At the tail end of 2018 and in the first part of 2019, there’s been an interesting wave that seems to be, on a medium-ish scale, sweeping over the radio landscape. A significant number of stations in the US and Canada have flipped to a Soft Adult Contemporary (AC) format that started gaining traction in 2016 when KISQ in San Francisco flipped and became “The Breeze.” The Breeze is… well, it’s breezy. It’s designed to be great for your workday; songs on The Breeze don’t require you to work too hard to understand them, many of them are hits from years past and they’re all intended to put a smile on your face.
So the big question is… why? Why is this format so popular all of a sudden? Why are stations turning to the soft, “lite” music they started rejecting 25 years ago?
My colleague Meghan Campbell and I recently discussed our views on why this format is suddenly so popular.
To me, the Soft AC format is all about hygge. Haven’t heard of hygge? Google Translate will tell you that it’s the Danish word for “fun”, but really, it describes a kind of coziness. Hygge is a movement, a way for people (usually women) to incorporate relaxation into their lives. Hygge is a way to shut out the craziness of the world and just breathe.
I firmly believe that people seek out hygge and Soft Adult Contemporary-type formats because we’re surrounded by chaos. In a world that is so uncertain and seemingly unstable, where information flies at us so much faster than it ever did, where our news sources fight with each other and family relationships erode because of political differences, people are looking for an anchor in a sea of chaos. In times of strife and trouble, we look for things that are familiar and calming. We try to create order in our lives where we can.
The Breeze and its variations provide a space where the music is calm, we know many of the songs by heart (even if we think we forgot them) and we get to go back to a time where things seemed much simpler.
For me, it’s less about creating a space for yourself than it is about how everyone gets it. I think the magic of Soft AC is that it can be a familiar, shared experience.
In a fragmented world, people yearn for shared experiences. I love going to concerts—have you noticed the rise of big festivals, where people can gather for several days of enjoying music together? These concerts always feature a headliner people know. There is some discovery of new artists, which is great, but the biggest acts are generally the ones all people can enjoy, no matter their age or stage in the life cycle.
We all remember the songs we hear on Soft AC stations, and they’re not limited to one decade or one artist. On a Soft AC station, you’ll hear artists ranging from Billy Joel to Styx, from Adele to Christina Perri. You might not like every song played on the station, but listen for a little bit and you’ll hear something that triggers nostalgia, and so will the person listening with you.
Jessica mentioned all of the news and information that flies around us. I find that it’s less about the speed of information and more that there’s just too much of it. You can end up as your own island of entertainment, choosing shows and movies and music from a variety of sources. There is a playlist for every taste on every different streaming service.
A couple of weeks ago, everyone was watching Bird Box on Netflix. My social media feed was full of it. So was my mother’s. And it sounded scary and intense—the opposite of Jessica’s hygge—but people were engaged with the show and each other, seeking out that shared experience.
The Soft AC format is like that, a way for people who gravitate towards different styles and eras to come around one format that works for almost everyone. People from all walks of life coming together to share familiar, comfortable songs and artists.
Regardless of why people are listening to the format, there is definitely something that draws people in. Right now, we don’t know whether I’m right, or Meghan’s right—maybe we’re both right, or we’re both wrong—but time and research will tell how strong these soft sounds will continue to be.