The Re-Segregation of Pop Radio
Over the years, the metrics that determine the Billboard charts have changed to reflect changing times and how we consume music. Until about ten years ago, that was based on radio airplay and physical sales (which include iTune sales).
However, that has completely changed with the advent of streaming, which has now overtaken all the other metrics in terms of popularity. While this is a welcome sign in terms of the democratization of popular music — anybody has a shot at being heard without a promoter giving payola to a radio station — what it has done to radio airplay (still a factor in how we listen to music) is make it more segregated than ever, despite what the charts say.
If you look at a recent Billboard Hot 100 chart (which ranks the popularity of singles), you will see artists of every hue represented, but that does not tell the whole story. You would be hard-pressed to hear them all on the same radio station.
As a kid in the ’70s, it was fairly common to hear Paul McCartney, Barry White, Gladys Knight, Dolly Parton, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and Olivia Newton-John on the same radio station. There were plenty of crossover hits from both R&B and Country and the vast majority of us in the middle learned all of them on our favorite stations.
This trend continued into the ’80s and ’90s. The ’90s were, in fact, a banner decade for crossover artists on radio. In R&B, Boyz II Men, En Vogue, Babyface, R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, Janet Jackson, and the later works (as opposed to their earlier pop confections) of Whitney and Mariah were all dominant. Rappers also entered the scene in a big way.
On the country side, the ’90s gave us huge superstars like Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, LeeAnn Rimes, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, and the Dixie Chicks.
And still, back then rock also ruled, with Nirvana, Radiohead, Green Day and others.
The ’90s were perhaps the last decade where pop music truly reflected the tastes of all Americans — all on the same radio station. When the new century came in, it all fell apart, much like the economy and education began to re-segregate along racial and urban/rural lines.
Today, I can’t help wondering what has happened to R&B music going mainstream. The Weeknd seems to be the only R&B artist with staying power at the top of the pop charts. Chris Brown and H.E.R. and a small handful of others are scattered among the lower rungs of the pop chart. It has been a long while since we’ve heard from Rihanna or Beyonce (while critically lauded, Beyonce’s latest efforts — tapping more into her R&B roots — have not produced mainstream hits).
A rare exception in 2018 was the hit song by newcomer Ella Mai, “Boo’d Up,” an old school R&B song that went top ten on the pop chart. But her recent follow-up has not fared nearly as well.
Where is our Aretha? Our Marvin Gaye? Our Luther Vandross? Our Al Green? Our Alicia Keys?
The Weeknd could be said to be a follow-up to Michael Jackson and Doja Cat (also a rapper) kind of has a Diana Ross vibe, but 90% of the black artists you see on the pop charts today are rappers. And sometimes they play a supporting act to white singers who want to sound more urban. (This is really nothing new. Remember Elvis?)
Those singers surely are out there. Remember those American Idols Ruben Studdard, Fantasia, and Jennifer Hudson? After a promising debut, their pop careers faded. That show has proven to be more successful for country acts like Carrie Underwood, Scotty McCreery, and, more recently, Gabby Barrett.
A more pertinent question might be, “Why is this happening?”
In a paper written by Peter Siegelman and Joel Walfogel in 2001 when this trend was beginning (published on the FCC website), the writers assert that commercial radio is financed through advertising and that the market will only provide for those stations where advertising revenues cover costs. They further argued that because whites and minorities generally have different preferences, and because minorities have a smaller population (twenty years ago, anyway), and because radio station ownership by minorities is less, and thus less advertising revenue, this all creates a perfect storm of less minority representation on the airwaves.
However, what I’d like to argue is that if programmers were more creative in their playlists, they would find that many listeners do, in fact, share similar tastes. As I said, when I was a kid, what I liked was what I liked. And if it was all playing on the same radio station, I learned it. In the ’60s, I’m sure millions of folks loved the Beatles and loved Motown too.
I currently have a Spotify playlist of all my friends who have recorded music. None of those songs are radio hits, or even streaming hits in many cases. I play this a few times a week, and over the months many of these songs have become MY top forty, if nobody else’s! I have learned them and sing along to them the same way I did to the popular songs of my childhood that were on the radio. The music spans all genres.
Music is music. When I jump in my car and turn on the radio, I want to hear the new music as well as my favorite oldies. I may be white, but my music is a rainbow.