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Music Cycle Updated, Part 1

February 14, 2022

Beginning Year Three of the Doldrums In 2022, We Need To Change Our Ways Of Finding New Hits

As we’re a month and a half into a new year, and especially if you’re in Top 40 radio, you don’t need to be told that we’re in the second year of Doldrums of the Music Cycle, which began in 2020 with COVID, as well as a weaker period of music for Top 40 radio.


The biggest Doldrums indicator is when Top 40 ratings are low. Just like in 2020 for most markets, Classic Rock, Classic Hits and AC formats continue to dominate, and Top 40 is barely Top 7, with many stations out of the top 10 completely. Some of this drop is because the audience which consumes a lot of radio is aging. As we know, radio may be the most listened to medium on a weekly basis, but streaming and apps like TikTok are becoming more and more where people under 30 spend most of their time when they listen to music, while more 30+ listeners are the ones who listen most to radio.
It’s easy to see this when you look at the Top 40 radio format overall, which has lost 33%, the second biggest share of listening drop over the last decade from 2011 of any radio format. (Rhythmic Top 40 had the biggest drop at 53%.) As Edison Research’s Larry Rosin mentioned in his great article, Music-radio-a-kingdom-of-gold/ Larry Rosin on CHR ratings loss “One sees Classic Rock, Classic Hits, Mainstream AC, along with News and Sports stations taking the top slots. American music radio is rapidly becoming a ‘Kingdom of Gold.’” He also notes that none of the current-based formats today are “thriving based on current music.”
Nielson 6+ Format grid from Larry Rosin’s article Music-radio-a-kingdom-of-gold/ Larry Rosin on CHR ratings loss.

For 50 years, hit songs came from television shows as well as movies, but it’s been years since a hit song broke from a network television show, even from music event shows like “American Idol” or “The Voice.”

For 2021, there were no music television shows — not “The Voice” nor the Grammys — which had been in the Top 20 television shows in recent years. Eighteen of the 20 were mostly NFL or college football games, something scripted, and the Oprah Winfrey interview with Megan and Harry. In fact, music television’s premiere event, the Grammys, dropped by 52% from 2020 to 2021 at 8.7 million viewers, and has dropped 32 million from 2012 when it had 40 million viewers.

Yes, some of the Grammys decline is because of visual content consumption fractionalization as network television and cable are in an existential battle with streaming visual audio, but a lot of the drop is also due to less interest in current music. Just like music, streaming video has also changed that consumption pattern.

Television does not have the draw it once had, due to cable and multiple streaming video services. There are so many different choices in different locations available that the potential audience is splintered among many different sources. As a result, there are fewer mega blockbuster shows that draw a huge audience. But there are still shows that build up a big enough audience through streaming video that expose new (and old) music to new younger audiences.

One of the biggest Doldrums indicators, besides Top 40 ratings, is the amount of Gold music that is exposed/consumed. The amount of current music being bought versus previous years dropped dramatically in 2021, as Ted Giola wrote about in The Atlantic. In the first half of 2021, 82% of music sales/consumption was catalog music compared to 2020, when that number was 63.2%.

It’s even more dramatic when compared to what we saw in 2006 and 2007, when it was 37% catalog sales. It remained the around the same throughout the 80s and 70s at 36% So that means that current music sales/consumption today is 18% vs 64% in 1970.

Another interesting fact is the amount of Gold that is becoming popular on apps like TikTok, and also making its way onto traditional and satellite radio. This started with the “Guardians Of The Galaxy” movie franchise and the famous “70s Mix Tape,” which relaunched the popularity of early to mid ‘70s titles. This continues today with popular young adult shows like HBO’s “Euphoria” exposing Steely Dan and Gerry Rafferty hits to an entirely new, younger audience.

Also, you see ‘70s songs showing up on TikTok’s Trending 10 weekly survey on SiriusXM, with those songs getting Top 200 Shazams and becoming popular on streaming. On average, half of the most TikTok’d songs every week that make the Trending 10, consumed mostly by teens and young adults, are Gold! Can you say DOLDRUMS?

I posted in the last music cycle article that the 2020 number of consensus A-Power hits for Top 40 was 28. Nothing really changed much with the amount of consensus hits this past year, as there were only 27 A-Power hits in 2021. That is the lowest number of powers during these past two year that I’ve seen in decades.

When you look at your A-Powers and B-Medium secondaries together (i.e. the Top 20 hits) as Sean Ross with BDS Radio’s Adam Foster did last month, looking at BDS Radio, it showed that the amount of Top 20 hits is almost exactly what it was in 2016, but lower than it was in back in 2013. For 2021, it’s up 13% from its average between 2018-2020.

So, bottom line, Top 40 is in the worst Doldrums period it’s been in since the early ‘90s for several reasons. Certainly radio faces an existential threat from more competition than its ever had, especially from a music standpoint, from streaming services and apps like TikTok. Also, it is radio’s biggest challenge to find, attract and keep the best air personalities on radio and not have them be drafted by the streaming services and apps. But still another major problem exists and that’s a music issue–especially for Top 40. Top 40 radio wins when it plays the hits! But let’s drill down on that, because it doesn’t mean play ALL THE POP GENRE HITS. It means play ALL the hits (regardless of genre).


Let’s take a look at the history of music, looking at genres for Billboard year-end lists as a guide. We know the basic formula of Rock, Pop and Hip Hop (along with AC and Country) has been around for 65 years since Elvis Presley hit the scene in 1956.

I went back through every year-end chart for every year back to 1955, noting that 1960 is where Top 40 radio was firmly in place as the radio leader in playing the hits and music discovery. Let’s start there.

What you see in EVERY SINGLE DECADE is that the hits are a variety of genres. Those percentages of genres may ebb and flow, but the BALANCE OF GENRES hasn’t really changed. The Country average hadn’t changed until the last decade, when Country exploded in the Doldrums in 2011-2013 (as well as 2014) and again in 2019. And in 2020-2021, the average percentage for Country is at an all-time high at 18% (see the 2nd genre graph).

AC was a huge portion of Billboard’s Year End Charts in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, but began to fall off in the ‘90s, and is now below double digits the last two decades. Rock (plus Alternative) was a big part of what was popular through the decades peaking in the ‘80s, and was still in double digits during every decade until the 2010s That combination of AC/Rock/Country/other I’ll call the “Variety Mix” (because it adds a uniqueness that is currently an underplayed part of Top 40 radio).

The percentage of Hip Hop and R&B began to explode in the ‘90s and 2000s, and still remains the biggest segment of the most popular year-end songs at 43% for the past two years, and it’s still underplayed by Top 40. You can see by the balance of genres on the popularity chart, driven until recently solely by radio airplay, most of that being Top 40 for the majority of the 60 years.

One thing Top 40 programmers have done is make sure they were checking all the formats and listening to songs from those formats that could cross over and become hits for Top 40. That should never have changed, but it has during the last 10 years!
Takeaway #1
Pop has been about the same for Billboard’s most popular year-end charts, averaging 30% and ranging between 25-40% for 60 years. It’s currently 30% for the past two years, but it’s definitely not the 55-65% like Top 40 has played since 2012 (see the 2nd genre graph).

Takeaway #2
Other genres like Hip Hop and Country have replaced Pop in popularity. So, it’s really critical to be open to both Country and “melodic” Hip Hop at Top 40.

Takeaway #3
Pop will always be the glue for Top 40, BUT the format’s #1 mission going back to its birth in the ‘50s, and continuing for the last 60+ years, has been to “Play The Hits,” regardless of genre.
Decade Table
So why do we think Top 40 is so sonically focused on Pop? We know Pop is the “glue,” as Cox CEO Bob Neil used to say to me, and it holds the other genres together for Top 40. Also, as I’ve mentioned before, Top 40 programmers have been nervous about straying from that approximate 60% airplay focus of the Pop genre for the past decade.

I think a lot of it stems from the previously worst Doldrums of the music cycle in the early part of ‘90s. That was when Top 40 played too much AC music and wouldn’t embrace Pop (or Hip Hop or Rock). So labels stopped producing a lot of Pop-genre current product, and didn’t promote Rock and Hip Hop R&B to Top 40. The results were disastrous. Ratings plummeted, and owners took 500 Top 40 stations out of the Top 40 format.

Top 40 returned to success finally in 1997 when the Pop genre came back with the boy bands and Britney/Christina in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. Great programmers like Tom Poleman and Z100 led the way out of the Doldrums by re-embracing the Pop genre, but still insisting on playing All The Hits from multiple genres again as well!


Let’s drill down to the last decade to understand the quandary that Top 40 finds itself in. First, let’s do a comparison of the Popularity Year End Charts (Billboard) versus Top 40 Spins Year End Charts (Mediabase). Look at traditional genre percentages this last decade for the big three genres of Top 40: Rock, Pop, and (Hip Hop) R&B, as well as Country and AC. One factor to take a special look at is, again, what I call the Variety Mix of AC/Rock/ Country/other. Also, combine that with a look at the difference between popularity vs Top 40 spins for Pop as well as R&B/Hip Hop

Pop is 30% of 2021’s Billboard Top 100 Year End Most popular songs, versus Mediabase’s Top 100 Year End Top 40 spins chart, which is 57%. That’s slightly better than last year, but still, that’s too much Pop compared to what you see in Billboard’s Popularity Chart! In 2021, R&B Hip Hop vs. 26% for 2021, which is consistently where it has been the last four years for Top 40 spins (Mediabase). Top 40 can still afford to play more Hip Hop and R&B when it is melodic.

Also, another sign of the Doldrums is you should see growth at Top 40 for the Variety Mix of AC/Rock/ Country/other. Let’s take a look at the genre spin percentages for Top 40 during 2011-2013, where Top 40 ratings were still doing well. Top 40 spins reflected the hits back during that Doldrums period, as Top 40 continued to play Pop as the glue, but it shifted the amount of Pop down even as low as 45% in 2011, and in the 55% range during 2012-2013.

During that Doldrums period, those percentages of Pop were replaced by adding more Rock (16%) and melodic Hip Hop/R&B (35%) in 2011, more AC (12%) in 2012, and both Rock (17%) and AC (12%) in 2013. However, we haven’t seen the growth you normally see for the Variety Mix of AC/Rock/Country/other during the first two years of this Doldrums period, 2020-2021.

Finally, take a look at the duplication between Top 40 spins Year-End Chart (Mediabase) and the Billboard Year End Top 100. This is the best index we have to determine whether Top 40 is staying true to “Playing the Hits.” It has gone from the 80% range back in the late 2000s through 2010, to 65% duplication in the first half of this decade to around 54% the last four years. That a dangerous departure from Top 40’s #1 mission, “Play the Hits!”

Sure, we know that there will always be “deep format” sounds that were extremely popular with fans of that format and made it high on Billboard. Examples are harder Rap for Hip Hop and R&B that appeal to that format only, or super twangy songs for Country that only appeal to Country fans and, occasionally, super hard Rock songs that appeal to Active Rockers. And yes, those songs may not be perfect for Top 40.

Also, we know streaming doesn’t necessarily reflect the entire mass audience completely yet. And yes, you have a group of people that still get their hits primarily from radio. However, the amount of non-streamers is growing smaller and older by the day.

One other factor that you have to consider when looking at streaming is, with one person still counting as 350 streams a week, you have chance that fan clubs can still jack a song up the streaming chart, and that has a huge weight in the Billboard charts. Nevertheless, we know with every year that passes, streaming is becoming that much more and more the best indicator of a song;s popularity with the mass audience.
Billboard Table
Definitely in the last few years Top 40 programmers began to get stuck in a rut and cling to the Pop genre that began during the Superstar Pop explosion, and that brought on a rebirth of the Pop Music cycle between 2014-2017. That period in the past decade had the most amazing group of Pop artists since the ‘80s.

As I talked about a year ago, don’t get caught up in a bind thinking you have to focus 65% or more of your airplay — basically your entire station’s sound — on the Pop genre. We know as Jon Coleman taught us, music is the base of the “image” pyramid for a music station, so there is a “music” reason that ratings are low for top 40, and that reason is that the format is stuck in a “Pop Genre” rut, and has been for eight years since 2014.

Back in 2014 it made sense, and Top 40 ratings were strong with that strategy when Taylor Swift and Katy Perry were queens of Pop, Adam Levine and Maroon 5 and Bruno Mars were reigning kings of Pop. Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez were maturing hit artists, and today’s Pop queen, Ariana Grande, was coming on the scene.

When you also include the great EDM artists like The Chainsmokers, you had an amazing group of hitmakers. However, over the last few years, it was clear that other genres were replacing Pop as the most popular genre. Both Hip Hop and Country have enjoyed a big gain in popularity. Hip Hop has become the #1 genre in the world!

Next week in Part 2, Guy cites a specific hit song that he feels was ‘missed,’ and points out a glaring example of very similar situation that’s happening right now with “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” He also wonders if Top 40 should be making some demo adjustments, and makes suggestions about how to keep your listenership loyal.

Music Cycles, Part 2

February 21, 2022
This week in Part 2 of Guy Zapoleon’s updated for 2022 ‘Music Cycles’ presentation he explains how to program your way out of the Doldrums and improve both ratings and revenue.
Beginning Year Three of the Doldrums In 2022, We Need To Change Our Ways Of Finding New Hits


In the past few years there have been great songs that have basically been lightly played or avoided entirely because programmers had their hands too tightly on the wheel, looking straight ahead and not seeing the hits, instead favoring the Pop genre to the extreme. These programmers didn’t believe that these songs from other genres fit their Pop-centered sound, and because their stations were so Pop-centered and not balanced, it was a self-fulfilling prophesy!

One example of a missed hit for Top 40 is certainly the huge Country hit “Fancy Like” by Walker Hayes, which, with a dance associated with it, became a sensation on TikTok. The song, which is all about a date at Applebee’s, got the attention of the restaurant, became the song that you heard virtually everywhere, and got even more additional exposure on Applebee’s endless television ads, including on commercials at major NFL and college events (the most watched television shows of 2021). The song was destined for #1 on Billboard, but instead, because Top 40 radio was hesitant on giving this song full-time exposure or even playing it, peaked at #3 on Billboard and only made it to #13 on the Mediabase Top 40 spins chart. This is a prime example of a mass appeal Country song that should have been given the spins and wasn’t, and so Top 40 missed out on seizing the moment of a nationally-beloved song. So what if it was Country and a big hit there?! It was even more than that. It was a mass appeal hit that got lost for Top 40!

Another smash that may get lost as well, because it doesn’t sound like every Pop genre hit, was the central topic of a brilliant article by Integr8’s Matt Bailey. That’s the smash hit “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from “Encanto,” the #1 animated movie on Disney+ with a soundtrack written by Hamilton’s Lin Manuel Miranda. It has been seen by millions of mothers with children, and so, is instantly familiar to them.

Unfortunately, some Top 40 Programmers are extremely slow to embrace a song that is #1 streaming, #1 digital singles sales, #1 Top 200 Albums, and #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. Yes, you may see a song become #1 streaming and it still does not fit Top 40, but this is really different because when you see a song go #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, it has never not been a mass appeal hit! When you don’t play this one, you are missing a #1, or at least a Top 5 hit for your Top 40 station. It hurts your station, because you are playing weaker Pop songs in the place of this hit song, and probably overly hesitant about playing hits from other genres despite all the evidence.

When you continue to avoid enough of these kinds of hits because they aren’t from the “Pop” genre, you will lose the variety factor for your Top 40. Missing enough of these kind of hits will cause you to eventually lose ratings. (Even a great morning show can only protect you for so long, if you avoid playing too many real hits.)


As we see more and more 12-24s leave for streaming, the one audience that’s more loyal to radio and will stick with it longer is 25+ /30+ women. With radio’s audience getting older, it may well be time to adjust the format. Top 40 radio targets 18-34 or even 21-34 (but that depends on your market and competitive situation). Playing hit songs that also appeal to a 25-34 audience is keeping those women who grew up with your station from going to the Hot AC or AC in town and keeping them loyal to radio as well.

Don’t forget, left field hits like “Fancy Like” and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” appeal to this older audience as well and young adults, too. So the remedy for getting out of the Doldrums is what the always forward-thinking President & CEO of RCS /Media Monitors /Mediabase /Florical Philippe Generali told me a decade ago: You will be able to “follow the breadcrumbs” to find the hits. What he was saying was that when you follow the behavior of music consumers, and you review every bit of the “Big Data” of music consumer behavior from all its sources, it’s easy to tell what the hits are very early.

As we look into the future at these sources for Big Data, we know that on TikTok, for example, 75% of users go there for music discovery, and it’s where the newer hits (and hits for radio) are beginning to come from now. This is music that is fan-to-fan delivered, as fans are making thousands of videos with music for other fans.

Young adult event programs like HBO’s “Euphoria” are launching TikTok, streaming and even #1 Shazam songs like Lana Del Rey’s “Watercolor Eyes” with each episode. In a few years, when Rebirth is upon us, many of those hits will more than likely be coming first from streaming sites and TikTok, not to mention new music discovery apps that haven’t even been born yet.

So, in conclusion, remember to keep your Pop balance, but be open to other genres as they become popular, and play more of them as they become big hits in streaming, TikTok and Shazam. Also look at Hitpredictor, which is still an incredible tool for finding the hits. And remember to ride the wave of each phase of the Music Cycle. Don’t stay in a rut with the same formula no matter what!

During the Extremes, you will play a little more Hip Hop if it’s melodic, or even more Rock. If Top 40 is in the Doldrums, as we are in now, you should be playing more AC, Rock, Country and melodic Hip Hop when those songs show “all the signs” that they are hits, and a little less Pop! When it is Rebirth time after Doldrums in a few years, you’ll see more songs, Pop genres and new artists emerging with hits, but you’ll still want to play the Variety Mix combination of AC/Rock/Country/other genres.

There is a new way to some, but an obvious way to others who have stayed ahead of the game. It’s not about looking at the charts, which are really the worst way to find out about new music these days. The charts are one way to know what the hits are, but it’s very hard to identify what’s driving a song’s growth in popularity by looking at a national chart itself. A song rising on the chart could be due to multiple factors, streaming, or airplay or both.

When you are look at a spins chart, the rise on the chart could be due to great label promotion team. Many, many times a potential hit gets lost. Look at what happened to Dua Lipa’s “Levitating,” which was rocketed up the charts, but peaked at #4, and then was shuffled off to Recurrent Land. That is until people noticed that great Program Directors like iHeartMedia’s Dylan Sprague (WXKS) and Mark Medina (Z100) were continuing to power the song. The label noticed and began promoting it as a current song again. That miraculous turnaround gave “Levitating” a second chance, and became 2021’s #1 song of the year. As tough as it is to find hit songs, Top 40 would have lost a huge hit, and that’s bad for the format!

When you are looking at Music Discovery and finding new hits, it’s like a massive jigsaw puzzle. However, in solving any problem, the best way to do that is to break it down to the individual parts, the sources that contribute to a song’s popularity, and study them.

These days, that means you should be studying on a weekly basis and trending streaming, TikTok, Shazam, and sales. (HitPredictor is also still a great tool.) I personally love the TikTok Trending 10 that’s on SiriusXM, and while the turnover from week- to-week is generally around 70% from the previous week, songs that continue to be at the top of that chart for several weeks are definitely potential Top 40 hits.

So I say to Top 40 programmers, don’t get caught up in a stagnant, one-size-fits-all Top 40 formula. That will only hurt you. Ride the wave of the Music Cycle.

If you stay in your Pop rut, you are avoiding the formula which made Top 40 the #1 format for music and music discovery for well over 60 years That formula, as my buddy in heaven, Steve Rivers, as well as my friend John Ivey says, “Play the Hits” and that’s playing ALL THE HITS, while playing the natural variety of all Pop, Rock, Hip Hop and R&B, AC and yes even Country.

Remember, playing “All The Hits” is the very definition of playing what are the most popular hits. That is to say, what’s A) streaming the most, plus B) TikTok’ing the most, plus C) Shazaming the most, plus D) selling the most. When you find those hits, and if Top 40 programmers give those songs the necessary spins (now 400-500 5a-7p since 2020), and five to six weeks of callout, you’ll see that those will come through in your callout ranker as the hits!

Here’s another look at the artists that made the Music Cycles through the years.

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.