‘Don’t Stop The Party’ is the Black Eyed Peas’ new motto. But the party hasn’t even started in American radio!
Dance and electronic music are the natural soundtracks to parties and have been programmed on European radio for the past two decades. These once underground music genres reached mainstream attention 10 or 15 years ago thanks to the likes of The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, or even Moby.
But when listening to radio in the US, it feels like the trend started and ended with Ace of Base in the 1990s! OK, we’re stretching it a little bit to make a point, because the point is that US radio is missing out on a music format based on a genre that is attracting a growing number of fans and that has a lot to offer, both on air and off air.
If you go to Miami’s Ultra Music Festival in March, you’ll get a sense of the tidal wave that is in the making: Thousands of people dancing to these big phat rockin’ beats blasting from the massive PA and powered by the world’s most famous DJs. And for all these partygoers, this is the coolest place to be.
For most of today’s radio programmers, acknowledging this new scene is probably akin to what happened in 1967-69, when the establishment saw with disbelief rock music going from counter-culture to mainstream, using a new medium, FM radio, and congregating in gatherings such as Woodstock. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, ‘there’s something happening and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?’
David Guetta's hit 'One Love'
Electronic music – often referred to in the US as ‘techno’, although it is just a sub-genre – could be a programmer’s dream: there’s a vast pool of talent, with DJs and producers who are also much in demand for dance mixes of established hits (think David Guetta or Armin van Buuren); audiences are ‘connected’ to the music and among themselves, which allows for community action; and it is virtually a virgin format in US radio, so the first ones to establish a footprint are likely to be winners.
The downside is that you have to get it right. Electronic music is a confusing genre because of all its subtle sub-genres, going from the ethereal synth waves of ‘ambient’ to the hardbeat ‘trance’.
Electronic music is quintessentially global, so an eclectic programming mix could include the likes of Italy’s Benny Benassi, Brazil’s Gui Boratto, Austria’s Elektro Guzzi, Germany’s Robag Wruhme, France’s Etienne de Crecy, the UK’s Metronomy, Sweden’s Swedish House Mafia, the Netherlands’ DJ Tiësto and Afrojack, the USA’s LMFAO, or Romania’s Edward Maya. You could even wrap into the programming some more mainstream acts such as…Adele, whose ‘Rolling in the Deep’ has been given an upbeat remix by Romeo Blanco.
The time seems about right, with rock music almost disappearing from the Billboard Top 100 charts in the US. What dominates the charts nowadays are tracks that usually have a very strong electronic/dance foundation: LMFAO, Rhianna, Stereo Harts, Cobra Starship, Nicky Minaj, Lady Gaga, Pitbull, Katy Perry, Britney Spears... And one of the world’s most in-demand DJ/producer is Frenchman David Guetta. He’s been working with virtually everyone in the US music business, from Will.i.am to Usher. He’s made electronic music ubiquitous and is certainly now one of the most popular artists of the times.
The fantastic aspect of electronic music, aside from the creativity of the scene, is that this music genre is totally in synch with the digital generation. Digital natives are fully wired and their use of electronic machinery – from iPods to tablets, video games and PCs – and their mastering of the web 2.0, is matched by their interest in electronic music. It’s their world, their digital world.
If you are managing radio stations or programmers, you’d better take notice. Teenagers aged 15-20 spend a lot of time chatting with friends, using Facebook, sharing music and going out to clubs – and they listen to electronic music. A vast majority of these youngsters have been lost by traditional radio, simply because they could not find there what they wanted. So the big challenge for radio executives is – how do you attract them?
In Europe, stations like Fun Radio in France, Galaxy, and Kiss100 in the UK have managed to move the genre from niche to mainstream. What have they done? They’ve blended urban music (R&B or hip hop) with upbeat electronic music and created a new sort of CHR/Urban mix, very dynamic and in tune with the young demo.
European programmers have perfected this format because there was a direct link with the very lively electronic scene that has been blossoming in Europe since the 1990s. Add to that the R&B/hip-hop component from the US that delivered fantastically well-packaged hits, and you have a very solid proposition for an audience avid of beats and longing a different radio sound. After switching to the format, Fun Radio’s market share went from 2.5% to 4.5% and raised its cumulative audience from 5.1% to 8.1%.
[It must be noted one of the writers of this piece, Sam Zniber, was the architect of Fun Radio’s switch to the format, and that he no longer works for or advises Fun Radio and its parent company RTL Group. He also worked with Galaxy.]
Can it be replicated in the US? We don’t see why it could not. The upbeat R&B component already exists and is milked to the core by the biggest CHR stations like Z100 in New York. But the idea is to keep some R&B and hip hop components and get rid of all the “middle of the road” pop and rock tracks, while adding electronic music, to give the station a defining sound. The result is what we’d call the "Electronic/Dance Format”.
Mind you; there are some stations in the US that claim to be Party machines, like WKTU in New York, but they tend to target female adults, whereas the "Electronic/Dance Format” caters for youngsters, usually under 25, regardless of their gender.
Strategically, such format would be the perfect potential “flanker” format to give leading CHRs a ride for their money. You can create a market for yourself by tapping into a new audience but also by winning the “left-wing” audience from the dominant CHR, CHR Rhythmic, and Urban stations. And if they try to follow you they risk losing their mainstream audience, while their “left-wing” audience will probably stay with the new format and not come back. So there’s a lot to gain with this format for radio groups looking for ways to secure clusters and tap into new reservoirs of audience.
Launching such a format in a new market would require the following:
- Break electronic music into different music types (probably up to 14 different types);
- Create prototypes with the different types of electronic music;
- Aggregate them into one seamless and dynamic music programming;
- Build a coherent schedule and sound, by coaching on-air talent and producers;
- Put together all the different features of the stations in a coherent way;
- Go after the competition to “steal” listeners and bring in new ones.
Adjusting the format it is slightly more complex than just that. Because programmers are dealing with such a variety of styles and genres, experience has proven that what really matters is the balance in the music mix, and playing the right track at the right time. And it’s more than just having the right programming; it is also about getting the “right attitude” and know how to address the community.
These radio stations have to be immersed in their local communities. They must work the local clubs, find the right events to partner with, and if they don’t find them, then create them. The connection that you can build with the world’s leading DJs will be a significant factor in the success of the format. The DJs are today’s hot brands and stations will define their DNA by partnering with the right “brands”, sorry, DJs. And you can also build a significant online following too, with a smart use of the internet, phone apps, and specialized playlists.
So if you are in a competitive radio market, with a couple of dominant CHRs or Urban stations, it may be worth considering a new format.
Time has come to party, for real!
About the authors:
Sam Zniber is a radio strategic consultant. Over the past 20 years, he’s worked in the radio field in the USA (Magic 102.7 Miami), Canada (The Beat 92.5), France (NRJ, RTL Group, Lagardere Active), the UK (Chrysalis Radio), Australia (Clear Channel). He currently consults radio groups around the world.
Emmanuel Legrand is a London-based freelance journalist, blogger and media consultant, specializing in the entertainment business and in analyzing cultural trends. He is the former global editor of US trade publication Billboard and the former editor in chief of Music & Media, the leading weekly pan-European trade magazine covering the music, radio and new media industries.