Guess Who, Melanie vs. 2020 Panic! At The Disco, Billie Eilish1970 Kenny Rogers & Anne Murray vs. 2020 R&B Dan & Shay Maren Morris
Pop Rock: 1970 Guess Who, Melanie vs. 2020 Panic! At The Disco, Billie Eilish

1970 marked the end of The Beatles as they released their last album, “Let It Be” that May. That same month marked the release of the triple album “Woodstock: Music From The Original Soundtrack And More,” highlighting the performances at the legendary outdoor festival concert held in Upstate New York in 1969. The event and the music from Woodstock served as a pivotal moment in popular music history, as well as a defining event in youth culture. Up until COVID-19 hit, just as in 1970, major outdoor music festivals were in full flight, with Coachella, Lollapalooza, and Bonnaroo as some of the huge cultural music events for teens and young adults.

So, in 2020 as well as in 1970, you see the typical signs of Doldrums…Top 40 ratings lagging and also more Country crossovers. You also see remakes of older songs. In 1970, it was around 30 remakes of older songs, including Frijid Pink’s “House Of The Rising Sun,” Rare Earth’s “Get Ready” and Diana Ross’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

In 2020, there were several charting remakes, including Surf Mesa’s “ily,” Black Eyed Peas’ “RITMO,” and Ritt Momney’s “Put Your Records On.” Also, in the Doldrums, you see the percentage of Pop hits diminish, which is apparent by looking at the Billboard Charts. Also, you can see it by looking at the sheer number of songs that were consensus Powers for Top 40. In 2020, fewer songs were consensus Powers than I’ve seen in studying 65 years of the Music Cycle. This year it was less than 30 when in normal years it’s closer to 50. Songs like “Adore You” by Harry Styles, “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd, Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Stop Now” and “Circles” by Post Malone stayed in power rotations for 3 to 4 months because there were fewer, newer high-scoring Powers to push them out. Also, just as in 1970, you see the biggest percentage of Country hits. In 2020, those accounted for 15% of the Year-End Billboard Top 100—that’s the most Country hits in years. Just as in other Doldrums periods, you’ve seen the ratings for Top 40s trail off. The CHR/Top 40 format is no longer averaging in the Top 5 stations. In fact, looking at 12+ ratings, you see Top 40 in the bottom of the Top 10 in a lot of markets and sometimes out of the Top 10 completely. Does looking at the ‘70s tell us what music and the Rebirth will look like coming up in a few years as the decade progresses? More on that later.

Here’s a reminder of the key components of the Music Cycle. The Music Cycle is composed of three phases that have repeated every 10 years since 1956, where the balance of core styles differs from phase to phase:

Birth/Pop Phase—plenty of Pop hits, plus Rock & Hip-Hop/R&B are more pop, more melodic.
Extremes—moves toward the edges, away from Pop, and Top 40’s ratings begin to dip.
Doldrums—Mainstream Top 40’s R&B and Rock edges soften, and much of Rock and R&B music is avoided entirely. Mainstream Top 40 ratings dip even more.

What brings back the Rebirth Phase is when a new Cycle happens, when a genre or an artist or a music platform brings about another change in music.

Music Cycle #1 1956 Artist: Elvis
Music Cycle #2 1964 Artist: The Beatles
Music Cycle #3 1974 Artists: Great album artists Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and Stevie Wonder
Music Cycle #4 1984 Platform + Artists: MTV and its generation of artists
Music Cycle #5 1997 Platforms: The Internet and Napster allowing for free music and trading files
Music Cycle #6 2005 Platform: American Idol
Music Cycle #7 2015 Platform: Technology: Mobile Phone and Streaming Music

Billboard Charts Vs. Top 40 Airplay Charts Reveals An Overfocus On Pop Music

Let’s take a look at Top 40 airplay vs. Billboard’s popularity charts.

Billboard Charts

Top 40 has always been a reflection of the most popular genres, including crossovers from other formats, but that has tapered off over the past decade. Top 40 has hyper-focused its musical recipe on uptempo Pop Music regardless of the Phase of the Music Cycle and been overly careful about giving a lot of airplay to hits from AC, Country, Rock/Alternative, and Hip-Hop. When you examine streaming platforms and sales, Hip-Hop is without a doubt the most popular genre driven by a passion for it by 12-24 music fans, and yet CHR has given Hip-Hop and R&B limited airplay considering their popularity. However, you see Top 40 maintaining its focus on the Pop genre with the percentage of spins staying above 60% of total spins for each year during the past decade, as Pop dropped in popularity below 40% beginning in 2018.

Billboard Charts vs Airplay Charts

Changes In Popularity Chart’s Methodology

As noted above, Hip-Hop and R&B take on a much greater percentage on the Billboard charts than on CHR airplay charts. It’s acknowledged that Billboard charts have given much greater weight to streaming platforms as of late 2017, and we know that one of the biggest streaming platforms measured, Spotify, is generally more dominated by R&B and Hip-Hop titles than other streaming platforms. However, it is concerning when you look at the disparity between the titles in the Top 100 year-end Billboard charts vs. the Top 100/CHR Airplay chart. In the past, duplication was close to 70%, but in 2018, the duplication between Top 40/CHR radio and the Billboard Hot 100 dropped to 54% of the same titles, again with R&B and Hip-Hop and some Country making up most of the titles missing from Top 40/CHR airplay. This smaller duplication between Billboard and CHR airplay has continued in the 50% range since 2018.

Programming Music In 2021: The solution is Genre Variety!

Remember, the winning formula for Top 40 music has always been Pop, Rock, and R&B—not just Pop—and yes, we still have some great Pop artists providing great pop music, such as Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, The Weeknd, and newcomer Dua Lipa. However, there is a volume of potential Top 40 hits from Hip-Hop and R&B as well as Alternative and even Country that is being avoided. Radio finally played great Country songs like “The Bones” by Maren Morris and Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope,” and Dan + Shay had a moderate Top 40 hit with “I Should Probably Go To Bed.” But as popular as Country is right now, surely there were more hits that Top 40 could have played from this genre. Top 40 took a long time to recognize Chris Brown’s “Go Crazy” as a hit, and I’m sure there were more Hip-Hop songs that were actually in the Top 100 on the Billboard Year-End charts that Top 40 could have played. While Top 40 has embraced a few hits from Billie Eilish and Panic! At the Disco over the last 2 years, there are a ton of artists that could have been played and could have added the variety that listeners always want and expect to hear from Top 40 radio.

So again, Top 40 radio airplay has maintained the same genre balance for the last decade with very little variation. Yes, I’ve always stated since Joel Denver published my first Music Cycle article in R&R in November 1991 that the key for Top 40 success was an upbeat Pop-centered formula. However, going back to the beginning of the Music Cycle in 1956, we also know that music moves in cycles, so you still need to adapt to the genres that are more plentiful during each phase. Remember, during every Doldrums phase that you have seen every 10 years for the past 60 years, you will see the greatest amount of crossover songs from formats like AC and Country, among others. During each phase, Top 40 needs to stretch and adapt its musical recipe to include these hits and give the people what they want! Am I saying play dramatically less Pop for Top 40? No, I’m not—but forcing more than 60% of the format’s spins from Pop when the hits are coming from other genres? No!

Music Cycle

So what’s the answer for Programming Top 40 In 2021?

It’s as simple as the late great Steve Rivers put it. When asked about the key to success for radio, he said, “Play The F***ing Hits.” Right now, in the Doldrums, besides Pop, that means more Hip-Hop and R&B, more Alternative, more slower AC ballads, and even more Country.

One more point I want to be clear on: We have to be really careful at this point in time to NOT go overboard and play everything that is on the Top 10/Top 20 Streaming charts. Most radio listeners also stream music, but I believe at this point in time, the Streaming charts are still dominated by a very active subset of listeners who aren’t big consumers of radio, especially Top 40 radio, so thinking songs on the top 20 of the Streaming Charts are radio hits is a mistake. But a way to identify those potential hits on Streaming services and TikTok is to cross-reference them in sales and in other platforms like Shazam and Hitpredictor and to look for the songs that do really well there as well. It’s a great time to pick music for Top 40, as radio has never had as many tools to figure out the hits, and you can use ALL of them if you know how to do that intelligently to identify the hits early!

Examining The Future By Looking At The Mid ‘70s

Again, harkening back to the ‘70s, when the Music Cycle emerged out of the Doldrums into Rebirth, it had two genres producing more long-lasting hits than almost any other time in music history. As Baby Boomers matured into young adults, what’s now Classic Rock became the soundtrack of their lives and, within 5 years, brought about the growth of FM radio. Rock stations were devoted to Baby Boomers’ music and artists, with Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, and Fleetwood Mac all producing tons of hits in the ‘70s. Later in the decade, Disco had become a phenomenon, and music by Bee Gees, Donna Summer, and KC & The Sunshine Band produced many great Rhythm and Pop hits, which also helped revitalize Top 40 radio. Back in the ‘70s, Top 40 radio continued to play the biggest hits from ALL genres. Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones got airplay on Top 40, with edgy songs that many of today’s CHRs are sonically staying away from. The great radio programmers of the ‘70s knew that those great genres appealed to the Top 40 core audience at the time (Baby Boomers), but they were also smart enough to play the variety of the hits that were expected back then on Top 40 and that included AC and Country crossovers as well. Having been exposed to a wider variety of genres over the internet since they were born, the great news is that we know from research that Millennials and especially Gen Z are more open to a wider variety of music. That’s also why you see them taking up a bigger percentage on the Billboard charts than you do on Top 40 Airplay charts.

Yes, it’s a different time for radio with competition from streaming services. Also, radio has been adapting to broadcasting to its listeners whose listening habits have and will continue to change during and after a year of COVID-19. This has hurt radio, especially the Top 40 format, which hasn’t had the ratings it had 5 years ago. So, Top 40 can beat the Doldrums by taking a page from the great ‘70s stations and not forcing Pop music to be two-thirds of their playlists. Top 40 should play ALL THE HITS. That means more Hip-Hop, Alternative, AC, and even Country hits when songs from these genres show—through all of our tools—that they are also hits for the Top 40 audience. If Top 40 radio does that, it could experience a healthy rebirth period, with more hits to play and better ratings.