The Music Cycle: The Extremes are here as Doldrums approach – Part One

SVP Programming, Research & Strategy

So, where are we in the Music Cycle, I’m often asked … Well, in October 2018 we’re solidly in The Extremes with the beginning of the Doldrums appearing, as Top 40’s ratings are slowing.

In the Extremes/Doldrums phase, Top 40 radio has always depended on the winning formula of Pop + Rhythm + Rock balance of music, but the times, they are a’changing.

But first, here’s a refresher course: The Music Cycle is composed of three phases that have repeated every 10 years since 1956, where the balance of core styles differs from phase to phase.

  • Birth/Pop Phase — plenty of Pop hits plus Rock & Hip Hop/R&B are more pop, more melodic.
  • Extremes — moves toward the edges, away from Pop and Top 40’s ratings begin to dip.
  • Doldrums — Mainstream Top 40s R&B and Rock edges soften and much of Rock and R&B music is avoided entirely. Mainstream Top 40s ratings dip even more.

What causes the next phase of each music cycle is the changing of the music tastes of the masses when one genre is missing or overexposed so that the pendulum swings. When you have too much of one thing, the leading edge grows tired of it first, then the masses, and then they gravitate toward fresh new sounds or an under-exposed one.

The factors that can cause this to shift into rebirth phase and the cycle beginning again is the emergence of a superstar, a new music platform or technological advance.

You Might Also Like: What’s happening to CHR? Unpacking the Music Cycle Theory

In times past… Elvis in ’56, The Beatles in ’64, new music platform MTV in ’82, Napster in the ’90s, American Idol in ’02, mobile phones/streaming services in the ’10s and in 2013, music technology/digital platforms. The intensity of a phase is governed by how deep the dominant platform goes into the hot genre.

In 2018, the amount of pure Pop music hits have slowed down, with more of the hits of that genre being Rhythmic Pop, very few Pop Alternative/Rock titles crossing, while Hip Hop and R&B – have exploded. All of this was predicted a year ago in my article for Extremes of the Music Cycle Are Approaching.

We know Pop music is the glue that holds Top 40 together. The key factor in both the Extremes and Doldrums is the slowing of the amount of Pop music on the charts. Dance music hits have always been a key to healthy music phases and again EDM/Dance music injected a renewed energy into Pop music on Top 40 over the past three years as Pop superstars had some of their biggest hits with this genre.

But Dance has lost some steam and so has Pop overall with the list of superstar Pop acts getting smaller. Newer Pop superstars such as Ariana Grande and Camila Cabello are replacing former Pop superstars, but the overall list is diminishing.

So we’re in a time of change, as Pop slows and Hip Hop and R&B are filling the void in popularity. It’s not a surprise that Hip Hop is exploding, as it has been the centre of the music for Gen Z and it’s the music that Millennials grew up on as teenagers during the Extremes phase of the early ’00s when there was a Hip Hop explosion.

The superstars of Hip Hop — Notorious BIG, 2Pac and others weren’t embraced by Top 40 radio in the ’90s, otherwise Hip Hop and R&B might have had an even greater impact earlier on, and still resonate with Gen X, but this genre is currently seeing a new life as Throwback Gold for a lot of radio formats.

So, it’s no surprise that Hip Hop is experiencing the dominant period it is currently enjoying with consumers. Plus, Hip Hop has been used all over radio and TV commercials over the past 10 years (which hadn’t previously been the case). Thus, Hip Hop is more familiar and popular to the masses and is experiencing the dominant period that it is currently enjoying with consumers.

At the same time, new consumer metrics are playing an important role in moving us into the Extremes phase of the music cycles. Top 40 radio has always followed consumer data since the birth of the format. Consumer data started with sales and now radio programmers have streaming and Shazam (both strongly influenced by radio airplay).

Labels are monetized on sales and streams from their music, so that is very influential in determining songs slated for promotion. However, it’s very important to note that over the past 30 years, radio has mostly depended on callout research, using a targeted sample representing the masses and scoring, and then ranking songs based on passion

But more and more in 2018, programmers are using all of these forms of consumer research in determining the level of airplay spins, and that affects Top 40 airplay and the charts.

No question that today the hottest genre is Hip Hop and R&B and streaming platforms have become heavily dominated by them. And while not as big an influence, Hip-Hop is still a big factor in sales. But callout research that’s more focused on the tastes of the masses is still Pop-centered, with Hip-Hop increasing in influence and Pop Alternative still popular.

With so many metrics pointing out that Hip Hop and R&B are music’s most popular overall genres, Top 40 must move more and more Rhythmic in order to play the hits. We’re also seeing less Pop Alternative/Pop Rock songs crossing to Top 40, even though this genre remains one of the most popular overall.

So as we are deep into the Extremes with a slowing of the amount of Pop hits, less Pop Alternative and more Hip Hop and R&B, Top 40 radio is having an increasingly tough time in keeping that ideal Pop + Rhythm (Hip Hop) + Rock balance.

Another factor hurting Top 40’s ability to create the hits is the dramatic increase in releases to Top 40 radio that we saw in 2017, and again in 2018. Because of the sheer amount of new music to consider for adds, songs are given a shorter amount of time to move up the charts.

When streaming/sales slow down, unfortunately both labels and radio look at that as an indication that as the song is peaking, programmers lose confidence, spin those songs less and thus the song slows down, then peaks on the chart then drops in spins. But often at the same time these same songs that are losing streams, sales and are peaking on the charts, they are still developing in callout and becoming hits for radio’s target audience.

So the sad fact is that we know streaming and sales charts are really six to eight weeks ahead of callout (the gauge of where the average audience is), but when the song peaks/drops on the chart, programmers give up and a potential hit for radio is lost. There are exceptions, as sometimes there are songs that continue to receive strong airplay because they are so big in callout, and programmers can’t ignore them.

However 90% of the time a song drops on the chart before hitting the Top 10 even as that song shows promise in callout and programmers give up on the song. The end result is the power rotation airplay that could have created a new boom of sales and streaming for labels and solidified songs as hits for radio never happens, and we’re seeing more hits lost at Top 40 than I’ve seen in 30 years.

Top 40 has always been known as the mother-and-daughter format, but only when mother and daughters agree on the hits. That’s when you see Top 40 radio often rank #1 in 6+ ratings, winning big 12-34 Persons and 25-54 Persons, but this happens mostly in the Pop Rebirth phase.

In the Extremes, as Doldrums approach Top 40, ratings are down with many leading Top 40s out of the Top 10 in 6+ ratings, many even beaten in the Top 40 core target 18-34 Women. Now winning in overall ratings are more gold-based formats including AC, Hot AC and all-gold formats — Classic Hits, Adult Hits and Classic Rock. These formats are winning even bigger than normal 25-54 Persons, and are also are attracting big 18-34 numbers. This slowing of Top 40 radio has always been a sign of every Doldrums phase, as an increasing amount of people prefer gold to current music now.

Another indication of the Doldrums approaching is when gold acts have hits and remakes of former hits become hits today. Now you see former teen idols and older bands making comebacks. Hip-Hop Throwback gold from the ’90s and ’00s has found a home on Top 40 over the past few years.

Older hits are being remade, ie. ’80s hits such as ‘Africa’ by Weezer. Even House music, a popular genre from the ’90s, has made a comeback with several hit songs including ‘One Kiss’ by Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa. All of the above, again, are indications that a lot of people prefer older familiar songs/formats/genres to newer music… again, a sign of Doldrums approaching.

Here’s how the Music Cycle looks through the ages, from The Pop Phase, where all three core genres Pop, Rock and Rhythm/Hip Hop were pop, now going into Extremes in 2018.

Cycle 1
1956 1960-1962 Dance 1962-1963 Chicken Rock
Pop Elvis, Buddy Holly Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, Bobby Darin The Bobby’s (Vinton, Rydell, Vee) Country Crossovers- Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline
Rock Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Eddie Cochran Duane Eddy, Dion, Del Shannon Kingsmen, Instrumental Rock (Chantays, Marketts)
R&B/Rhythm Fats Domino, Little Richard, Coasters Chubby Checker, Ray Charles, Little Eva Drifters, Ronettes, Shirelles, Crystals, Sam Cooke




Cycle 2

1964 1969 Acid Rock 1971 Soft Rock
Pop Beatles, Lovin Spoonful, Beach Boys Rascals, Tommy James Helen Reddy, James Taylor, Carpenters Country Crossovers-John Denver, Anne Murray
Rock Rolling Stones, Animals, Yardbirds Hendrix, Cream, Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Doors David Bowie, Grand Funk Railroad, Moody Blues
R&B/Rhythm Supremes, Temptations, Miracles, Marvin Gaye James Brown, Temptations OJays, Chi-Lites
Cycle 3
Pop Elton John Bee Gees, Olivia Newton John Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand, Urban Cowboy, Kenny Rogers, Eddie Rabbitt
Rock Fleetwood Mac, Eagles, Rolling Stones Supertramp, Queen, Knack Journey, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner
R&B/Rhythm Stevie Wonder Chic, Donna Summer, Earth Wind & Fire, Village People Diana Ross, George Benson, Whispers
Cycle 4
REBIRTH 1982-83 EXTREMES 1989 DOLDRUMS 1991-1994-Rock is strong! So is Hip-Hop
Pop Eurythmics, Culture Club New Kids On the Block, Roxette, Richard Marx, Gloria Estefan Elton John, Billy Joel, Gloria Estefan, Michael Bolton, Mariah Carey Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus
Rock Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp Guns N Roses, Def Leppard, Motley Crue, Bon Jovi Green Day, REM, U2, Counting Crows, Nirvana, Pearl Jam
Rhythm/Hip-Hop R&B Michael Jackson, Madonna Rap/Funk, MC Hammer, Tone Loc Public Enemy, Bell Biv Devoe Boyz II Men, Color Me Badd, C&C Music Factory (Top 40 didn’t play much Hip-Hop)
Cycle 5
1995-1996 1997-2000 2001-2003 2004-2005
Pop + Modern AC + Pop R&B Teen Pop + Pop Rock + Pop R&B Pop R&B+Modern Rock+Rap Ballad World
Pop Mariah Carey, Ace Of Base, Madonna Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, NSync, Sugar Ray Destiny’s Child, Pink, J-Lo Soft Rock from Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, Maroon 5, Lifehouse, Avril Lavigne
Rock Alanis Morrisette, No Doubt, Gin Blossoms, Blues Traveler, Collective Soul Matchbox 20, Third Eye Blind, Goo Goo Dolls, Sheryl Crow Creed, Linkin Park, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blink-182, Staind, Nickelback, Hoobastank
Rhythm/Hip-Hop R&B TLC, Brandy, Janet Jackson, Montel Jordan, Keith Sweat Will Smith, TLC, Brandy Jay-Z, Nelly, Eminem, 50 Cent Ciara, Outkast, R&B Ballads from Alicia Keys, Usher




Cycle 6

2006- 2010 2011-2013
Pop Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears; American Idol Artists – Kelly Clarkson Black Eyed Peas, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Ke$ha Adele, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry Maroon 5, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, David Guetta
Rock Fall Out Boy, All American Rejects, Coldplay Boys Like Girls, All American Rejects, Kings Of Leon, Lorde, Fun, Lumineers, Mumford & Sons, Neon Trees, Coldplay, Of Monsters & Men
Rhythm/Hip-Hop R&B Beyonce, Ne-Yo, Rihanna, Chris Brown, Mary J Blige Kanye West, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, T.I., Jeremih Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Drake, Nicki Minaj, Beyonce
2014-2017 2018
Pop Justin Bieber Chainsmokers, Calvin Harris, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran, Maroon 5, Selena Gomez, Bruno Mars ???
Rock Twenty One Pilots, Imagine Dragons, Fall Out Boy ???
Rhythm/Hip-Hop R&B Rihanna, The Weeknd, Beyonce, Drake, Nicki Minaj ???

Guy Zapoleon is the SVP of Research and Strategy for iHeartMedia. He has 45 years of experience programming and consulting in radio, and founded Zapoelon Media Strategies in 1992.

Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of Guy Zapoleon’s Music Cycle update, which examines the rise of Hip-Hop and R&B and the decline of Pop on the popularity charts, as well as his conclusion and recommendations.

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15 Nov 2018 - 10:20 pm

When will music programmers realise the top 40 is a bad way to decide what songs to play on the radio? Radio should aim to be the trend setter, instead of following… The millennial audience has already rejected radio as a way to discover new music because it is lagging here… you only have to look at the proliferation of online communities dedicated to each of these genres, Spotify and Youtube playlists, Instagram as the new ways for young people to discover new music and connect with artists.

Billie Eilish, Gang of Youths, Lil Pump, Travis Scott, Charli XCX, Lana Del Rey, Dua Lipa and Troye Sivan (the list goes on) … even ‘mainstream’ artists like Little Mix and 5SOS are all artists with massive devotional followings online that aren’t reflected in consistent commercial radio airplay of their catalogue. In the next 20 years radio is going to need a massive rebrand to continue to be sustainable. Can’t play those RNB throwbacks forever …


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