June 18, 2019

The Misguided Allure of Deep Tracks

Tuesdays With Coleman

Don’t get radio talent coach Steve Reynolds started on deep tracks. Wait, it’s too late. It all started June 2nd at 11:53am on his Facebook page, when he posted this:

“Dear Yacht Rock Radio on SiriusXM: welcome back, happy summer, missed you, but…you’re playing lots of unfamiliar music and songs that are stiffs. Please get back to the cheesy, known songs only.”

That initial post regarding the seasonal soft rock channel inspired 41 comments, including chime-ins from some pretty big name radio people.

But Steve was just getting started. An hour later he posted this:

Sirius XM Yacht Rock Radio

A few days later, he asked his followers to “report all non-yacht songs heard on Yacht Rock Radio,” a post that resulted in 80 comments.

To date, the topic has generated hundreds of comments. We were intrigued enough to cover the topic in this week’s blog.

Steve takes issue with two separate points in his posts. One is the playing of “stiffs”, or unfamiliar songs, and the other is songs that he feels don’t make sense on the station.

The Fit measurement we use in our FACT360 Strategic Music Tests can tell you when a song may not be in sync with your brand. I covered this topic in the blog, “Should I Play That Song On My Radio Station”.

When it comes to the former issue, whether or not to play deep tracks, here is an absolute truth—every radio program director or music director, at some point or another, has felt the allure of playing lesser-known songs or songs that weren’t hits on their station. It may be a caller on the request line, a salesperson or the programmer questioning himself. And when a PD has to make the decision on whether a deeper track makes sense, the first questions to ask are:

  • Who is your audience?
  • Why are they listening to you and what are their expectations?

SiriusXM, for example, has a deep tracks channel, where the perception Steve noted on the Yacht Rock channel would be reversed. If you hear a hit on the deep tracks channel, that would not be delivering to expectation.

This aligns with the very reason why Steve explains he was inspired to write the post in the first place.

“Yacht Rock brings me back to a happy, carefree time,” he says. “The role of the Yacht Rock channel for me is nostalgia. When a comfortable, familiar song like ‘Deacon Blues’ by Steely Dan comes on, for example, it makes me smile. I don’t want to have to use brainpower when I’m in this state. When a song comes on I’ve never heard of in this context, now I’m using parts of my brain to think about whether I know it and what I think of it. That’s not why I’m there.”

Sirius XM Yacht Rock Radio

Rupert Holmes has one hit with staying power. This isn’t it.

Context plays a crucial role. AAA stations often have perception of more depth that may allow them to go deeper than a Hot AC station, for example.

If listeners expect their favorite songs on your radio station, the only way to satisfy them is by playing something familiar. But with deep tracks you can’t do that because the very premise of a “deep track” is that you can’t find one that appeals to everyone.

Here’s another example:

Years ago, I drove across the country listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival. I love CCR. My deep is CCR, so I can listen to songs that are unfamiliar to most. For a Classic Rock fan, someone else’s deep may be The Eagles and another’s may be Aerosmith. For a hit music station, the expectation, of course, is hit music.

Creedence Clearwater Revival

We are in the business of satisfying customers (listeners) that come to our stores (stations).

We know through research that you can’t find any song—even the biggest, most popular hit song—that appeals to all your listeners.

And you certainly can’t find a deep track that appeals to all of them. Why would you minimize the percentage of customers that are likely to be satisfied?

Steve Reynolds makes a living coaching radio personalities, and he sees a parallel between program directors deciding which music to play and air talent deciding which content to feature.

“As you’ve said many times, Jon, every song is a marketing decision. Is that the song you want representing your radio station? Not just some songs. Every song. I tell air talent, every second of time you have on the station is like beachfront property. You’re the developer. What will you erect on the property? Is it the 4-story home with panoramic views of the ocean and a pool or is it an apartment with no views? Are we selecting our very best, most appealing content every time? It’s the same thing with songs. Are we playing our best, most appealing songs every time? If not, why?”

This doesn’t mean that you never take chances and color outside the lines. As referenced in “Should I Play That Song On My Radio Station,” you can be entrepreneurial in your own lane. You can’t be entrepreneurial in your fringe lanes.

As Don Benson, the former CEO of Lincoln Financial Media puts it, your format lane gives you license to introduce your audience to songs and even sounds they haven’t heard. When you play outside your lane, you risk losing listeners and may encourage brand erosion.

So when it comes to deep tracks, determine:

  • Who is the audience?
  • Why are they listening to you?
  • What are their expectations?

If, in this framework, playing deep tracks makes sense, great.

If not (and it most cases it will be “not”), remember you’re in the customer service business. Providing the most appealing product is the key to success.

13 thoughts on “The Misguided Allure of Deep Tracks”

  1. Rick Jackson

    I left my reply on the original from Steve. Of course I agree with Steve and Jon. We all learn this lesson – sooner or later.

  2. Jon Holiday

    Greetings!
    I’ve had the same thoughts for years regarding various SiriusXM formats as Steve Reynolds shared in this article. I ask myself continually, “Why oh why would they play this song?”. The only answer that I can come up with is… because they can, which is of course not a good reason.

    Short of contacting SiriusXM CEO, Jim Meyer and telling him to hire our firm to help them “fix their music”, I just shrug my shoulders and tell myself it’s their inherent weakness and that’s good for terrestrial radio.

  3. Jeff Murphy

    Years ago, one of our DeMers Programming clients gave away tickets to see Eric Clapton on a tour loaded with his “deep cuts” (only the encore tunes were hits). You really had to know your Derek & The Dominos and Cream libraries!!. It wasn’t a surprise when the PD called the day after the show to say the #1 comment from ticket winners was “I didn’t know most of the songs.”

    I’ve been to an Ozzy concert in which he DIDN’T play “Crazy Train.” Dudes in the men’s room after the show were not happy. I’ve been to a “deep cuts” Iron Maiden show with a guy who owns all the CDs, Similar response…”they didn’t play my favorites.”

    When people PAY, the expect the best…and listeners PAY with their attention!

  4. Allen

    Back in the day when [what eventually became known as] deep cuts took root, it was at those dorm parties of youth — the ones that fizzled out around 4:30AM, while entire album sides were played on the “record changer”; uninterrupted with no skipping tracks or random needle drops. We took it all in as part of the drunken, stoned, almost comatose experience.
    IMO, that’s what the deep tracks are all about — the *experience*, not just a sliver of it. And entire album sides were part of it.
    I don’t think I could survive on a steady diet of marginally memorable songs, but every once in awhile as a “Holy Crap!” tune, one of them will reactivate a dormant memory cell in the depths of my brain and I’m back in the Oneida dorms once again. Speaking for myself, I am all for them.
    By the way, it’s interesting Reynolds should cite “Deacon Blues” as a fave; out of the Billboard Top 100 for 1978, it came it at the very bottom (musicoutfitters.com/topsongs/1978.htm). While not a “deep track” in the literal sense, many more forgettable songs are propped up higher, standing on its shoulders.

  5. Allen

    I will give AC/Gold programmers credit for being *somewhat* selective on the deep tracks.

    You may recall a very strong country crossover around 1980-1981 or so, where Kenny Rogers et al were happily played on the contemporary music stations of the day. Today, if you heard “Coward of the County” played as a deep track, you would be crow-barring your Sirius receiver out of your dashboard.

  6. Mike Bucek

    I understand how this philosophy applies to Classic Hits and other gold-based formats but one of main reasons I’m happy to pay for a subscription to SiriusXM is to be able to listen to a diverse playlist. Satellite radio is great for listeners like me who prefer not to hear “Won’t Get Fooled Again” every 36 hours. Like Allen mentioned in these replies, it’s great to hear a track from an album that you maybe hadn’t heard in a long time. In the case of a heritage station, I think it’s important that they incorporate some popular deep tracks into their playlist if that music had been featured on the station when it was first released. KSHE St. Louis does a great job of including music from their past without wearing out their library of familiar tracks.

  7. JonathanNYC

    Hey, wasn’t every hit a “deep track” once? How long did Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah spend in obscurity before everyone knew it?

  8. Jay

    There isn’t really a universal standard definition of “hits” and “stiffs” especially among radio people, AND the definition of what IS or IS NOT “Yacht Rock” is a highly subjective exercise itself. The “stiff” Steve complained about (Man On Your Mind) actually peaked HIGHER (#14) than “the comfortable, familiar” song (Deacon Blues, #19) he uses in the article to make his point. In Minneapolis/St. Paul, “Man on Your Mind” was powered by WLOL during that station’s rise from a 4.4 to a 10.0 in the Spring ’82 book…point being that its initial exposure was to a massive group of listeners at a time when that station was THE thing to listen to in the market, and as such is probably a bit more likely to be remembered.

    *If you give me a penny for my thoughts and I give you my .02 worth, you owe me a penny!

  9. Craig Faichney

    That’s brutal. Formulaic pap because it’s “comfortable”. The same attitude must prevail for those who stay inside all the time. Whoa betide having an experience! I vividly remember first hearing an Internet Radio station and finding about 90% of the playlist was comprised of bands — not songs — that I had never heard of! It was brilliant and such a breath of fresh air. Of course, I’m now quite familiar with their playlist but it is large enough that it’s not an issue and the DJ still surprises me! Returning to terrestrial radio doesn’t have that much appeal anymore.

  10. Ron Reeves

    On terrestrial radio, you must adopt the mantra of finding out how few songs you can get away with playing. The problem now, after Telecom Act of 1996, is that LOCAL research dollars have dwindled. Outside major markets, it’s regional or nationwide “research”. Variety is derived from being expert with Selector while properly rotating your universe of songs that drive audience cume, then working to up your TSL. People don’t complain when you play their favorites. You just have to know what they are.

  11. Mark Zegan

    B ecause we are paying for the service, we had BETTER hear deep and WIDE playlists that terrestrial radio won’t touch. Maybe some of the cuts are not as good as others. However, I am interested in these songs. I think some of the cuts in “Yacht Rock’ might not fit, (stiffs or not) but I am damn glad they are there. I’m jealous, I’d love to program some of those XM formats where you WON’T have to play the same 25 songs into the ground.

  12. Greg99

    This post summarizes precisely why people with disposable cash to pay for unlimited data are fleeing terrestrial radio for SiriusXM, Spotify and podcasts.

    Because I can’t hear interesting music that I like (including deep Yacht Rock tracks) on terrestrial radio, I haven’t listened to a terrestrial radio commercial that didn’t flank “traffic on the 8’s” in years.

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