Music Always Comes Full Circle

Updated: Apr 18, 2019

The Music Cycle:

What Goes round, Comes Back Around.... Again....& Again.

It turns out 2018's music cycle will resemble 1988 (and 2001). Besides producing and writing music, I am a nut for music industry strategy and theories (I love logic puzzles too)! I first heard about the Music Cycle last year and found it profoundly plausible. After some research into the music trends over the last 60 or odd years, it appears the Music Cycle has occurred many times over. The Music Cycle is composed of three distinct periods that have repeated every 10 years for the past 61 years. Where the balance of core styles differs from period to period.

  • The Renaissance Pop Phase having plenty of Pop hits plus Rock & R&B are more pop.

  • The Unpolarized music which moves toward the corners, away from Pop and radio ratings begin to dip.

  • Stagnation - Mainstream radio R&B and Rock soften and much of Rock and R&B music is avoided entirely. Resulting in mainstream radio ratings dip even more.

What causes the periods to change or bring on a new Music Cycle? The listeners. Simple and plain. The musical palate of the masses act much like a pendulum. People's tastes change over time, especially when you have too much of one thing and not enough of something else you might desire. When one genre is overexposed or another genre suddenly becomes popular and the pendulum swings, the result is more Rock or more Pop or more R&B/Rhythmic. Each new generation of teens and young adults want their own music, artists and often different genres of music. Another factor -- and what has kicked off each Renaissance Pop phase -- is the emergence of a superstar or a new platform; the Beatles in '64, MTV in '82, Boy Bands in '96, Beyonce, Maroon 5 and in 2013, music technology/digital platforms like iHeartradio and Spotify.

The intensity is dependent on the reaction by the leading mediums and platforms of the day to the phases, and radio is still the biggest factor in deciding which songs become hits.

In the past few years up to 2017, EDM/Dance has evolved and become a formidable force-fusing into the Pop of today for today's young fans. Pop superstars Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Alessia Cara have paired with the best EDM DJs such as Zedd, Kygo, David Guetta and today's most successful EDM artists The Chainsmokers. However, it's easy to see by looking at the top songs on the playlists from the various music platforms that the hottest sounds/artists that are dropping and then exploding are Hip-hop artists dropping #1 music albums and songs. Now you are beginning to see this at radio as well.

Why are 1988 and 2001 twins?

The year 1988 followed a Renaissance Pop phase started by MTV. Bob Pittman debuted MTV in August of 1981, and MTV's influence took hold in 1982 as a hit breaking platform, spawning the '80s Renaissance/Pop phase of the Music Cycle that had a six-year run. However, 1988 was a turning point in music. The sheer amount of great pop music that had dominated the previous six years dried up, with many of the major Pop stars like Madonna and Prince taking hiatuses. Tastes were changing once again and the two other key components of Contemporary Music -- Rock and R&B -- were getting more raw and extreme in sound. New Jack Swing (Keith Sweat, Bell Biv Devoe), and Rap was exploding with music's edgiest sound. NWA, Public Enemy, LL Cool J and then Salt N Pepa, Rob Base and finally MC Hammer in 1989 were crossing to radio. At the same time Rock was changing from Pop Rock (Journey, Survivor, John Mellencamp), to Metal (Def Leppard/Guns N Roses) and Hair (Bon Jovi/Poison).

So, the Pop Renaissance phase became the Unpolarized with more and more of the biggest hits being either Rap/R&B or Metal/Hair, which was much less of radio's Pop center sound. What radio didn't (and some today still do know) realize was listeners' tastes naturally change and the music cycle corrects itself for a new generation of music fans. If you either have lived long enough to experience the boom of MTV, TRL and then sang, like I did "Never trust a big butt and a smile"-thank you Bel Biv Devoe or study music history you will have noticed, eventually all three genres go back to become more Pop again. So, while radio's 12-34 age listeners continued to be successful as 1989/1990 rolled around, radio began losing its 25-54 age listeners and radio's 12+ numbers began to drop as well.

Owners refused to accept what most experienced programmers had always known, radio's leading listener base which is age 12-24. They needed to be kept satisfied to keep the radio healthy and successful for the next generation as well as the current generation. However, owners were concerned about their revenue goals because a majority of radio buys were 25-54 listeners. They simply needed to ride it out and not jump the gun. The Unpolarized had their place but radio freaked out and didn't realize the Unpolarized were necessary in their rotation and for them to remain relevant to the 12-24 base. However, owners were leading with their wallets and ego.


The summer of 1996, radio play recovered. Teen Pop acts such as the Backstreet Boys, Hanson, Britney Spears became huge acts. Radio playlists began to have a balance of Rock, Pop and Rhythm/R&B. Radio stations, not wanting to repeat their actions of 1989, paid attention this time and understood the importance of balancing these three key genres, never going overboard on any one style.

Take home point:

When radio and listeners went into the Unpolarized of 2001-2003, it was extremely tempting to become a lot more Hip-Hop and R&B since there were tons of bestselling Hip-Hop and Urban titles to play. There was another Unpolarized movement in 2010 with Hip-hop, featuring artists such as Eminem, Jay Z, Nelly + B.O.B, but nothing like the Hip-hop and R&B avalanche that hit in 2001-2003.

While the experience Hip-Hop-along with R&B Unpolar and Stagnants have happened in the '00s and '10s, they've been less intense because radio better understands the music cycle and has learned to maintain the three genre balance no matter how intense each period gets. Equally as important, the music labels understand the music cycle and have continued to deliver this balance of Pop Rock and R&B genres to radio for airplay. Radio and labels have a synergistic relationship, the industry has had a much better chance of surviving, and in some cases thriving, the cycles properly if they deliver the music that consumers want most.

We are now at the end of 2017, and there is plenty of Pop music in the form of Dance Pop Hits to play and stream, but some of major Pop superstars have struggled recently. You don't have to look far to figure out the single hottest music genre tearing up radio... hip-hop. When Hip-Hop superstars dropped their albums, sometimes 20 cuts rule the Top 50 of streaming charts. Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Logic, Big Sean and now Jay Z

all have followed this same pattern. You've seen Urban radio become more popular. Radio is beginning to adopt Hip-Hop tracks more quickly now, based on success at other music platforms.

Like 1988. 25-54 continues to be very important to radio, but the biggest selling streaming hits are more 12-24 in appeal, so we're at the crossroads again.

There are a few options to choose from for radio stations and owners to take:

Option 1: Radio remains poised and maintains its Rock/Pop/Hip-Hop and R&B balance and intelligently embrace Hip-Hop and play this genre full-time when these songs became hits, like it did in last two Unpolarized periods, but always maintaining its Pop, Rock, R&B (Hip-Hop) balance.

Option 2: Does it over-focus on 25-54 ratings as it did in 1990-1996 and not embrace what 12-24 wants, including a healthy dose of Hip-Hop, and thus sacrificing its leadership with radio core 12-24?

I'll be perfectly honest and tell you I'm a Hip-Hop head! I grew up with the legends of the genre and so I love that Hip-Hop is filling up radio airplay. I love the variety on the radio so I'm hoping we'll see radio pick Option 1-if not and radio chooses Option 2 radio will no longer have a vast variety of song for their music fans.

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