Fewer Music Hits Mean Challenges for DJs by Mark Johnson

October 26, 2006 by Mobile Beat Staff Writer

Greater choice for music lovers means greater challenges for mobile music programmingOver the last few years I’ve been bemoaning the state of current pop music. I’ve observed that there seems to be an ever-increasing number of new artists and songs that all fight for their precious exposure. I’ve also observed that it’s more difficult to follow the trends of our audience’s taste, to identify their favorite current music. But I didn’t have a real reason for why it is more difficult.

Musical Tail-Wagging
An obvious reason is the Internet, and along with it, the iPod. Both are technological masterpieces but may do more harm than good for us mobile DJs. An article in the July 2006 issue of Wired magazine hit the nail on the head and validated my suspicions regarding the perceived short lifespan of today’s songs.

The article “The Rise and Fall of the Hit” is an adaptation of the book “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More” (by Chris Anderson, Hyperion, 2006, ISBN 1401302378) It touches on hit music, hit movies, celebrities and other cultural items. It really made a lot of sense regarding the current state of hit music.
To summarize, it illustrates the cultural audience having much more diversity and many more choices for their entertainment, music included. In the past, the record companies depended on a few major artists or albums to “carry” their entire catalog of artists, income-wise. Now the sum value of all the secondary artists, i.e. “The Long Tail” (like a comet) is actually greater than the sum value of the primary artists.

The Bygone Days of Big Hits
Mobile DJs do not create hits. We play hits. Thus, we react to our guests’ requests for their favorites. For the sake of this article, I’m referring to contemporary music and not long-term favorites. Classic songs have already proven themselves.
Take any mobile DJ standard song and many DJs can remember when it first came out. Thus, there was a “BC” and “AD” to that song. Many of you can remember the time period before “Macarena.” I’m sure many of you can remember the time period before many other favorites like “The Cha Cha Slide,” “Electric Boogie” (The Electric Slide), “Billie Jean,” “Y.M.C.A.,” “Stayin’ Alive,” and more. When those songs came out, they hit big, embraced the entire country, and then became burned in our cultural memory of that time period.

These songs were on the Top 10 playlists of CHR (Contemporary Hit Radio) stations for weeks if not months. Some artists, such as Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Janet Jackson, produced albums that spawned four to six hit songs that were released as singles over the course of a year or longer. Thus, you could not avoid hearing one of those artist’s hits every hour on those radio stations. I also recall some stations purging their playlists of these artists for a weekend just to illustrate how saturated it had become.

Back to today’s music. As mobile DJs, we attempt to align ourselves with the thinking process of our adolescent audiences. We’re not 15 years old anymore, so we try to think like them on a proxy basis, i.e. listen to their stations, read some of their publications, watch some of their TV programs and listen to them directly when they talk about music. What I’ve concluded is a little frightful for us adults trying to sneak into their world.

Trouble on the Dancefloor
Years ago, when current super hits were prevalent, you could have an audience of 200 kids at a school dance and any one song could have 30-40 percent of the kids interested. That would mean that roughly 60-70 percent of the kids were disinterested. Now with the music so splintered, having 5 percent of the kids liking the song you’re presently playing means that 95 percent don’t. We all have enjoyed the tremendous effect such mega-hits like “Macarena” cause at a dance, but you cannot maintain that participation for 3 to 4 hours.

Today’s kids have many more sources for their song information. Once they decide what they want to listen to, they merely go to iTunes and easily download it. No longer is it the single channel sources of one or two “hot hits” stations or the TRL or Yo MTV Raps playlists. Good luck trying to pin down where the kids get these songs today. Years ago, when a 13-year-old asked for “Free Bird,” he was probably influenced by his parents or an older sibling. Now, that 13-year-old has dozens of influences, each offering their version of great music. It’s anyone’s guess what his favorites are now.

During a DJ event, we have all encountered that group of three, four or five kids (boys or girls, it doesn’t matter) that approaches the DJ booth, with their representative asking for a particular song. Chances are, it ain’t “Y.M.C.A.” Most likely it is some obscure song from some obscure artist that is their current reason for living. You may try to fluff them off by writing down their request, knowing that you don’t have it and are just trying to survive the current conversation. They may return to re-request it and you could say you’re looking for it or are trying to decide when to play it. Eventually, their persistence will prevail and you may have to confess that you don’t have it. (See my many articles on the impractical goal of 100% request satisfaction.)

So now they walk away, disappointed that you aren’t in sync with their little world and you’ve added a few lame-o points to your DJ status. You may make a mental or physical note of this song and look it up when you got home, but it’s too late. You’ve crushed the spirit of these kids and their lives will never be the same.
You may also try to see if that song/artist comes up as a request during later events. With a few exceptions, it will probably not. So, how could you possibly anticipate such a request without carrying 10,000,000 songs that may only get played once if at all.

No Future Oldies in View
A lot of us can remember when the M in MTV stood for Music. Now it means Miscellaneous. VH-1 has taken over as the purveyor of music videos, albeit not necessarily current hits. BET, CMT and other music video sources are too specific for mobile DJs.

Two litmus tests for today’s music are: 1) how long the songs presently last and 2) the future anticipation of their need. I cannot imagine most of these songs being requested next year. They really are quite disposable.

In essence, we are being deprived of “future oldies.” Since no current songs stand out that significantly (they don’t have to), next year they will be truly forgotten. I used to consolidate the best songs for each year onto a single CD; I haven’t done so in the last two years. Even the disc I made for 2004 looks pretty sparse today, unlike the still-useful songs on my 1998 through 2001 discs. Time was that Eminem and No Doubt would have their hits plastered all over CHR. They were catchy tunes and great fun for us mobile DJs. Now even they are considered passé.

Where Do We Go from Here?
If you’ve experienced the same feelings that I have about the slippery nature of today’s disposable music, then you owe it to yourself to read the Wired article. I even bought the book referenced, and it goes into greater statistics and rationale regarding the last few years of current music.
Unfortunately, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Today’s marketing methods have shattered yesterday’s distribution methods to the point that it’s anyone’s guess what current songs are truly necessary for mobile entertainment. While the variety may be great for the music fans and musicians, mobile DJs have a harder and harder job chasing this ever more slippery collection of current “hits.”

For more on current musical challenges, check out Mark’s article, “Predicting the Musical Future,” from Mobile Beat #95, archived at www.mobilebeat.com.

We have all encountered that group of three, four or five kids asking for a particular song. Chances are, it ain’t “Y.M.C.A.” Most likely it is some obscure song from some obscure artist that is their current reason for living.

Mobile Beat Staff Writer (375 Posts)

This is the general editors account for Mobile Beat Magazine and Website. Who reads Mobile Beat online and in print and attends Mobile Beat events? DJs, VJs and KJs to start with, especially those who own and operate mobile entertainment services. They provide music, video, lighting and a myriad other entertainment choices for corporate events, wedding receptions, dances and innumerable other gatherings.

Filed Under: 2006, Playlists, Songs & Music Charts