For the past few weeks, we've been talking about our favorite contenders for 2018's Song of the Summer on our podcast FADER Explains. This week, we're getting down with the data to talk about what constitutes a hit on the charts, on streaming platforms, and on the radio.
We broke down some radio myths with the help of iHeartMedia's Chief Programming Officer Tom Poleman. He's essentially in charge of what 850+ radio stations play all across America, so he knows what really separates a regular hit song from the Song of the Summer. Read our conversation with him to find our what really makes a smash into a smash.
From your perspective, how much of the decision making behind the airing of a possible summer hit is based on gut and how much of it is based on data?
I think it's always a blend of the two. The data is nothing more than paying attention to what the listeners are saying and they're giving you feedback as you expose the song, but you have to have gut to be able to expose the song in the first place. There definitely is a blend. When you're thinking about Song of the Summer, there's a lot of different characteristics that you like to think about. Usually it's an upbeat song, it's a fun song. Lately it's been good to have an island vibe to it or a party feel to it. When I think about Cardi B['s "I Like It"], it's a remake, but it's also got Bad Bunny and J Balvin and it checks all those boxes.
When a song like Cardi B’s “I Like That” comes out and get traction, how do you turn the knobs to 11 and take it to the next level?
We're already seeing good reactions from the listeners in our research, so that's what you typically follow when you move it up in rotation at the radio stations. Here in New York we've been seeing lots of positive scores, so you can tell that's the song that's going to start move up in rotation. There's a lot of songs I can look at now and have a sense of what ones the radio stations are going to be playing a lot more, just from the early data that we're seeing.
Is there any song this summer that has surprised you…maybe as track that went from a middling radio song to an absolute smash hit…
In terms of surprising sounds, Childish Gambino's "This Is America," it's one of those songs that came out of nowhere and has become a cultural and pop cultural phenomenon as well as a song that everybody is gravitating towards. He's a guy that really breaks new barriers all of the time. You never really know what he's going to come up with next. This song really nailed it for a moment in time. That's one that I didn't see coming. Post Malone's whole album that exceeded expectations of what people thought he was going to come out with. There's so many songs that are smashes. I think "Better Now" is going to be a contender for one of the songs of the summe.
You’ve mentioned songs needing an “island feel” and growing up in NYC, I know there was always reggae and dancehall songs thrown into the rotation on stations like Z100, but its interesting to see that spread across the country. Has this always been the case or is that a new thing?
I think as the whole country is getting more and more ethnic, I think you're seeing that more. I think there's a larger recognition that you have to embrace Latin sounds more in your overall sensibilities. That's where America is going. And yeah it makes sense that when you were growing up. I was there back then too playing those songs, the population was about 23% hispanic. But now that's really growing across America. I think it's also a willingness to play the songs in more places across America because you're seeing the success. It's sort of learning over time.
“”One Kiss” is an absolute monster.”
Another song we discussed is Calvin Harris’s "One Kiss." I was saying it didn’t feel like a very American song to me. I couldn’t see it being a huge jam outside of major metropolitan areas. Is there that kind of decision making from iHeart’s perspective? Or is that made up data?
I think I hear her music as a perfect snapshot of what's hot right now. Everyone loves her, she's a social star, she's got melodies that are extremely hooky. It's that tempo in pop that's working great right now. "New Rules" was obviously a smash. Looking at my data right now —I have it up on my screen — "One Kiss" is an absolute monster. I see that at all of our stations. I think a hit is a hit and people have really just gravitated towards her.
We were discussing the popularity of "The Boy is Mine" from twenty years ago which absolutely dominated the radio and MTV: I am curious if its still possible for a song to dominate across all the different platforms out there now in that kind of crazy monolithic way.
Oh yeah. I think Cardi B, the reason that I bring that up is because it can be played at multiple formats. That's what you look for in a Song of the Summer. It's not just at top 40, it can cross to rhythm, and a lot of different places. By the way, that's another reason that Childish Gambino is another contender because he's played on alternative, he's played on pop, he's played on urban and rhythmic formats. Last year, Camila Cabello was played in multiple formats as well, and that's a key component.
It’s surprising to hear that Childish Gambino has impact on alternative radio too.
I think it's more than sonically, what that song is about. It's lyrically what the song is about and just his whole persona has a lot of very cool, alternative qualities about it. He's extremely credible and certainly the subject matter is too.
Do you personally have any favorite Song of the Summer from the past that you think is emblematic of what makes a summer hit?
Well thinking about it a little bit more, I think "Despacito" in terms of cultural moments. I was saying before, you look for a song sometimes to break barriers. "Despacito" was the first time you had a pure all-Spanish lyrics song that was that massive. I'm sure Justin Bieber had a lot to do with it with his remix of it. But to see that succeed that was a very defining cultural moment. That was the Song of the Summer and I think that says something about America. I think we'll all look back at last year's moment in time as the moment America decided to embrace a non-novelty — there's been Latin songs that were a novelty like "Macarena" or "La Bamba." But "Despacito" was a full-on normal Latin song that broke all sorts of barriers.