U2's place in the changing radio landscape was the topic of one of @U2's mainstream sessions at the U2 Conference this past weekend in Cleveland.
Mary Cipriani and I sat down for an interview with Cleveland radio legend John Gorman, who first met U2 in April 1981 when the band came through Cleveland on the Boy tour.
In those days, independent radio stations were thriving and on-air talent had the freedom to play new bands and even songs that weren't formally released as singles.
The U.S. radio industry has changed dramatically since then, as Gorman explained, with deregulation in the 1990s allowing companies to own several radio stations in one city. In an effort to expand their revenue, radio station owners also bought in to ancillary businesses -- think venue ownership and tour-related businesses -- and record labels and artist management quickly realized that making various business deals was the best way to get radio airplay.
Radio companies could effectively keep certain artists off radio if they didn't also buy into these other services; i.e., if you play your concerts in our venues, we'll make sure your songs get a lot of radio airplay. Record labels, he explained, also hired independent promoters who "pitched" certain artists and songs to radio stations, offering the stations money and other payouts in exchange for airplay. In doing so, promoters helped buy a song's way into a station's playlist. These promoters negotiated their own deals to help stations with music programming; thus, the money didn't go direct from the label or artist to the station, but through the promoter. Gorman called this a form of "legal payola."
He related this to the "Electrical Storm" single that U2 released as the promotional single for The Best Of 1990-2000. While the song was a No. 1 hit in Canada, Top 5 in the U.K. and also popular in other parts of the world, it didn't make a dent in the U.S. Why? Gorman said it was because U2 manager Paul McGuinness refused to "pay for play."
On the other hand, Gorman claimed that U2 and its record label did promote "Beautiful Day" in this way -- paying double the going rate -- which helped get U2's bounce-back, "reapplying for the job as the best band in the world" single significant radio airplay. It reached No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and charted on six other Billboard charts, too.*
Radio & U2's Relevance
A hot topic for U2 in recent years has been the band's relevance and its chances of getting radio airplay in the future. During the session, we shared three Bono quotes from 2010 and 2011 in which he talked about the need for U2 to get its new songs played on radio. One quote from the Australian paper The Age sums up Bono's outlook:
The biggest challenge now will be getting a song on the radio. That's our drug of choice now. I don't know if we will achieve it. It takes a radio programmer saying, 'I want that feeling on my station.' And they may not. It will be very hard for U2 to dominate the radio now after No Line on the Horizon. But we're going to try.
Gorman said U2 might have a chance at getting on radio in Europe because "it sounds much better than American radio. They're playing a wider variety of music. Radio still means something there, so Bono is somewhat right on that point."
But he was pointed in his thoughts on U2's chances of being popular again on U.S. radio.
"What formats are gonna play U2 today? I don't know. Classic rock stations play classic rock. Rock stations usually play new rock [artists]. I don't know where U2 fits in. Aside from college stations and the few independent, alternative stations that may be left, I doubt U2 can get airplay."
Gorman said one of U2's problems in getting back on radio is how long the band has been out of the spotlight. Radio stations are "governed by a great deal of research, and you look at past performance and say, 'Well, when was the last time U2 had a hit single? That long ago? No, we don't want them.'"
In lieu of getting on radio, Gorman said U2 should focus on the Internet -- that's where radio's future is. "Consumers in America are sick of terrestrial radio -- AM and FM," he said. "I dont know why Bono should even care about American radio. It's obsolete already."
Elsewhere in the conversation, Gorman praised U2 for paying special attention to college radio throughout the band's career -- giving college stations copies of new U2 albums before commercial stations got a copy, for example. He also praised Bono, specifically, for exposing U2 to a wider audience by showing up at other artists' concerts, not only similar acts like R.E.M. or Bruce Springsteen, but also pop artists like Kylie Minogue and others. "He knew he had to go after that Top 40 audience, too."
* During the session, Gorman accidentally switched the timing on the "Beautiful Day" and "Electrical Storm" releases. "Beautiful Day" was released in 2000; "Electrical Storm" in 2002.
(c) @U2, 2013.