Open Letter to Gaga’s Management from a Fan

Put “Million Reasons” back on sale ASAP, and leave it there until it appears to be reaching its radio peak.

Seriously. This little “experiment” has been fun. It has been great to find out the extent to which radio programmers pay attention to iTunes chart rankings v. the extent to which those rankings are propped up by a song’s sale status.

Now we know the answer — radio programmers apparently pay A LOT of attention to a song’s iTunes chart rank and don’t always dig deeper — and now Gaga’s management should rectify their mistake ASAP, while they still can.

STRATEGY

  • Radio programmers are lay persons, making informal individual decisions about which songs to play. Frequently, they make their decisions after glancing at iTunes rankings, Spotify streams, and other low-hanging informational fruits, and will not necessarily dig deeper.
  • Even if they do notice that a song is on sale, and want to discount its iTunes ranking accordingly, they may not know how much discounting to do. A high iTunes store ranking indicates that there is demand for a song, period.
  • A top 10 position on the iTunes chart is particularly visible, and thus particularly likely to have a psychological impact on a radio programmer’s decision-making.
  • This is especially important in Gaga’s case because of “Million Reasons”’ generally weak performance on YouTube and Spotify – the high iTunes ranking gives radio programmers “permission” to play the song as much as they want.

“Million Reasons” is getting enough radio airplay now that it should make its callout report debut in the next week or two (Mediabase’s Callout report is a consumer survey that measures listeners’ actual impressions of songs they hear on the radio). We know for a fact that a lot of radio programmers pay attention to a song’s callout score (see the sudden collapse of Ariana Grande’s “Focus,” for example). But in the meantime, a casual, small-time radio programmer has a few easy metrics to check when making everyday decisions about which songs to play — iTunes, airplay figures from similar stations, and streaming figures. There is also the radio programmers’ individual gut reaction to a song, which is colored by what that programmer has absorbed from news media and from, for example, watching Gaga’s Super Bowl Halftime performance and reading the rave reviews that followed.

The problem is that “Million Reasons” isn’t getting that much streaming (on YouTube OR Spotify). And, prior to the Super Bowl, it wasn’t getting a lot of airplay either. Thus, radio programmers’ eventual positive reaction to the song was driven by 1) it’s buoyant iTunes ranking, 2) their gut reaction, colored by the reaction to Gaga’s Super Bowl performance, and 3) the fact that other radio programmers were also giving the song increasing spins.

In other words, the iTunes ranking was a critical component. It makes sense that a drop from #6 to #28 on the iTunes chart would immediately slow radio spin growth, and that that slowing of spin growth would itself beget more slowing of spin growth. Since spin growth itself impacts iTunes sales and streaming figures, the iTunes ranking drop results in a deleterious spiral generating an inordinate long-term negative impact on the song’s success.

Then, “Million Reasons”‘ ultimate level of success directly impacts the success of a follow-up single, should she choose to release one, and in particular, the level of warmth that future single releases will receive at radio.

I understand the desire to cash in on the sales of a single. But long-term, it’s not worth it. Gaga’s pop-star capital has been significantly repaired, but it needs to remain on an upward trajectory until it is a roaring engine.

In particular, “Million Reasons” should remain on sale until it starts slowing at radio naturally. At that point, it has become as big of a hit as it will be in any event, and thus at that point, there is little further incentive to keep it on sale. Cash in.

NUMBERS

All radio, streaming, and sales numbers are derived from kworb.net, a private website that “scrapes” (a computer programming term) and organizes music industry data from iTunes, Mediabase, Spotify, and YouTube. NOTE: radio impressions are measured differently by Mediabase v. Billboard; these are Mediabase figures.

Songs typically have two peaks for both sales and streaming. 1) When the song is first released, and 2) months later when the song nears or reaches its radio peak. While there may be substantial Day 1, and possibly Day 2 promotional radio airplay, songs otherwise tend to start out with little or no radio airplay, settle into a stable radio growth curve with a fairly predictable peak, and then fall off at something like their rate of ascent. New songs from major artists that actually receive substantial amounts of promotional airplay still uniformly see a substantial drop on Day 8 running weekly radio airplay rankings.

“Million Reasons” is a special case because it didn’t settle into its long-term growth curve until long after its release.

It peaked at #1 on iTunes after a successful Carpool Karaoke edition, leading to it being named the second single off of Joanne, and re-entering the Hot 100 in the 50s (around where it had debuted with the debut of Joanne). A music video was released, but the song grew slowly at radio prior to the Super Bowl. It also posted weak sales and streaming figures.

Overall radio growth for “Million Reasons” was spotty from the time of its release through early February, frequently posting little 0r negative growth. It seemed to be accelerating in December, but then posted negative growth before Christmas. After that, growth was fairly consistent, but frustratingly slow. In the hype leading up to the Super Bowl, growth accelerated again, but then on the days leading up to and following the Super Bowl itself, growth was stagnant or negative. It was not until two days after the Super Bowl that “Million Reasons” really started to take off at radio.

The Super Bowl resulted in “Million Reasons” not just returning to #1 on iTunes, but surging high enough and staying there long enough that it was the #1 selling song of the entire week. As a result, “Million Reasons” matched a record by re-entering the Hot 100 at #4.

Gaga’s management cleverly had her entire back-catalogue on sale to capitalize on the surge of demand. Then, they cleverly left “Million Reasons” on sale, allowing it to continue floating in the top 10 on iTunes indefinitely.

Two days after the Super Bowl, “Million Reasons” started posting consistent and substantial radio gains between 700K and 1M/day. Eventually, radio gains started accelerating until they broke 2M. “Million Reasons” was taken off sale on March 11th, the day after it posted its biggest radio growth day to-date – 3.2M.

That day, radio airplay growth decelerated all the way back to 2M/day. It has continued dropping since, until it has essentially broken even over the past two days.  See the chart below.

PROJECTIONS

Given the smooth and predictable nature of an ordinary radio growth curve, it is generally possibly to get a decent idea of where a song will peak if you determine the approximate rate of growth during its sustained primary growth cycle.

There are some complicating factors, including individual format ceilings (if a song is only charting on Pop and Adult Pop, then it doesn’t make sense to project a peak higher than the combined audience totals of the current #1 songs on the two formats).

But, the reason that this method works is because a sustained and consistent rate of growth for a song tends to emerge when radio programmers have formed a tacit consensus opinion about how big a song is. Thus, unless some future event modifies that opinion (like a callout report showing that listeners don’t actually like a song that much), the approximate trend line is predictable.

SOME RULES OF THUMB –

  • Future #1 radio hits tend to settle into an overall primary growth curve of 3M+/day, but may settle into a primary growth curve as low as 2M/day. They tend to draw strong pop airplay in addition to strong airplay from several other genres.
  • Future top 10 hits tend to settle into overall primary growth curves in the 1M/day to 2M/day range.
  • A 1M/day growth curve may have different meanings depending on the driving causal factors. For example, it is not infrequently driven by strong current growth in 1 or a few minor genres with low and hard possibility caps. Certain genre hits may occasionally exhibit even higher growth rates, but for only a short period of time, after which overall radio airplay growth stagnates.
  • Generally, a song that is charting strongly on both Pop and Adult Pop (like “Million Reasons”) has a genre cap of at least 160M/week, and therefore is a candidate for Top 3 status overall, if the primary growth curve is robust enough.

I’ve taken the liberty of drawing two conceivable growth curves for “Million Reasons”, based on the assumptions 1) that it had never been taken off sale; and 2) that it was taken off sale and remains off sale.

Screen Shot 2017-05-05 at 9.46.16 AM

CONCLUSION

It seems clear to me that taking “Million Reasons” off sale has had a real and deleterious impact on the song’s radio airplay growth, and that if it remains depressed Gaga could end up with a substantially weaker long-term performance (barring exceptional callout scores).

Gaga’s team should put “Million Reasons” back on sale, quietly and covertly, and pretend like nothing ever happened. Then, after airplay ramps back up and the song actually starts to peak naturally (or at least after callout scores are released), they should take it off sale.

I get it. Labels don’t make money off of sale-priced singles. But do labels really make that much money off of full-priced singles? The label NEEDS radio to see Lady Gaga as a top tier artist who consistently produces top 5 radio smashes. That perception (and all of the benefits it entails) depends in part on what radio ends up doing with “Million Reasons.”

Don’t shoot it in the foot.

 

Peter Daines is a tax law student at Georgetown and a music industry aficionado.

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pdaines

Peter Daines is a law student at Georgetown University Law Center. His interests include studying foreign languages, watching and predicting events in politics and the music industry, and searching fruitlessly for the meaning of life.

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