This is a pretty interesting one just sent to me.
The Short Answer: Because commercial music format radio stations do not compete against each other to get the product they distribute – songs.
The Result: The “Top 30” is usually half a dozen good songs, mixed in amongst a couple dozen other songs that would get blown right out of the “Top 1000” if they had to compete to be there.
Since music stations buy a blanket license to air all songs, there is no way to get a song advantage over a competitor. In music radio, a hit is defined as product that is exactly the same as the competitor’s product. Hits are chosen ahead of time, by the suppliers of the product. In television, theatre, print media, talk radio – and everywhere else – a hit is defined as product that is better than the competitor’s product – because competitors have different product. And hits are chosen later, by the consumers. Unlike music radio, competitors have to try to deliver something better than the competitor to survive.
A method evolved long ago which allows radio stations to know what their competitor will be playing, so they can make sure they will be playing the exact same thing. Promoters – who tell stations they had better play a particular song because it’s being heavily promoted, and thus will be a hit. The knowledge of heavy promotion itself is enough to get a station to add. It doesn’t matter if the song is any good, it doesn’t matter if the singer is known or unknown, a station can decide to add a song based on nothing more than the knowledge that the promotion is heavy, it’s coming from the right place, and so “everyone will be playing it.”
Any station can make sure that when the winners walk up on stage at award time, their station had been airing all of them. Not just some of them. Not just more than their competitor. But every single one of the artists who win the awards. All the station has to do is just cooperate in the process that turns those previously selected songs into hits in the first place. By effectively engaging in non-competition with their competitors – by making sure that songs played on Station A are also played on Station B (and as a result, making sure that songs not played on Station A are also not played on Station B.)
There are only three reasons for a broadcaster to take a risk on an unknown commodity. #1: Ability to keep it from a competitor. #2: Fear of losing it to a competitor. #3: It can be bought for less than the known commodity. The blanket broadcast license ensures that none of these three things can possibly happen with the main commodity of music radio – songs. There is no way to keep a song from a competitor, there is no fear of losing a song to a competitor, and every song costs exactly the same amount. A station has to pay exactly the same amount for a song by Joe Blow as a song by Elton John. In music radio, there can be no possible reward for taking a risk on any song not designated to be a hit – even if the person who has to keep it off the air personally loves it.
Nobody got NBC TV to take a chance on Seinfeld by pointing out that it was being heavily promoted, that therefore all the other networks would be showing it, it would be picking up a lot of awards, so NBC may as well jump on board and start showing it. The strategy to get something on the air with competition is the exact opposite of the strategy with a blanket license. It’s “Use it or Lose it.” And Pass with Caution.
There’s probably no perfect way of marketing songs to radio – but there’s probably a hundred ways of doing it better. Stations legally selling the song slots…
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