By Chris Mosser
It is a natural part of the human condition to rely upon the opinions of others in the formation of one’s own viewpoint. Of course, YOU make up your own mind and don’t care what anyone else thinks. I’m not talking about “you” in particular; I’m talking about everyone else who, especially in this modern society where new always trumps old and popularity always trumps quality, will generally gravitate towards the opinions of those in the know before offering their own take. We’re lazy after all, but we still want to look cool.
The word came down this past week that the Texas Music Chart, after just over 16 years, is folding, with the chart posted for the first week of February to be the last (hats off to the Randy Rogers Band for being the final chart-topper with “Neon Blues”). Chart founder Ed Shane, a Texas radio legend and a super nice and smart man whom I believe to have been a genuine and whole-hearted fan of our music scene, passed away in 2015, the same year that co-founder and primary manager Katie Key left the operation.
The Texas Music Chart has been a major part of the relationship between radio and our storied regional music community for as far back as the beginning of the last decade, and was very well-entrenched and highly influential — central in importance, arguably — by the time I began programming Texas Music here in Austin at KVET-FM in 2007. At the time, I recall the TMC serving as proof in my mind that Texas music was a “real thing,” as far as legitimate commercial programming was concerned. My opinion would change over time, though, and in fact I stopped reporting to the TMC a few years ago, as troubling doubts about its methodology and its mostly unintended but profound negative effects upon the Texas scene became more apparent to me.
It’s the end of an era in some ways. The TMC did indeed lend an air of legitimacy to the modern Texas country music scene that undoubtedly led to growth in the careers of our major keystone artists and bands. It also gave new upstarts something to aspire to, and indeed, a tangible track to be taken towards what they perceived to be the first rungs in the ladder of music industry success. However, in my opinion, there were several factors intrinsic to and resulting from the Texas Music Chart that I believe grew to be more of a hindrance than a help to our young musicians in Texas.
A great deal of the metrics that measure media success have been brought into the digital age. In Austin and in larger cities, the Nielsen ratings company (and the Arbitron company before them) measure radio ratings via technology known as PPM — the Portable People Meter — a pager-like device carried by the listener that detects inaudible signals that are encoded into radio transmissions. Smaller markets, in contrast, still rely upon “The Book” — a paper diary in which the ratings respondent is entrusted to recall and accurately report which station(s) he or she listened to, on what day, at what time, and for how long. PPM cannot be doubted in terms of what radio stations the panelist is exposed to (the debate between hearing and listening enters here), while diaries are still subject to the frailties of both human memory and the very human tendency of most folks to reward their favorite station with, perhaps, just slightly inflated and embellished listening reports.
Heritage stations in small cities still reap the rewards of the old system, while many older and legendary stations in the larger markets have been decimated by the new way of things — some have disappeared altogether, while others have undergone changes that, while unpopular with some of their long-term listeners, have been vital to their continued viability under the new system. Chances are, if you live in a big city, the station you loved as a kid is either gone, or has changed beyond prior recognition, likely to your chagrin. PPM is the reason, because it uses empirical data rather than unreliable information from fallible human beings. Reality is a bitch sometimes.
The methodology of the Texas Music Chart is similar to the old diary system. Radio programmers would simply send in a written report of how many times they had played a list of songs over the prior week, to be tabulated into the TMC by hand — an honor system. While I never bothered to do the math myself, stories of extraordinary numbers of spins for individual songs have always been common — numbers that would require a station to literally play a song several times per hour, around the clock, often with the song in question coming from a relatively unknown artist. Despite widespread criticism, the managers of the TMC were always steadfast in honoring the word of their reporters — admirable on its face, but hard to swallow considering the apparent discrepancies with the math. Add to this common human ego and hubris — a sense of “power” granted to programmers over these artists and their supporting industry — and one can easily see where the granting and withholding of favors might become quite tempting. Power corrupts, as they say.
Further, the Texas Music Chart employed no “weighting” in reference to where a song was played; in other words, a song played on a small station in Stephenville or Midland was given the same value in calculating a song’s position on the TMC with a spin in Fort Worth or San Antonio, which clearly had the potential to reach a much greater number of listeners. It just so happens that the aforementioned suspected rotation inflation would tend to come from these smaller cities, further exacerbating the issues with the chart’s methodology. A similar lack of parity emerged fairly recently with the emergence of individual stations occupying low-power “translator” radio transmitters — stations that cover only a portion of a large market were counted the same as a full-power station covering an entire metro area, with a much larger audience.
So … a less than reliable system, but better a bad Texas Music Chart than no chart for the scene at all, right?
One of the few downsides to programming Texas music is separating the inferior upstarts from the unknown, but worthy, submissions — a Herculean task. There is simply not enough time in the day to listen to every CD that comes in the mail daily, or to the constant surge of MP3s and links that flood in via e-mail. And when there is time, it’s difficult to hold back dejection and frustration as one is subjected to mediocre, half-baked song after mediocre, half-baked song. These days, any kid can record an album in his bedroom. But I believe that this glut of bad music is exacerbated by perhaps the most egregiously unfortunate by-product of the Texas Music Chart: independent regional radio promoters.
Let’s say you’ve got a little band, and you’re pretty good, you guess. You’ve begun to get tight onstage, your following is morphing from friends to real fans, and you’ve recorded a few of your first songs — a fun, exciting time. One night, a guy approaches you during the break with a fancy business card and says, for a couple thousand bucks, he can get one of your songs on the radio and up the Texas Music Chart alongside Cody Johnson and Cody Jinks — which clearly would establish your band as peers of theirs, right? So in spite of the fact that funds are tight even to put gas in the van, buy some strings or sticks, pay your jam room rent, and maybe score some Whataburger after the gig, with stars in your eyes, you fork over the money. Shortly, sure enough, your song climbs the TMC, and your band celebrates — but your crowds don’t grow, nor does your pay for your gigs, nor do your sales of CDs or downloads or merch. The promotion campaign ends and the song disappears. What happened?
Couple the lack of reliability and accountability applied to radio spin reports to the Texas Music Chart with a charming, motivated dude visiting radio stations with a fancy business card and favors to offer, and the suspicion of what the radio industry calls “paper adds” — false reports of airplay — are quickly going to enter the picture. This is not to say that radio stations don’t occasionally take risks on unproven music — it does happen, but when it does, it’s for a truly, amazingly great song, or a local hometown hero band, or to promote a show by a band coming to town to play a venue that is also a client of the radio station. Point is, there generally has to be some good reason. Never once have I added a song sight-unseen just because somebody e-mailed me about it. Nor is this is to condemn all radio promoters — a handful of whom will only sign artists with already-viable careers and are true professionals working hard to help their artists grow their careers, and whose good word on a new act therefore does hold some degree of legitimacy. Jenni Finlay, Angela-Marie Lampton, Clay Neumann, Dawn Gardin, Gerrie McDowell — and several others who know who they are — are actually getting things done for their clients. But, in my experience, most independent radio promo people are capable of producing just about nothing in return for their clients’ hard-earned investment beyond pure illusion. The money paid to them could have — should have — paid for the gas to make it to that fateful breakthrough gig, or the utility bill that would have kept the wife or girlfriend from walking out. Generally speaking, you don’t need a radio rep until you’ve earned your way onto the airwaves somewhere or other on your own sweat and talent. So do that first. I find the preying upon our Texas musicians at the most vulnerable stage in their creative and professional lives utterly reprehensible, and it has no reason to exist beyond the flawed system of the Texas Music Chart.
And so, where do we go from here? Some might argue that a chart of Texas music radio play isn’t really needed, but I don’t agree wholeheartedly with that. As a radio programmer, it’s helpful to have some barometer on what music my colleagues are impressed enough with to put on the air, though there are certainly other ways to gain that information. And I still like the idea that our music scene is viable and significant enough to have some systematic means by which to reward and recognize the artists and songs that are defining it at any given time. In my opinion, whatever replaces the Texas Music Chart must move into the modern era with some degree of technology applied to verifying its data in an objective, equitable and transparent manner. When what is actually succeeding is shown to be doing so, little room will remain for the dubious cottage industry that arose for the purposes of gaming the Texas Music Chart while doing nothing of real significance for the young musicians who funded it.
I can tell you that I will not participate in any system that does not significantly improve upon the old chart’s standards. That status quo way of doing things is in dire need of reform. But I do believe that a system and chart that manages to right the proverbial ship would be a truly beneficial tool for the music we love — and that I can get behind. Bottom line: The end of the Texas Music Chart could be not only the end of an era, but also herald the beginning of a bright new one.