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Why Don’t More Country Ballads Top the Charts?

Why Don’t More Country Ballads Top the Charts?

Phyllis Stark

© 2013 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

While most
Country Music singles are up-tempo, singles can be career-defining for new artists.
So it was with “If I Die Young” (written by Kimberly Perry) for The Band Perry,
“The House That Built Me” (Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin) for Miranda Lambert
and “Need You Now” (Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott) for Lady Antebellum.

So why
do ballads generally have a harder time becoming hits than songs with more tempo?

Trouble with Tempo

“Many stations favor tempo in their programming strategy,
so that leaves fewer slots available,” explained Bob Walker, program director
(PD), WCTK/Providence, R.I.

“The right tempo song impacts quicker,” agreed Mike
Kennedy, VP, Operations, KBEQ and KFKF/Kansas City, Mo. “There are more songs
released with tempo that can crack the list quicker. And it takes a bit longer
for a ballad to sink in and take hold, unless it’s just a monster. However,
if it’s the right ballad, the big ballad, you can make the same type of impact just as quickly.”

drives TSL (time spent listening),” said John Paul, VP, Programming, Dial Global
Radio Networks and PD of its Hot Country format. “Stations with lots of tempo
seem to be more exciting, with more momentum and more TSL. PDs don’t want their
stations to be sleepy.”

“It’s ebb and flow for ballads, generally speaking,”
said J.R. Schumann, PD and MD, WWKA/Orlando, Fla. “There are times where ballads
seem to work better than others, and vice versa. That said, I think the key is
the hook. People want a song they can sing along with. Ballad, mid-tempo, or fast,
if it’s got a great hook, people are responding. Country radio is starved for
records with huge hooks.”

“What is going on in the world has a lot to do with
why ballads are accepted, slower or faster,” theorized Kevin Callahan, PD, KSON/San
Diego. “When people turn on the radio, they are looking for mood enhancement.
They may want to bang their fist and belt out a sing-along with a Jason Aldean
song or tip back a few beers listening to Randy Houser. Given the economy, perhaps
right now people are looking more for an uplifting experience, and tempo gets
them in a better mood. I think we’re in a cycle and it will eventually change
and give ballads more of a chance again.”

Buzz Jackson, PD, KIIM/Tucson,
Ariz., admits he’s not quite sure why ballads have a harder time, but he’s
frustrated that they do. “The best songs in the format are usually the ballads,”
he said. “At the top of a music test, always, are (Tim McGraw’s) ’Don’t
Take the Girl’ (Larry Johnson and Craig Martin), (Garth Brooks’) ’The Dance’
(Tony Arata) and Alan Jackson’s ’Remember When’ (Alan Jackson). I think
the problem is partly the tempo focus of some of today’s Country programmers.
That’s probably because many of them came from CHR (contemporary hit radio).
My philosophy has always been ’a great song is a great song, regardless of tempo.’”


“Most programmers want their stations to have energy
and movement, and ballads obviously are counterintuitive to that strategy,”
said Tom Baldrica, VP, Promotion and Radio Marketing, Show Dog-Universal Music.
“Therefore, the gatekeepers scrutinize them more thoroughly and are not as aggressive in breaking them.”

take longer because radio is constantly looking for tempo to drive the overall
feel of the station’s sound,” added Adrian Michaels, former VP, Promotion,
Curb Records, and now President, TopNotch Entertainment. “A great ballad will
always resonate with the listeners. The challenge is in getting it heard. Programmers
for the most part today prefer tempo. Plus, not all ballads are great ballads.
Only the great ballads ever see the top of the chart.”

Van Haze, VP, Promotion,
MCA Nashville, said, “Ballads tend to slow down the sound of a radio station
— at least that’s what I hear from programmers a lot. I understand that to
a degree. Unless the subject matter of a particular ballad is extremely moving,
it’s going to be tough. But I tend to think that when a ballad comes on, it
makes people listen and pay a little more attention. And that’s not a bad thing.”

Bob Reeves,
former VP, Promotion, Warner Music Nashville, admits to being puzzled by the relative
lack of ballad success. “It’s always seemed a little odd to me that there’s
often push-back on down-tempo records in our format,” he said. “So often these
ballads are some of the most impactful records of our time and the biggest hit.
A hit is a hit, regardless of its beats-per-minute count. It seems silly to shy
away from a record that your listeners want to hear, just because it’s slow.”

What It Takes

executives offer a variety of criteria when asked what qualities a ballad must
have to break through.

“A great story set to an appealing melody is the trick,”
said Walker of WCTK. “Unless the story being told is angry, sometimes it resonates
with the fan quicker if set to a ballad.”

“If you look at what
the biggest ballads have in common, they either tell a great story or they tug
at your heart,” observed Jackson of KIIM. “It’s easier for a Country ballad
to cut through because the songwriting is often much better and you can understand
the singing. Up-tempo songs are often so overdone that the lyrical content is
secondary to the production.”

For WWKA’s Schumann, “It’s all
in the hook. The faster the listener can learn the words, the better.”

“A ballad
needs that dramatic impact, whether it be the sound itself or the hard-hitting
lyric,” Kennedy from Kansas City noted. “Sometimes it has to reach out and
really grab you early.”

For Paul from Dial Global, “It’s all about the content
of the song. Lyrics matter, especially with ballads. Up-tempo songs are more about
the music while ballads tend to be more about the lyrics and content. We as PDs
always need to be looking for emotion in everything we do. Ballads help a lot with that.”

“A positive
message within the ballad is important based on the mood of today,” said KSON’s
Callahan. “Songs like ’God Gave Me You’ (Dave Barnes) from Blake Shelton,
’If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away’ (Dallas Davidson, Rob Hatch, Brett Jones
and William Seaborn) from Justin Moore, and a song we had tremendous luck with
locally, Steve Holy’s ’Love Don’t Run’ (Ben Glover, William Leathers and
Rachel Thibodeau), all have uplifting messages based on love or positive memories
of those that have passed. Songs like ’Cost of Livin’’ (Philip Coleman and
Ronnie Dunn) or Bradley Gaskin’s ’Mr. Bartender’ (Gaskin) didn’t do as
well because they didn’t provide the escape that people were looking for, despite
the fact that they were both outstanding songs.”

Moment of Decision

In their
internal discussions of what songs to release as singles, label promotion executives
must weigh all of these factors and more. Haze says that only a small percentage
of the singles his label releases annually are ballads. Recalling similar discussions
at Curb, Michaels said, “We had no playbook or game plan when it came to how
many ballads we released in a year. The only thing I ever asked for is
great ballads.”

“It has
to tell a specific story that is relatable to the general listenership of the
station,” said Baldrica, describing the ideal single-worthy ballad. “Melodically,
it must have movement and build to an emotional crescendo. Without the dynamic
movement, it never gets past the radio gatekeeper, because of the need for energy on the station.”

For Haze,
“It all comes down to subject matter. Country ballads are known for meaning
something, for making you feel something. If the song moves people, it will get
a shot, and the good ones always break through.”

Michaels agrees.
“All the great ballads I have ever worked that have become hits had one thing
in common: They moved me in the very first listen.”

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