April Fools

As I reported a while back, Heirline’s song “You’ll Never Run Out of Blood” went No. 1 in the May SN chart, which (by the strange logic of the SN calendar) means it was publicly official yesterday and will be published in next month’s SN. And right on time, the SN’s Kenneth Kirksey lets fly with another scorched-earth purgation of the Rick-Hendrix demon that torments the SN’s soul. In a letter to radio stations that accompanied the official release of the May charts, Kirksey gets down to bidness about the Heirline debacle (without naming any names of course). But what’s interesting about the letter* is not so much that Kirksey’s dander is up about the whole thing. Rather it’s that the target now seems to be squarely on radio stations’ backs, whereas before Kirksey and SN seemed to have pretty clearly identified Hendrix as Public Enemy No. 1. “[T]his letter is directed to many stations who do not use airplay as the sole criteria for the report they send to Singing News. … As you well know, you are supposed to report the twenty songs receiving the most airplay on your station. You should consider no other factor when you create the report you send us.” Then the big hammer comes down hard Kirksey. The offending stations, Kirksey declares, “are in jeopardy of losing their charting status with the Singing News.”In one sense, there are signs here of epistemological progress here - fancy talk for, the SN may be wising up a bit to the facts of life in a charting system that all but begs to be manipulated and gamed. Radio stations are the weak link here (and they do deserve to be called out), since it’s the reporting method and not the bribability of radio stations that’s hobbling the system (though that doesn’t mean aggressive promoters aren’t culpable). That is, if the reporting method relied on more than the honor system that KK describes above (and, alas, much to - I’m sure - everyone’s chagrin, I’ll have more say about these alternatives in a bit), the hard-sell promotional tactics would be all but useless. It’s hard to bribe a digital reader or an audio fingerprinting system or some such. Fix the system and the Hendrix problem goes away. Of course other problems arise, but it’s a matter of cost-benefit analysis that will, I think, almost always end up being worth the cost if your goal is a chart that reflects what’s popular and not what songs have been promoted to the teeth.

That said, the overwhelming tone of the letter is one of real anger and aggression - not unheard of from Kirksey but still pretty vituperate all the same (he portrays the evildoing stations as liars and co-conspirators). While I realize Kirksey is trying to shame people into honoring the system, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which this kinda public flogging (absent, it’s worth noting, any real consequences other than a tongue lashing) doesn’t just hack off the people it’s meant to persuade into reform. For the radio guy (or gal) who reports a song for reasons other than its airplay, there’s a good chance this person is a radio true believer - the kinda radio junkie who drinks the Casey Kasem Kool Aid or whatever and really is convinced that radio is, or ought to be, the center of the musical universe and, most important, is willing to do whatever’s necessary to make that belief a reality. If that means fudging a chart report because you’ve bought into a promoter’s schpiel about this or that group or because you just really think a certain song oughta get more attention, well … so be it. To these people, it’s probably not going to do anything more than harden their resolve to defy the SN code of honor when Lord Chartsalot gallops into town on his mighty steed and begins lecturing everyone about “this travesty” and threatening a good auto-de-fe if folks don’t fall into line.

The other thing that struck me about this letter is Kirksey’s dubious assertion that though “The Southern Gospel industry and Southern Gospel fans are well aware that our May chart contains at least one song that gained a position which was not based solely on airplay,” the SN “did not realize this until the chart was already released.” If “this” means “an awareness that Heirline’s song got to No. 1 based on something other than airplay” (and until I hear otherwise, I think it’s safe to assume this), pardon me while I guffaw in disbelief. I mean, Kirksey has been on Hendrix’s case pretty publicly at least since July of 2004. And on top of that, Kirksey sent out this e-letter about suspicious promotional tactics days before Heirline’s No. 1 position was released to the industry (in this case, the release happened on March 15-16). Though he doesn’t name Hendrix or Heirline specifically, there’s no mistaking who Kirksey’s talking about. Upshot: it’s difficult to believe the SN “did not realize” the problem “until the chart was already released.”

So what’s going on? As I’ve said before, Kirksey’s is the voice of someone in that familiar position between a rock and hard place. Kirksey says near the end of the letter that he and the SN “honestly don’t know” what the solution is to the problem (”All we can do is ask that you report your airplay honestly”). But what I think he probably really means is that they don’t want to do what it takes to solve the problem, as I’ve also said before. While they genuinely want their charts to reflect airplay, more than that, they want the chart to retain its dominant position as the shaping force in sg. So if the SN knew about the Heirline issue before the May chart was released to the industry and went ahead with the release anyway, well … the SN would look baldly avaricious and lose even the flimsy sheen of moral credibility that is central to the Lord Chartsalot posture.

I say flimsy, because it’s really only politesse and industry deference that keeps people from talking more publicly about the main reason for the six-week differential between the time “the industry” and “the public” get the latest chart. The truth of the matter is, the SN releases its charts to the industry six weeks before the chart goes “public” almost solely because of an economic logic that hardly anyone wants to admit. It’s like this: if the Happy Times Quartet has a new release that breaks into the top 40 or a popular song that goes No. 1 in the May chart, the SN wants Happy Times to buy an ad in the May issue that says “Thanks for making our song ‘I Love Jesus’ No. 1′” or “Call your radio station and ask to hear our new song, ‘I Love Jesus.’” But Happy Times obviously won’t have time to buy the ad if they have to wait to find out about the new chart positions when everybody else reads the May magazine. So, the SN releases the May chart to “the industry” on March 15.

The funny thing about this is how seriously the SN seems to take the polite fiction that “the industry” is this clearly discernable, coherent and airtight group of people who all share the same motives and interests and, thus, can be wholly trusted to sit on the latest chart information for six weeks before “the public” gets to find out about it (to see just how seriously, take a look at this note, which you may have noticed had been appended to all references to Heirline’s chart position up until yesterday, when the information became official). Perhaps the best we can hope for is that the SN makes good on its threat to banish from the kingdom all the radio stations that don’t report airplay strictly. Then it’d just be Ken Kirksey and a coupla Mom and Pop purists in the hinterlands insisting that theirs is the only way to do it. And in the meantime, something more workable would inevitably fill the vacuum and meet the demand for a real chart.

*An earlier version of this post quoted a large chunk of Kirksey’s letter. This brought out the inner legal bully in KK, who - in an email earlier this morning - invoked some legal prerogatives and demanded I take down the letter. Setting aside the viability of a claim of copyright infringement, I’ve edited the post so that quotations from Kirksey’s email stay well within the framework of the fair use statute on copyrighted material. The substance of the post, however, has not changed.

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