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Ross On Radio: Keeping Top 40 From Getting Too Mid

Time:2018-02-13 05:02Turbochargers information Click:

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Not so long ago, the only tempo problem top 40 might have had was an overabundance of tempo. Now, the hits have changed considerably. So it's not crazy to ask, as we did recently, whether top 40 could become too wimpy again.

The softening of top 40 isn't as obvious as it was during its early-'80s and early-'90s doldrums. It's not as driven by ballads, which, in fact, still take forever to get traction, regardless of legitimacy. So do those acoustic-feeling alternative and triple A crossovers. Instead, the dominant sound of the format has quickly become the aggressively produced midtempo hit-"One More Night," "Whistle," "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," "As Long As You Love Me," and "Too Close"

Ross On Radio: Has Top 40 Gotten Too Soft?

A few years ago, the ROR column coined the term "turbo pop" to define the 120 bpm songs on the cusp of pop, R&B and '90s-style techno that had started to dominate the top 40 format. As is often the case, that production style eventually trickled down to how midtempo hits and ballads were produced as well. So let's call this crop of hits "mid-turbo." They don't read as wimpy ballads. They're all legitimate hits. But one after another, they change the alchemy of the format, giving it a sludgy center. (A few hours after this article first appeared in Billboard Top 40 Update, I heard a major-market CHR segue from One Direction's "Little Things" to Ed Sheeran's "The A-Team." Both are hits, but hearing them next to each other is definitely a throwback to a different era of the format.)

There's also been an impact on the "fun factor" of top 40, not just as a result of the mid-turbo hits but also because many of the uptempo hits are brooding and minor key. That's why "Call Me Maybe," a spring phenomenon, endured to become the summer song of 2012 against a ponderous competing field. It's also why PDs were so happy for "Gangnam Style," which wouldn't have been such a fun-sounding record if you weren't already thinking of a goofy-looking guy pretending to ride a horse.

There's little incentive to view this as a format crisis. Only country rivals top 40 now as a home for today's hottest music. Alternative has more great product all the time, but hasn't managed to parlay it into a format boom yet. But if any of what you've read is resonating, here's what to do about it:

Manage the portfolio: When turbo pop was at its peak, it seemed a little silly to worry about "Moves Like Jagger" into "Raise Your Glass" into "DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love." Listeners loved those songs and the format was dominant. But when "Rolling in the Deep," and then "Someone Like You," came along, PDs quickly realized that listeners were happy for the relief. Top 40 has a history of overindulging in key sounds in good times and bad. It is now time for PDs to keep an ear peeled for the balance they need-specifically, uptempo records that don't sound like the turbo pop of 18 months ago.

Watch the gold library: Nobody was a bigger advocate of "If I Die Young" by the Band Perry as a top 40 crossover. My only concern about it at the time was that PDs were waiting too long to acknowledge a song their audience already loved. Now, however, there are other ballads that bring a top 40 station to a halt (in a good way), so there's probably no need for more of those songs in a station's already tight gold library.

Stay on the beat:
Top 40 PDs don't watch urban these days, but even if they did, R&B and hip-hop product has long had the same sort of lugubrious-but-busy feel that is now defining top 40. The problem is that rhythmic pop, which was filling that void at top 40, is losing ground as well. For that to change, the sound of rhythmic pop needs to evolve as well; it's why Chris Brown's "Turn Up the Music" plateaued quickly, but the different-sounding "Don't Wake Me Up" went top 10. But the onus to maintain the balance is on PDs, particularly if they remember what happens when there's no R&B and dance music at top 40.

Label reps, send this to your A&R department:
The rise of mid-turbo is due in large part to the spread of dubstep through multiple genres. With its inclusion on hits by both Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift, it can now be said that the last novel use of dubstep would be by the rock and dance acts that were incubating that style before it was in pop music's toolbox.

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