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Which Side of the Bus: the Beatles or Elvis?

Jun 03, 2021

As a kid, I led a sheltered life.

Throughout first grade, my parents insisted on driving me to Middletown Elementary School in Louisville, KY. At the beginning of second grade, they loosened up a bit and finally let me start riding the school bus.

Little did I know that when I boarded the bus the first time that September, I would be faced with a huge dilemma. You see, the kids on that bus had divided themselves into two opposing camps. On one side were all those who adored Elvis Presley. Across the aisle were the kids who pledged their allegiance to the Beatles. Mind you, this was 1964, and the competition between these two entities had reached a fever pitch.

As you may have guessed, I threw in with the Fab Four and am even now wearing a “drop T” Beatles logo tee-shirt as I type this. [Did I mention that in grade school I had a Beatles lunch box and collected Beatles trading cards that my mom casually threw away after I went to college?]

To some degree, the Beatles versus Elvis thing exists in the music marketing world today. Only, it’s a myth. This fading fallacy is that music consumers like one thing or the other, but not both.

Music marketers have been tempted to think of consumers as falling clearly into one or another demographic or psychographic “silo.” This simply isn’t the case. While there are musical “purists” who might never choose to stream a country tune or a hip-hop track or a gospel song, the vast majority of music consumers like a lot of songs from different genres.

This is the “both/and” reality than an “either/or” dichotomy.

Here are four reasons that music consumers aren’t as stylistically homogenous as marketers might think:

First and foremost, song discovery happens as part of personal self-discovery. That’s why our playlists are filled with songs from our high school and college years. When we hear “that song,” we’re awash in a flood of nostalgia. It’s much more than the style of a song that makes it meaningful to us. Rather, we’re attached to songs that are associated with milestone moments in our lives.

Second (and relatedly), our musical preferences are connected to the prevailing musical preferences of our peers—both then and now. We tend to listen to the same artists and songs of the group that provides us with meaning and significance. All of us crave social acceptance and community. These days, we identify with more than just our immediate peer group—we’re influenced by what our preferred media and online tastemakers are promoting. Certain songs become our tribe’s anthems.

Third, as adolescents grow and mature, we often rebel against the musical status quo and embrace music that might be the polar opposite of what we liked when we were younger. I remember an interview with Green Day’s Billy Joe Armstrong where he said he expected his kids to reject his punk rock sound and listen to Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) just to spite him.

[Let me insert a “3B” here. Now that my daughters are in their thirties with families of their own, they love listening to the “safe” music we enjoyed when they were little. It reminds them of the love and security they experienced when their lives were much simpler. One of my favorite memories EVER was taking them both to a Paul McCartney show about ten years ago. They danced and sung along like they were kids again.]

Fourth, the narrowing of musical preferences is directly related to how commercial radio operates. Commercial stations exist by selling commercial spots to advertisers. The larger the target audience, the more that stations can charge for these spots. Though stations may say that their goal is to play the best music, the real motive of radio programmers is to develop an expanding audience with discretionary money to spend on advertiser’s products and services. [This same principle applies to non-commercial stations who must raise support through periodically on-air fund drives.]

When I was growing up, most pop stations had a Top 40 format, meaning that 40 recent songs were in “current” airplay rotation. Songs cycled quickly through this rotation. A radio single had a life of two or three months, after which another single from that artist took its place. It wasn’t uncommon for an artist to have three or four singles on the chart over the course of the same year. As stations became more sophisticated, they surveyed their audiences and discovered that their listeners wanted to hear their favorite songs from their favorite artists played more frequently for longer periods of time. The result is that today, most popular stations have about 14 songs in “current” rotation rather than 40 and the average hit single stays on the charts for nine months instead of nine weeks. If you’re wondering why most of the songs on your local station sound the same, it’s because they’re playing the same songs more frequently in order to keep the ears of their audiences for their real client: their advertisers. 

Now let’s talk about the disruptive force of downloading and streaming. Twenty years ago, most consumers heard music on the radio and then purchased it in a physical format so that they could play it “on demand.” Today, traditional OTA (“over the air”) radio stations are fighting for their lives against online satellite and streaming services which account for more than 85% of musical consumption.

The bottom line is that consumers have become their own radio programmers. They build their own playlists and consume whatever they want to hear whenever they want to hear it. [Compare this to the late ‘60s when I used to call my best buddy whenever the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” started playing on my local Louisville, KY Top 40 station, WAKY-AM.]

It’s no longer the Beatles versus Elvis. It’s the Beatles and Elvis. And the Beastie Boys and Boston and Eminem and Ed Sheeran and Lady Gaga and Drake and Olivia Rodrigo.

Any artist from any genre whose music resonates with a listener can (and probably will) be added to a personal playlist.

What does this mean for labels and artists?

This means that record labels are reaching beyond the walls of their stylistic boxes to find artists whose music moves audiences, no matter the genre. That’s why some of the biggest successes in recent years have come from genre-bending tracks where country acts have incorporated hip-hop influences (and vice versa) or where classical and pop artists have collaborated. Musical purists are so passé.

For artists, this means you have the freedom to explore other musical styles as long as you’re being true to yourself and not just looking for a way to expand your commercial reach. [Audiences can smell a manipulative marketing move a mile away.]

Your job is to create interesting, innovative, and inspiring music that will move us.

Everyone’s welcome on this bus. So, let’s see where the future of music takes us.

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