Itunes, Billboard, and the marginalization of black music and black audiences in America

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it's an interesting and unusual situation this year, and in the past couple of years in general. in one sense, black music is doing wonderful numbers, making lots of money for the industry, and placing prominently on the record charts, due in large part to its superlative performance on streaming services. but on the other hand, despite this fortune, the vast majority of black musicians, regardless of their level of success, are being kept at arm's length by top 40 radio -- white artists, meanwhile, continue to enjoy privileged access to airplay, not only if they record what reads as traditional-sounding 'pop' (max martin productions etc.) but also if they record music within the black idiom (post malone).

some figures to help illustrate: of the 39 singles to reach the top 10 of billboard's pop songs airplay chart this year, just 3 (7.7%) originated at black radio. in 2008, this figure was 16%, and in 1998 15%. (source: my own number-crunching, so unfortunately for now you'll have to take my word for it.)

to be clear, it's terrific that black artists don't need pop radio's support to do great business. at the same time, though, it must be beyond frustrating that when they do try to make those inroads, they often go nowhere:

Promotion is not the only challenge faced by non-white rappers. Anthony Saleh, who manages Future, said his team tried pushing “Mask Off” to pop radio but hit an immediate wall. “We spent real money (on promotion), and it didn’t work,” he says. “Pop radio doesn’t support us.”

("mask off" went quintuple-platinum and reached #5 on the hot 100 in 2017 but, despite this concerted push from his management, did not even crack the bottom of billboard's 40-position pop radio airplay chart.)

a concerning trend, for me, is not only that the gulf between the black and pop radio formats has widened, but also that pop radio (and, really, every format other than 'urban' and rhythmic) is delivering an image astonishingly racialized as non-black in recent years. in the past, one could be a black artist on pop radio without having to cross over from black radio! among 1998's pop top 10s, in addition to the 15% crossing from black radio, you also had janet jackson, will smith (multiple hits), and eagle-eye cherry delivering hits without strong (or any) r&b radio support. in 2008, in addition to the 16% from black radio, you had rihanna (multiple), ne-yo, estelle, sean kingston, wyclef jean, jordin sparks (multiple), chris brown (multiple), leona lewis (multiple), kardinal offishall, beyoncé, and akon delivering such hits.

in 2018, in addition to the 7.7% from black radio (two by drake, one by cardi b), the black artists pulling the same trick are halsey (lol) (multiple hits), the weeknd/kendrick (same hit), khalid/normani (khalid scored a second hit in collaboration w/ benny blanco and halsey), and juice wrld. but unlike in 2008 and 1998 when these artists were either breaking directly at pop radio or crossing from dance and rock formats, all of the 2018 batch crossed from rhythmic radio. this rhythmic-to-pop pathway in 2018 also served as the means by which numerous non-black artists scored their hits, including nf, g-eazy, bazzi, post malone, and dj khaled. this pathway was not so frequently exploited by non-black artists in the past: in 2008 colby o'donis and m.i.a. were the only non-black artists to do so, and in 1998 zero non-black artists did so.

what does all this mean? in addition to accepting much fewer hits from black radio, pop radio now accepts just as many hits from non-black artists from the one pathway available to black artists for crossover as it does black artists (and has ZERO pop-native hits by black artists unless you count fucking halsey). instead black artists are primarily valuable to the pop format in a subservient role as featured artists to help juice white pop artists' paltry streaming stats (and often enable the more racist of these stations to edit the guest verses out -- i know i've picked on maroon 5 a million times for this, but they are easily the most shameless offenders).

on some level, both top 40 radio and the wider industry know that consumption patterns are changing and would prefer if hits on the radio were also hits at the streaming services. there's only so many non-selling, non-streaming duds like max's "lights down low", lauv's "i like me better", nf's "lie" and bebe rexha's "i'm a mess" that they can keep taking a chance on if they want to hold onto their (declining) ratings, and i'm sure the labels aren't especially fond of having to work songs like this to radio for ages that can't even stream halfway decently in the end, even with all the exposure on the airwaves.

so, are black artists doing really well for themselves? absolutely. but is black music still being kept in its margin? without a doubt.

"sicko mode" just reached #1 on the hot 100 the other week. it's been a streaming monster ever since its debut months ago, and on the back of excellent rhythmic and black radio play, it even managed to reach the all-format radio songs top 10. but many pop stations, especially those with extra-tight playlists like the one in my midwestern city (which, for much of its history, was 'rhythmic-leaning'!), still are electing not to play the song AT ALL.

when it comes to closing the gap between what gets good radio audience feedback and what actually streams, the industry knows radio's sound is going to have to inch closer to the black idiom. but so far it seems they would much prefer that its olive-skinned, racially ambiguous white stars be doing that work. black artists? thank u, next!

dyl, Sunday, 16 December 2018 18:54 (four years ago) link

damn son - thnk you

illegal economic migration (Tracer Hand), Sunday, 16 December 2018 21:46 (four years ago) link

Great analysis and explains the difference between what I hear on the local “pop” and “urban” stations. (And why my middle-school son will only listen to the urban station — it plays the stuff his peer group actually listens to.)

that’s a great post dyl and definitely something i’ve been thinking about since jingle ball, which included g-eazy (talk about white rappers having lower bars) and khalid — the latter of whom had the second best crowd reception after shawn mendes

maura, Sunday, 16 December 2018 23:49 (four years ago) link

terrific post dyl, thank you.

|Restore| |Restart| |Quit| (Doctor Casino), Monday, 17 December 2018 03:43 (four years ago) link

x-post-- the DC Jingle Ball didn't even include Khalid. NY & LA got Cardi B on their Jingle ball shows.

curmudgeon, Monday, 17 December 2018 04:12 (four years ago) link

looks like Camila Cabello was also only on NY & LA jingle ball lineups. Virtually all white in many places

curmudgeon, Monday, 17 December 2018 04:15 (four years ago) link

What percentage of the Billboard formula is assigned to streaming vs. radio, iTunes sales, CD sales and so on?

skip, Monday, 17 December 2018 06:10 (four years ago) link

camila was in boston

maura, Monday, 17 December 2018 11:30 (four years ago) link

xp it's been a while since billboard stated the specific target ratios they aim for but i would say that streaming accounts for maybe half of the hot 100's points lately. airplay accounts for less than streaming, but not by a whole lot. the influence of download sales trails far behind the other two metrics since their volume has declined so dramatically in recent years, though they are probably overrepresented compared to how (un)important they are as revenue-generators in today's industry. i believe physical sales still count technically but have a nearly negligible effect, as the physical singles market is essentially dead outside of record store day. for the albums chart things are different but, like, a cd sale counts the same as buying the album over itunes.

ty for the kind words y'all :)

dyl, Monday, 17 December 2018 14:29 (four years ago) link

The LA Times article cites this Billboard one-

Which also deals with these angles:

It may seem counterintuitive to radio outsiders, but Ken Johnson, vp of urban programming for Cumulus Media, believes that the downturn in crossover actually helps mainstream R&B/hip-hop stations. "On the urban side of the ball, I don't look for records to cross over, per se," he explains. "If they don't cross over, it benefits urban radio more. Listeners who are consumers of that music, if they're not getting that on top 40 radio, there's a few places they can still get it, and one of those is urban radio."

As to the reason behind fewer female acts at R&B/hip-hop radio and fewer crossover female acts, radio programmers suggest women are battling both a sexist music industry and the dominance of hip-hop, which rules urban radio but has rarely made room for multiple female artists. "Women have always had a more challenging time in this industry,"

curmudgeon, Monday, 17 December 2018 21:04 (four years ago) link

That LA Times article is fascinating (I’d been meaning to read it since it went up).

“I remember when R&B singers sang the song and the rappers did a hook. Now singers are just doing the hooks. And, actually, some rappers are doing the songs and the hooks,” R&B star Tamia says with a laugh.

underqualified backing vocalist (morrisp), Monday, 17 December 2018 21:43 (four years ago) link

Still have to read the whole series of articles

That one has the point Dyl made but with less specifics:

In fact, according to a survey Billboard released earlier this year, the volume of R&B and hip-hop songs crossing over to pop radio shrank dramatically between 1993 and 2016.

curmudgeon, Monday, 17 December 2018 22:20 (four years ago) link

Yeah I was actually waiting for the workweek to begin (today) to use this one as a listening guide:

underqualified backing vocalist (morrisp), Monday, 17 December 2018 22:31 (four years ago) link

billboard does have a strict mathematical formula that applies to album equivalent units ( that is meant to mimic the way there was diff monetary values attached to music back when people actually paid for music a la carte. my description there is lacking but it was explained to me by billboard's chart guy to me once & i still don't really get it exactly... but the way they divide streams now by paid vs ad supported is bcuz they see it as a way of having the current charts maintain some sort of historical integrity

i think the "formula" for the hot 100 as it were is fluid based on market consumption, but i think streams to airplay is like roughly a 60/40 ratio right now? you can see in gary trust's weekly stories about the hot 100 that the raw #s between spins and streams for major tracks are pretty similar, but the record breaking streaming weeks i.e. for "thank u next" or 'in my feelings") still hit #s that even huge airplay weeks can't touch. the big difference really is just that streams hit way faster..... songs w/ huge streaming numbers but no airplay regularly debut in the top 10 (the big songs off pretty much any major rap album nowadays), and if radio ever catches on then you end up w/ a giant smash--"lucid world" or "sicko mode" for instance. conversely a song w/ big airplay but relatively little streaming i.e. panic at the disco "high hopes" can also make it into the top 10 it's just an ascent that happens over much a more protracted period of time

J0rdan S., Monday, 17 December 2018 23:29 (four years ago) link

"lucid dreams" i mean obv

J0rdan S., Monday, 17 December 2018 23:31 (four years ago) link

record breaking streaming weeks i.e. for "thank u next" or 'in my feelings") still hit #s that even huge airplay weeks can't touch

this is a really good point! and it also reminds me: peak airplay audience numbers today don't even come close to what was being attained by the biggest airplay hits several years back. like, just to pick out huge airplay smashes from the past few years, along with what they were racking up at/near their peak (don't have exhaustive data saved)...

(2018) maroon 5 feat. cardi b "girls like you": 128 million audience impressions
(2017) ed sheeran "shape of you": 185 million
(2016) adele "hello": 170 million
(2015) mark ronson "uptown funk": 190 million
(2014) pharrell williams "happy": 226 million
(2013) robin thicke "blurred lines": 229 million

"girls like you" was the most-heard song in the country for 16 straight weeks -- no other song was even close to that this year (or, actually, most years in general). and yet its airplay peak still pales, by far, in comparison to what huge airplay smashes were pulling not too long ago. it's actually a pretty shocking decline over such a short period that i highly doubt is matched by decline in radio listenership overall.

it's worth noting that many of those radio mega-smashes did so well partly because they also got strong rhythmic and black radio play, whether they were crossing from urban to pop ("happy") or in the other direction ("hello", "uptown funk"). given the extent to which rhythmic and black radio hits are being isolated to those two formats, it stands to reason that big airplay hits will continue to have a fairly modest reach compared to where they were a few years ago. and since streaming services are still growing i can't help but wonder if we will reach a point when the top streaming hits each week are consistently, rather than sporadically as it is now, being heard more than the top radio hits.

dyl, Tuesday, 18 December 2018 01:12 (four years ago) link

isn't the reduction in peak airplay impressions also a result of time spent with the radio each week being down - even though weekly reach is still essentially flat?

illegal economic migration (Tracer Hand), Tuesday, 18 December 2018 08:39 (four years ago) link

yeah that would certainly contribute

dyl, Wednesday, 19 December 2018 02:34 (four years ago) link

So what are the demographics on all of this? I have a totally anecdotal sense that the top 40 station in my town is mostly targeted at 25-45 year old white women, which would definitely explain a lack of hip-hop crossover. Their morning DJs are in their 40s and spend a lot of time talking about their kids.

a man often referred to in the news media as the Duke of Saxony (tipsy mothra), Wednesday, 19 December 2018 02:55 (four years ago) link

Whereas the urban station has no morning show at all and just plays Drake-Migos-Drake-Cardi-Drake-Malone etc.

a man often referred to in the news media as the Duke of Saxony (tipsy mothra), Wednesday, 19 December 2018 02:56 (four years ago) link

Part of the problem may be in thinking of pop stations as mainstream and urban stations as something lesser, when they're actually both just niches. (Even if one niche is say 40 percent larger in its reach than the other.)

a man often referred to in the news media as the Duke of Saxony (tipsy mothra), Wednesday, 19 December 2018 02:58 (four years ago) link

So what are the demographics on all of this? I have a totally anecdotal sense that the top 40 station in my town is mostly targeted at 25-45 year old white women, which would definitely explain a lack of hip-hop crossover. Their morning DJs are in their 40s and spend a lot of time talking about their kids.

― a man often referred to in the news media as the Duke of Saxony (tipsy mothra), Tuesday, December 18, 2018 9:55 PM (yesterday) Bookmark Flag Post Permalink

music played in public spaces and offices

aloha darkness my old friend (katherine), Wednesday, 19 December 2018 20:06 (four years ago) link

I think some suburban white kids listen to top 40 stations in the car

curmudgeon, Thursday, 20 December 2018 15:38 (four years ago) link

damn kids

Is there any campaign to, at least, stop radio stations editing out black musicians' verses? It's such a shit petty thing to do.

(Or maybe a campaign to ban Maroon 5 like China did)

sbahnhof, Sunday, 23 December 2018 19:52 (four years ago) link

i'm not aware of any organized campaigns to improve radio programming decisions (obv i'm not counting label promotions promo campaigns or online stans' requesting campaigns)

lol i actually wrote an email to one of the two top 40 stations in my city when it aired an edit of fifth harmony's "work from home" with ty dolla $ign edited out. (the edit just replaced his section with eight bars of the girls going "work. work. work. work. ...") basically i said that there was no logically consistent rationale that could explain the conscious erasure of his voice from their programming other than his proximity to (black) hip-hop culture + said that was very shitty and says a lot about what they think of their audience (in more eloquent words lol).

they forwarded it to one of the music directors (who i think is now assistant pd) who actually wrote back. basically she gave a canned response of 'thank you for the thoughtful criticism, we make all of our programming decisions on a case-by-case basis and respond to listener feedback' but also said things specifically about hip-hop that made it clear that she actually read/sorta-understood where my argument was coming from lol

dyl, Sunday, 23 December 2018 21:05 (four years ago) link

that was two years ago when "work from home" was big

dyl, Sunday, 23 December 2018 21:05 (four years ago) link

basically top 40 is doing all the things today that used to be expected from hot ac stations: editing out rap (or just black) guest vocals, playing more songs that make labels little money thru direct consumer behavior (downloads + streaming) but still 'test well' in passive audience research while accepting less black crossover, formulating a mix that mom and daughter can both listen to in the car or that can be put on in a waiting room, etc.

of course hot ac still does all these things as well which means that lately sometimes the only way to tell the difference between stations of each format is the taglines, lol

dyl, Sunday, 23 December 2018 21:16 (four years ago) link

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