When To Fight The Industry On A Song, Part II

By Sean Ross of @RossOnRadio

I’ve been having a rousing discussion with a friend this week about who broke the act Kon Kan.

If you’re a regular reader of this column, I may not have to remind you about “I Beg Your Pardon,” the 1989 hit that interpolated Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden,” before there was even an industry term for that. You may even get the joke about Canada’s musical “Canadian Content” quotas in the act’s name.

But you may not have given much thought to who broke that song, unless you were involved. One of my industry friends, who worked in Alternative radio, remembers discovering it at a New York import store. That’s at odds with accounts elsewhere in which a label person found it on a trip to Toronto, sent some copies to American programmers, and saw it break out of Houston where KKBQ (93Q) and KRBE were engaged, at the time, in a new music war to see who could unearth more new wave dance hits as secret weapons.

Both of the people involved are personal friends. (I’m withholding names because only one has openly engaged over the issue in public.) Both have a track record of discovering new music, and nothing to prove on that score. And the distinction of breaking Kon Kan might seem like an odd one to wrestle over now, although if you think about it, there’s no shortage of relevance in a sample-driven hit by a DJ producer in today’s EDM pop.

I stir the hornet’s nest in service of a larger issue. Breaking any song used to be a common point of pride in the industry, and disputes about who was first used to erupt all the time. So much so that I remember coming across a trade article from the ‘70s that was a parody of the sort of programmer interview that was common in that era. In the parody profile, the “PD” was bragging about being first on all the goofy pop hits of the early ‘70s—“Chick-A-Boom” by Daddy Dewdrop, “Gimme Dat Ding” by the Pipkins; “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep.”

But that period was a pretty exciting time in the business and programmers weren’t just looking for bubblegum. Somebody in that era found “Maggie May” on a B-side, too. (Not surprisingly, I’ve heard conflicting stories about who discovered that one as well.) The late ‘80s period of programmer enterprise that brought us “I Beg Your Pardon” saw 93Q and KRBE make unlikely Houston hits of various import oddities that never became American hits—“Don’t Walk” by Big Supreme, “Will You Be There” by Celebrate the Nun. But it was also part of the larger mindset that helped “Red Red Wine” and “Into The Night” become national smashes again as “bringbacks.”

That sort of enterprise isn’t entirely missing these days. As recently noted, there’s a new music war in Honolulu. Cox’s CHR stations have become more aggressive again, as they were in the early ‘00s. Even iHeart’s country WUBL (the Bull) Atlanta is playing a Kenny Chesney version of “I Want To Know What Love Is” that’s in significant rotation at no other station at this writing.

Top 40 would benefit from having a few PDs who were actively looking for records to break these days. There’s not much denying any more that the available product isn’t what it was a few years ago. Or that the format has calcified around a few musical subgenres—tropical house, EDM “trap pop,” and now songs that combine tropical house and trap pop. The industry’s growing reliance on Spotify stories, while valid, tends to find songs that reinforce, not defy existing genres—songs that “you may also like.”

How would you even know you have something? The oft-quoted industry answer now is Shazam activity in an airplay market, but there’s one other indicator I consider key.

The best story any new song can have, in my mind, is spreading across the market to a station’s direct competitor. When Kacey Musgraves’ “Merry Go Round” became a surprise Country hit a few years ago, the single most telling early indicator was the number of markets where it was going from 12 spins to 21 at an early station and from three spins to 12 at a competitor. In any format, seeing a competitor forced to deal with a song meant something.

The reverse is true as well. When Thomas Rhett’s “Vacation” was unable to break through last summer, the danger signs were the number of markets where a few early believers were unable to force their cynical competition to follow suit. Or in a few cases, where the second station tentatively waded in just as the first station was already backing off spins. (Musgrave’s “Follow Your Arrow” had a similar pattern.)

I also take seeing a story anywhere in the world seriously. Not every hit song translates to America, but any hit song has to start by being a hit somewhere. As a standalone single in America, “Castle on the Hill” would have struggled. But having a “double-A side” hit everywhere else in the world, and the security of “Shape of You” already being an American hit might help “Castle on the Hill” become a U.S. hit as well.

The ultimate test for stepping out on a song ought to be “does the station need it”? At this moment, I feel safe in saying that almost every format needs records. And that we would be better served with a few more arguments over who breaks songs now. Can you name a recent dispute of that sort?

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