What is a hit?

Jerry Lucky Commentary August 2008

Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2008 All Rights Reserved


So I’m sitting at my computer the other day and my daughter is in the other room looking at one of the very few TV music video

shows she watches and I hear her say...”Why do they keep showing the same video?” It’s a good question…she’s seen this weekly

show about three or four times and the band she’s hoping to see only shows up with the same video. She’s seen it already and would like to see something else. And then I heard a promo on the local modern rock station, the station that’s ‘supposed’ to be so cool and what do I hear…a promo

for the “Modern Rock Top 10 Countdown.” And so I got to thinking what is it with all these “Countdown” or “Top 10” music lists where essentially the same stuff is played over and over again? Has our attention span finally got to the point where we can only be exposed to just 10 songs or else our brains might explode?


I come from an era where albums were the king….but albums were the king because people heard multiple tracks off an album. It was not unusual at the radio station I managed to be playing up to five or even six tracks off the album. It was after all the artist we were promoting, not just the latest album or for that matter that particular track. I’ve mentioned this before; we should not be surprised at the decline in CD sales when the industry is out there so rabidly promoting singles. If one song is the only thing that people hear from an artist for weeks on end, then why would you expect them to be interested in buying stuff they’ve never heard? It’s much easier just to down-load that one song and be-done-with-it.


Right now in Canada, the CRTC (that’s the body that oversees what happens on radio, much like the FCC) is looking into the question of what constitutes a “hit song.” Why they’re doing this is with an eye to helping emerging talent get more exposure, which I think is a laudable goal, given that radio station programmers seem so loath or scared to do it themselves. Truth is even though radio in Canada is extremely profitable these days, programmers are really more just implementers and they’re not about taking chances.


The way it works in Canada, like some other nations is that radio is required to play 35%of the music from Canadian artists as defined by various music bodies. But what’s happened over the years is that stations have been playing it safer and safer and not taking the risk of playing a new artist. Hence the playlists have been getting pretty stale. The original plan of “Canadian-Content” served its purpose and created many long established artists in this country. But it’s not working that well these days. Rather than play something new, programmers keep going back to same well of familiar artists.


Lately it’s more likely that a Canadian artist has found exposure elsewhere (the USA or the UK) and only then has the Canadian media jumped on the talent. This is certainly no way to run a music industry. So what the CRTC is now saying to radio is “we’ll give you more credit for playing a new and emerging artist rather than the same old established stuff you’ve been playing for years.” Along with this the CRTC is also trying to create a mechanism where radio will start playing more “non-hits” rather than the same top hits day after day. Now I’m all for this. It makes sense. But as you can imagine there is a lot of resistance from the radio stations. Their old standby is that there are financial risks in deviating from the mainstream; which coincidentally is the same thing they’ve been saying since the earth cooled.


My own take on this, having managed a station where we played an amazing number of new artists and more non-hits than hits is that, radio in general has become too fat, bloated and lazy, and like the record label business is quite comfortable just sitting back and playing it safe rather than being innovators. There is always a risk when you innovate. But without innovation I believe there is the eventual danger that radio will be replaced by other technology. The only reason it hasn’t happened yet is that, the technology to provide the local/relationship aspects that radio is so good at delivering, has not yet arrived. But as the audience and technology changes so too will listening patterns and radio may very well get caught with its pants down.


There is a tremendous amount of confusion and mysticism surrounding what it takes to make a hit song. Many people over the years such as Don Kirshnir or Clive Davis have been credited with having “golden ears” in being able to hear a hit song, but this is more myth than reality. The fact that both of those individuals (and others) were involved in the music business and connected with the right people allowed for the song they wanted to get the repeated exposure, which is the process that creates what you and I know as a hit song. There is NOTHING “in the grooves” so to speak. My own take on what makes a hit, based on years of playing all kinds of records, is simply this…if enough radio stations play a song enough times, enough people will hear it, get familiar with it, come to like and go out and buy it. It’s that simple. There is no magic at work. Sorry to burst your bubble. How else do you explain such huge hits as “The Macarena”?


So it will be interesting to see where all this shakes out. Current traditional radio continues to hold quite a strong lead when it comes to people’s primary means of listening to music. The latest research shows that over 75% of people still look to radio to provide them the music and entertainment they want to hear. This is the very statistic that blinds radio programmers from looking to the future and anticipating the changes that are at work.


By the way, getting back to my daughter…bless her heart…you know that band she was hoping to see a different video on? Well truth is she’s already seen most of what they’ve done having watched them on the internet. She “doesn’t need no stinking radio or TV station” to tell her what she can watch or not watch.


At least that’s what I think.

Jerry Lucky