Ken Kirskey’s response to my suggestion that the SN pursue audio fingerprinting is worth taking a look at, and not just because he implicitly compares me to a sunspot or a cicada. Ah, K-squared, … you clever jokester you. Anyway, the money quote:
I’d love to have our chart data provided by an automated tracking service …. Failing that, I’d love for our stations to be able to report the number of spins each song receives on their station. But given that SG radio is mostly medium and small market radio, neither of these things are going to happen any time soon. While our chart may not be perfect, it’s the best and most accurate Southern Gospel chart that anyone can get under the circumstances.
Alright. But this defense only makes sense if you assume that radio charts are serving an irreplaceable function in sg, that it’s better to put up with and perpetuate a corrupt charting system than to have no chart at all. I’m not at all sure that assumption is accurate.
Presumably, the SN undertook its chart with the intention of mimicking the function of charts in other larger music markets. And in those markets radio charts take the regular pulse of popular music within a genre. Those charts have credibility because the chart toppers usually fall in line more or less with the big sellers. Thus you can be pretty confident that 9 out of 10 top-5 songs on Billboard country at any one time reflect songs from projects people are buying. Not so in sg. Which calls the whole purpose and future of sg charts into question. In fact, if the SN chart is in fact a reflection of what a handful of radio managers like or have been influenced to record in their chart survey (which Kirksey all but confesses), why not scrap the chart? If, as Kirskey suggests, charts based on airplay are superior to the current sg chart system, why does the SN stick with the system? Well, we all know the answer to this: casheesh (more on that in a bit). For the moment, let’s stick with this idea of a chartless sg. I’d much rather see a less frequent chart of top selling projects that gives me some sense of what’s actually popular and saleable than I would a monthly list of 80 songs ranked in order determined by a group of radio-station managers who aren’t even capable of tracking the number of spins a song receives in a given period. Shocking news this morning: radio stations suddenly break out with epidemic inability to use new reporting methods that would probably diminish the station’s disproportionate influence over the industry.
“The Singing News,” Kirksey says, “has the best charting system possible in Southern Gospel music.” No, actually, you don’t. What you’ve got is the charting system you’re willing to accept, the one that you can live with, because insisting on or fomenting change is more difficult than giving in to inertia and cashing in (literally, in the SN’s case) on the status quo. The real bottom line is that the SN chart is flawed, as Kirksey effectively acknowledges. Yet the SN’s only response is, basically, sorry … we’re stuck with what we got because little ole sg just can’t do any better. Won’t do any better is more like it. For all Kirksey’s effort to portray the SN as hapless victims of an underdeveloped radio market, the SN chart is a driving force behind advertising sales in the SN, and this is one main reason why the chart sticks around in its current form. All those ads from artists telling readers to “call your local radio station and request our new song” are there in the SN because artists covet the ability to say their song was at the top of the SN charts. Ok. Fine. So the SN is deeply entrenched in the network of cozy relationships that primarily defines the economic structure of the sg market. Nothing new there. But it just won’t do for Ken Kirksey to strike a pose of helplessness on the SN’s behalf, as if there’s nothing they could do. The SN is in a position to lead rather than lamely follow. That they choose not to lead is not the same thing as being unable to do so. In fact, they could do any number of things.
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1. Get rid of the chart altogether. The current charting system is so fundamentally compromised as to be worthless to sg consumers, since it’s impossible to know for sure which songs are genuinely popular (i.e. are selling) and which songs are the work of paper hit men. And after all, let’s not forget that this should be the function of a chart: to let someone who wants to hear good sg know what other people who like sg have found enjoyable enough to purchase. Abolishing the list wouldn’t keep new or up-and-coming artists from promoting their songs to radio. And it won’t take away the ability for a song or a group to have a break-out radio hit, since station program managers can still play whatever they want, and fans still barrage stations with requests for more airplay of songs they hear and like. Getting rid of the chart would, though, almost certainly force a pretty useful and urgent reassessment within the industry of where and how promotional money is spent. The current sg charting system has so distorted the sg market that most groups would be hard-pressed to articulate a marketing strategy beyond “dump all our money into radio.” Without a bogus chart to muck things up, clearer market strategies would emerge: where are the people who buy our product? Who are the people who can’t live without our music? If a project is being promoted to radio and isn’t selling, why not? Is the music not right, is the project no good? Or is radio not reaching our target audience? If that’s the case, then how and where can we spend our money in ways that reach the people who’d buy our stuff? Of course the chart isn’t going anywhere, not least of all because the SN surely knows all of what I’ve just said … namely, that without the SN chart there’d be precious little reason for groups to put most of their money into promoting to radio, and then there’d go a big line-item on the SN’s accounts receivable. But one can dream.
2. Put some time and money and organizational heft into convening sg radio-station managers for a summit of sorts. Convince them of the importance of a chart that reflects air play and not managerial fiat. Then among the stations that buy into this vision, devise a plan to put audio fingerprinting or some other more spin-centric reporting model in place within five years. And, I should say, I’m talking about authentic sg radio stations here: stations that play sg 50% of the time or more; not stations that have an hour or two of sg programming each week or low-power transmitter stations that rebroadcast a signal from elsewhere. Using this definition of sg radio (including online stations), the chart sample may go down, but the quality of the survey would go way up. Of course, none of this will happen either, because doing anything requires money that no one involved will pony up. But it’s no less plausible for the industry’s recalcitrance.
3. The easiest solution, though, is to print a regular report of sales leaders alongside the SN chart. That way, it’d be simple to compare the radio “hits” to what people actually like enough to buy. The hits and the “hits” would be pretty easy to identify then.