A letter today from Rich Appel, purveyor of the monthly Hz So Good newsletter, asks: "Just what exactly is a hit?"

Why this question matters:

Many moons ago, in the days of Juke Box Jury, this would have been a stupid question. Now, with over 128 flavors of current music formats at radio and beyond, with iPods that are essentially 'personal radio stations' and with a significant population having a collective memory going back to the mesozoic era of pop music, maybe it's not so stupid.

Have we gone from the days of the definitive Top 10 to a '500 hits a week, based on subgroup' world? Does the #1 song even matter anymore? And what about the oldies are songs once defined as hits no longer hits after all?

Billboard mentions eight different charts on its Web site these days, and while this sort of multiplicity isn't new there were four different charts in the 1950s before consolidation into the current Hot 100 it doesn't make for a whole lot of consensus. And those four early charts weren't for different genres, but for different delivery methods: best sellers in stores, most played by DJs, and most played in jukeboxes were broken out separately. (Today, we have a separate "Hot Digital Songs" chart, which probably isn't too different from the Hot 100; there's also a ringtone chart, about which the less said, the better I plan to feel.)

I note that the local oldies station now eschews the term "oldies" in favor of "The Best Music of the 60s & 70s," which is perhaps more accurate, since they don't play much of anything before 1963 or so. The guys who figure the radio ratings, in fact, list them, not as "oldies," but as "classic hits." This leads to some high weirdness: if KOMA is "classic hits," and sister KRXO is "classic rock," what about BOB? KQOB, says the chart, is "adult hits," while KOJK ("Jack") is "adult contemporary" but then KMGL (Magic 104.1) is "adult contemporary," and Jack and Magic sound nothing alike. (If anyone cares, KYIS "Kiss" is "hot AC."

Anent this sort of thing, Sean Ross writes for Edison Research:

[T]here's no sign of that hyper focus on the late '60s/early '70s changing anytime soon judging from both the new and surviving outlets. If you were in the class of '72, you're still very well-served by the Oldies format. If you graduated high school before 1969 or later in the '70s, it can still feel a little claustrophobic. If there's any good news, it's that the handful of pre-Beatles titles with undeniable durability today seem to have found their way back on to some stations that were going to draw a hard line at 1964.

That the music window remains so focused on the late '60s/early '70s is, to some extent, a function of something observed here in Oldies and Classic Hits music testing in the past two or three years. Even if you're one of the Oldies PDs who refuses to test "Sister Golden Hair" and "Just The Way You Are," you're still likely to get back a music test with a lot of later Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival songs at the top of the page, while onetime mainstays like "Cherry Cherry" and "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" drift toward the middle of the pack less resonant with a 45-year-old (and perhaps diminished for a 53-year-old after 20 years of daily exposure).

My own resonance: I am 53, and graduated from high school in, yes, 1969. Then again, what makes a song "durable"? I'm willing to bet that "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" will outlast anything by, well, Diddy.

Maybe I shouldn't weigh in on this at all, since my radio listening these days is mostly either classical or NPR. But this is due, not so much to a change in tastes, as to the sheer size of my library: almost every record between 1960 and 1972 that I liked, and a surprising number of the ones I didn't like, I actually have on the shelf somewhere. If I have the urge to hear, for instance, Dusty Springfield, I don't call KOMA's request line; I simply walk into the next room and retrieve the appropriate disc, which may be either vinyl (styrene, even) or Compact. One of the reasons I occasionally wander over to Jack is what I perceive as an Eighties emphasis, since I quit buying 45s around 1985. And Jack eschews "album tracks"; they play what they want, and what they want, evidently, is the hits.

(Aside: I also started doing this online stuff around 1985. Coincidence?)

But let us not minimize the importance of the personal digital music library, which may or may not center around the iPod. Even a smallish player like my 4GB MP3 Walkman will hold somewhere around 800 songs, more if you keep the bit rates down; that's more than enough to run an entire "classic hits" station, which might have a playlist of 500 if you're lucky. I have about 2000 tracks on my work box, the majority of which were ripped at home and transported via SneakerNet. There's hardly any reason for me to listen to the radio at all except for classical and/or NPR, and if I start building up my classical library, which at the moment consists of maybe 400 titles tops well, you get the general idea.

The local classical station, incidentally, plays Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony and Holst's The Planets rather a lot, no doubt due to the audience's demand for hits.

The Vent

  1 October 2007

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 Copyright © 2007 by Charles G. Hill