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A Musical Trend About Nothing? posted on May 14th, 2015

By Sean Ross (@RossOnRadio)

I’m looking at the Nielsen SoundScan sales charts for another week, and for another week I’m struck by how little the top selling singles and albums look like the radio landscape – at least if you define the radio landscape as mainstream top 40.

The top five albums this week include Mumford & Sons, Josh Grobin, Tech N9ne, and the Zac Brown Band. The only representation of mainstream top 40 hits in the top five are those on the compilation album “Now 54.” And in recent weeks, the list of albums not represented at top 40 has also included Drake and Alabama Shakes. Only scrolling down through the rest of the top 10 selling albums does one find radio mainstays Taylor Swift, Sam Smith, and Ed Sheeran.

There are often high-debuting albums without pop radio hits, but there’s a story in digital songs as well. In the top five, you will find only one song from mainstream top 40’s rhythmic pop center lane, Jason Derulo’s “Want To Want Me.” At the other end, there is T-Wayne’s “Nasty Freestyle,” and in recent weeks, there was Little Big Town’s equally unlikely “Girl Crush.” Rounding out the top five are three songs that did become mainstream pop hits—Wiz Khalifa, Fetty Wap, and Walk The Moon—but came from R&B/hip-hop and alternative.

There’s nothing particularly extreme about Wiz Khalifa or Walk The Moon sonically. “Shut Up And Dance” is almost of a piece with the Jason Derulo song. And yet, both come from places where mainstream top 40 rarely finds hits these days. Walk the Moon has an eight month journey from its initial alternative airplay last September to prove it. For a while, top 40 has made a point of growing its own alternative and hip-hop hits. In this case anyway, it had to send out for a pop song.

Meanwhile, as Memorial Day approaches with every major EDM act lined up to compete for the Song Of Summer 2015, there is little representation of EDM on the digital songs chart. The only EDM act in the top 10 is David Guetta, fronting Nicki Minaj’s “Hey Mama,” really hip-hop/pop, with title cribbed from the Black Eyed Peas to prove it. It’s the low teens/high 20 range before you start to see sales stories from DJ Snake, Skrillex & Diplo, etc.

For some observers, the lack of sales activity will mean little in an age where Spotify and Shazam have become the new currency. But willingness to pay for music should be taken seriously, especially now. And when mainstream top 40 was at its healthiest, the top-selling singles had their greatest overlap with top 40’s most-played songs in several decades.

Some readers now are probably jumping ahead to the oft-invoked notion of the format being headed into an “extreme cycle,” or moving past that into the “doldrums.” The cancellation of “American Idol,” and seeing Kelly Clarkson stall mid-chart at top 40, even when she’s not openly fighting with her label, will probably convince some that we’re coming to the end of pop music’s reign.

But top 40 hasn’t been that helpfully symmetrical for the last 10 years. Proponents of the cycle theory were looking for the doldrums two years ago, but CHR’s ratings were up only country had emerged as any kind of serious format competition. Doomsayers have been confounded again by a series of jumps for some CHR stations, (although there is speculation that processing, not programming is the cause.)

Still, even by the 2014 holidays, top 40 had become an odd mix. It didn’t play all the hits, but the ones it did play came from seemingly far-flung corners. CHR was dominated by dense, meandering mid-tempo pop, but also played EDM (increasingly a ‘90s-flavored version that recalled “Show Me Love” by Robin S.) and ‘60s-flavored retro soul ballads, which had become not a novelty but a category.

If top 40’s music didn’t all sound the same, it didn’t all sound like it went together, either. Only by playing “Six Degrees of Separation” could you get everybody in one format. Vance Joy goes with Hozier, who goes with Sam Smith, who fits with The Weeknd, who goes with Jeremih. Or you could go from The Weeknd to Ellie Goulding to Taylor Swift.

So with apologies not to Jerry Seinfeld but to the rapper Wale, another recent No. 1 album artist who wasn’t driven or acknowledged by CHR, one wonders if top 40 has become a format about nothing recently. “All the hits” will always work as a mission statement, but it has to be true, and they have to be hits The troubled early ‘90s CHR format rallied around “today’s best music,” but until the available music got better in the mid-‘90s, it was a hollow promise.

The early ‘90s were also defined by a gap between what mainstream top 40 played and what was selling, made obvious for the first time by the switch to verified SoundScan sales data. The problem was that acknowledging what was selling would have only exacerbated things. Playing a Josh Groban showtune at top 40 now wouldn’t solve everything. It now seems clear that throwing in Ice Cube’s “Wicked” between the Amy Grant and Michael Bolton records in 1992 wouldn’t have solved anything.

One also needs to consider how top 40 so dominates the musical agenda now that any hit heard on one station is heard on four others in the market. I don’t side with those in the record industry lobby who claim that airplay hurts artists, and the enthusiasm with which label promotion departments still pursue airplay makes them a liar every Tuesday anyway. But if saturation airplay is still eliciting a “no thanks,” that does say something. For now, anyway, top 40 gets to keep setting the agenda until today’s hit music becomes more compelling to buyers.