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Mar 12, 2010 | Articles

Zapoleon Music Cycle-Extremes Doldrums Approaching
by Guy Zapoleon

A lot of people are asking me what time is it in the Zapoleon Music Cycle. What time is it when Country songs like Lady Antebellum, and Country's Pop sweetheart Taylor Swift are becoming hits at Mainstream Top 40. What time is it when there are more Pop Rock potential hits that are now crossing to Mainstream Top 40 (even if programmers are slow to embrace them now)....Daughtry, Nickelback, Lifehouse, Rob Thomas, Uncle Kracker, John Mayer, The Script, even Fray, and Colbie Caillat. What time is it when even Mainstream AC artists like Michael Buble with his AC hit, Haven't Met You Yet and Sade who has the #1 album this week could be Hits in a lot of markets at Mainstream Top 40 now. These are all signs of Doldrums on the horizon with us entering the Extremes first in the Zapoleon Music Cycle.Daughtry, Nickelback, Lifehouse, Rob Thomas, Uncle Kracker, John Mayer, The Script, even The Fray and Colbie Caillat. What time is it when even Mainstream AC artists like Michael Buble, with his AC hit "Haven't Met You Yet," and Sade, who has the #1 album this week, could be hits in a lot of markets at Mainstream Top 40 now? These are all signs of Doldrums on the horizon, with us entering the Extremes first in the Zapoleon Music Cycle.

For reference, here are the 3 phases of the 10 year Zapoleon Music Cycle

Birth/Pop Phase (Rock Pop Rhythm genres are the most Pop in nature, other formats grow more Pop). Generally the ratings peak for Mainstream Top 40.

Extremes (the majority of contemporary music moves toward the edges, away from being Pop and more Rock or R&B or both)

Doldrums (Softer music styles from AC, Country and even Jazz have their shot at Mainstream Top 40 and Mainstream Top 40's R&B and Rock edges soften as well, Mainstream Top 40s ratings dip.

I wrote late last year that we are the peak of Pop cycle, the rebirth phase, as we had just witnessed as we did a in '97 the same explosion of Pop that we saw when the duo who really brought Mainstream Top 40 back in '97 -- Britney Spears and NSync's leader Justin Timberlake -- began releasing songs that helped make them pop music's biggest artists, and they have become the Queen and King Of Pop again. However, you can tell we are at the end of the Pop phase of this cycle by certain trends ... the overabundance of Teen Pop -- Miley Cyrus, Jonas Brothers, Justin Bieber. Also, at the end of this Pop phase -- just as in so many other decades -- Dance/Pop has been exploding with acts Lady Gaga and Cascada breaking through big-time.

Also at the end of the Pop phase, with all genres of music moving in a super-pop direction, R&B and hip-hop, which normally dominate Rhythmic and Mainstream Top 40s, are taking a back seat to the Pop Rhythm sounds of the Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga , Beyonce, Ke$ha and Jay Sean. Alternative and Rock gets more Pop as Grammy Award winner Kings Of Leon, The Fray, Phoenix, and Coldplay enjoy huge success there. These are all the key indicators that we're in the Super-Pop aspect of the Pop phase hits.

However it also marks the beginning of the end of the Pop Phase, because people want variety, and its one of the hallmarks of the Mainstream Top 40 format that it offers a balanced variety of all three key styles: Pop, Rock & R&B. Too much of any one sound throws off the balance -- even too much Pop, the center sound of Mainstream Top 40 and the very glue of that format. When a Mainstream Top 40 station becomes too extreme - either Too Rhythm and Pop or too Pop and Rock, and one key music style is basically ignored, then cutting-edge fans of that type of music get frustrated and go elsewhere to find that particular style of music. The greater danger is that the larger audience, the Mainstream majority audience, gets bored because the station lacks variety and they look for another station. This is what created the terrible ratings that Mainstream Top 40 suffered during the Doldrums in the past.

Mainstream Top 40 radio has always been the key to how soft or extreme the Music Cycle gets, based on owners/programmers' reaction to the cycle. Before, owners were willing to accept that Mainstream Top 40 was a 12-24 female-centered format that needed to always protect its base; program directors overreacted to what they thought the cutting edge crowd wanted as Pop faded at the ends of the '50s '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s by changing their Mainstream Top 40 station to what was the hot new trend, going way too R&B or at times Rock for the mass-appeal audience, creating the Extremes Phase of the Zapoleon Music Cycle.

Then when the mass-appeal audience evaporated, especially adults, GMs and owners who didn't understand the format and saw their numbers drop, especially their 25-54 adult numbers, forced their program directors to overcompensate and there was a dramatic softening of the Mainstream Top 40 format in general, as Hip-Hop or harder edged Rock were avoided in favor of what little Pure Pop was available after Rock or R&B dominated the charts.

The problem during the Extremes phase in each decade was always that the labels ... which made what Mainstream Top 40 radio wanted ... their priority had avoided creating Pop because radio wasn't playing as much of it. So when Mainstream Top 40 programmers were told to they needed to get their 25-54 numbers back and to avoid much of what the labels had been producing -- Rock or R&B -- there wasn't much to play.

At the same time, listeners had gotten tired of so much of the Rock and R&B and wanted a change of pace, and that's when adult-appeal genres like AC, Country, or even Pop New Age Jazz acts cross over to Mainstream Top 40. This helped create the Doldrums phase in every decade, not because Rock or R&B were dramatically less popular (although they may not have been quite as hot as the height of Extremes) but as much as anything due to Mainstream Top 40 radio's reaction to these phases of the Zapoleon Music Cycle.

Mainstream Top 40 radio has the most dramatic effect on the music cycle. It's always been this way for the past 50 years because it's the format where a song reaches its highest point with the largest possible audience and the widest age group to become the biggest hit that it can be. Mainstream Top 40 is the format that affects every other format as the "parent format" songs cross over to become hits there, whether they come from Rock, Urban, AC or even Country. When that process slows or stops, the "feeder" formats can get hurt. This has an effect on other formats, depending on whether Pop sounds dominate there and cross over to Mainstream Top 40, or whether that format stays more traditional in sound, and its songs don't cross to Mainstream Top 40.

As I stated above, the key to avoiding the greatest effects of the Extremes and Doldrums phase of the Zapoleon Music Cycle is based on the music and media industry's reaction to these stages of the cycle, and especially Mainstream Top 40's reaction. One warning sign that we may be headed into the Extremes is worth noting: Since Pop is the center of Mainstream Top 40, the music and artists that are considered Pop have a big influence on what the format does (and doesn't) play.

I'm seeing a general belief that the center of Mainstream Top 40 now includes a lot of Pop Rhythmic acts like Rihanna, Beyonce etc. At the same time, songs which once were considered Pure Pop, like One Republic, are being referred to us Pop Rock songs. While that perspective might make sense for more heavily ethnic markets, it does not make sense for the Mainstream Top 40 format in general. If Pop Rhythm is now considered the new center, then that affects all the styles that are played around it, which become more Pop and R&B to fit in. That explains why programmers consider Pop Rock songs to be "spice," and why many stations believe they should only be playing a couple at a time (and sometimes none!) rather than acknowledging these songs as being one of the three key styles for the format.

That's even more of a problem for the format, because no style is hotter right now than Pop Rock, and a lot of hits are being avoided in favor of weaker songs from Pop or R&B, which are considered more core in sound. The other issue that makes this a problematic time for Mainstream Top 40 is that you are seeing a second Top 40 pop up again in many markets, taking on a more Rhythmic slant than the heritage Top 40. This forces the heritage Mainstream Top 40 to be more Rhythmic than they traditionally had been in order to play defense against their new flanking competitor.

To make matters worse, the major charts also include a great many of these new Rhythmic-leaning Top 40s spinning their songs 25% faster than normal Mainstream Top 40s, adding more spins than normal Mainstream Top 40 stations to the chart, thus influencing what reaches the top of the chart, and making the chart itself more Rhythmic. With the resulting national hits growing more Rhythmic, again the result is that that Mainstream Top 40 radio becomes more Rhythmic, as do the songs and artists that are released by the labels. This leads us to reach the Extremes again.

The good news is that today there is a better understanding of how to react to the Extremes and Doldrums because of industry-wide knowledge of the Zapoleon Music Cycle by programmers and owners. Add that to radio's understanding and acceptance that the key to Mainstream Top 40 radio success is 12-24 females, and you have a much healthier format during these phases. This all began with my company Zapoleon Media Strategies (my partners Steve Davis and Mark St John and myself) consulting during the 90's as we taught our clients how to react properly to the phases of the Zapoleon Music Cycle.

However, the largest global effect occurred with the discussions with our client Z100/New York back in the late '90s as we approached the Extremes and Doldrums phases. It was the understanding and surgeon-like precision of the implementation of the strategy for Extremes and Doldrums to the Zapoleon Music Cycle by the incredible team of Tom Poleman, Sharon Dastur and Paul Cubby Bryant that got Z100 through the tough times of these phases. Not only did Z100 remain very successful during these times, but as always, Z100 as the Mainstream Top 40 industry leader, with its correct response to the Extremes/Doldrums by playing the right balance of Pop, R&B and Rock styles, influenced the rest of the Mainstream Top 40 industry to stay on course.

So as we approach the next Extremes and Doldrums phases, I believe that today's programmers will be smarter in their reaction, and Mainstream Top 40 will remain successful.

I know there is a concern about how the differences in PPM vs. diary will affect the music cycle. First, PPM is real listening, not remembered listening. It's not like the diary, where top-of-mind awareness counts more as listeners fill out their diary based on an overall impression of what they normally listen to during their daily and weekly routine. In the diary - for better or worse - bad songs weren't nearly as impactful as they are today, where the right song keeps them listening and the wrong song has listeners tuning out.

Now more than ever, having the right music on your radio station is critical. What does PPM do to the 10-year Zapoleon Music Cycle? Nothing really, because real listening is real listening, and the cycles and their phases don't change regardless of the ratings methodology. The cycles are a fact, and they haven't changed since the Elvis Presley phenomenon caused rock & roll music to rule the charts ... for the past 55 years! The same pattern repeats over and over and over again...

  1. Is PPM affecting markets differently than the diary? We've seen stations that were more niche move to the middle, with very big success at Mainstream Top 40.

    Yes, you're seeing this now as other formats like Rhythm Mainstream Top 40 and Hot AC move toward Mainstream Top 40 by playing more and more Pop. What programmers can't forget is that successful stations have to deliver to expectation. If a station in a niche format jumps on the Pop bandwagon, and ceases to deliver what its core listening audience expects, eventually its listeners are vulnerable to a format competitor who is more true to its core. The danger is when the cycle moves away from Pop, that station that has grown too Pop has no position, is very vulnerable, will be challenged, and may lose its audience, and even have to change format.
  2. Does the PPM effect mean that the cycle is different regionally versus nationally where there are diary markets vs. PPM markets?

    Obviously, with PPM being real listening, winning the song-by-song war with your competitor is even more critical. In the diary world a heritage station being challenged by a super-focused music competitor can survive easier through marketing and a super-strong morning show than they would in PPM.
  3. Will mScore affect what gets played (less extremes) in PPM markets, thereby skewing or softening the curve?

    There is a chance of skewing the curve by people overreacting and not really understanding how to use this information, so the impact on the cycle remains to be seen. As with any new tool that radio gets, people have to learn how to use it properly, and make sure they fully understand how it works. It's imperative to view the information in terms of multiple weeks of data, not one week.
  4. With all of the above, will the cycle between Doldrums and Extremes quicken as the distance between the two (if radio plays less extremes) be shorter?

    I'm not sure the cycle will ever be shorter. It seems to always be around 10 years in length, but I don't think the ill effects of Extremes or Doldrums will be as devastating to the radio and record industry due to a better understanding of the Zapoleon Music Cycle, as well a better understanding of Mainstream Top 40 and other radio formats in general.
  5. Will we have to reclassify what's an Extreme?

What is defined as an Extreme or a Doldrum is based on the what the public thinks is mainstream or too cutting edge or too un-hip/dated. This changes every single cycle. Artists that were once considered cool are now their mom's artists, and music that was mainstream ... fairly hip ballads for example ... are today's "elevator or Las Vegas lounge music."

The best example of of what was considered Extreme now being mainstream is Hip-Hop. Mainstream Top 40 radio refused to play Hip-Hop back in the late '80s and early '90s because radio owners refused to allow programmers to embrace Hip-Hop, or the other "extreme" songs, such as songs with a Rock edge. Instead, stations softened their sound, and their ratings plummeted. Then many industry wise men declared that "Mainstream Top 40 Was Dead" and radio owners reacted by changing format, and Mainstream Top 40 lost 500 radio stations during the longest lasting Doldrums period, which went from 2000 to 2005 when Mainstream Top 40 started to s-l-o-w-l-y come back.

Plus we always have to remember that every market has its own differences. Virtually no market is exactly the same in age, sex, racial, socioeconomic or cultural makeup. Every market really has its own unique differences, including how the market is laid out based on radio stations and formats. So what is Pop in San Francisco may be considered Pop Rhythm in Oklahoma City. The cycle and its effects remain the same, but how radio programmers interpret it specifically depends on the uniqueness of their markets.

Here's a look at the Zapoleon 10-Year Music Cycles from the past 5 Decades

Cycle 1
1956 Pop/Rock/R&B1960 Dance1961 Chicken Rock
Elvis/Chuck Berry/ DriftersChubby Checker/ Little EvaTheBobby's (Vinton,Rydell,Vee)
  Country Crossovers
  J. Cash/Patsy Cline

Cycle 2
1964 Pop/Rock/R&B1969 Acid Rock1971 Soft Rock
Beatles/Stones/MotownHendrix/Cream/ ZeppelinHelen Reddy/James Taylor
Lovin Spoonful/Beach BoysDeep Purple/DoorsCountry Crossovers
  John Denver/Anne Murray

Cycle 3
1974 Pop/Rock/R&B1978 Disco1980 AC
Fleetwood Mac/EaglesChic/Donna SummerBarry Manilow/Neil Diamond/ Barbra Streisand
Stevie Wonder Country Crossovers
  Urban Cowboy/Kenny Rogers/ Eddie Rabbitt

Cycle 4
1982-83 Pop/Rock/R&B/MTV1989 Rap/Funk1991 Soft Rock Crossovers by Adult Artists
Eurythmics/Culture ClubHammer/Public EnemyElton John/Billy Joel/ Gloria Estefan
B. Springsteen/J. MellencampBell Biv DevoeCountry Crossovers
M. Jackson/Madonna Garth Brooks/Billy Ray Cyrus

Cycle 5
Pop Modern AC Pop R&BTeen Pop Pop Rock Pop R&BPop R&B Modern Rock RapBallad World
Mariah Carey, Ace Of Base, MadonnaBackstreet Boys, Britney, NSyncDestinys Child, Pink,J-LoBallads from Kelly, Christina, Mariah
Alanis, Natalie Merchant, Gin BlossomsMatchbox , 3rd Eye GooGoosCreed, RHChilis, Blink182Soft Rock Maroon 5, Lifehouse, Avril
Boyz II Men, TLC, Janet JacksonWill Smith, TLC, BrandyJay-Z, Nelly, EminemBeyonce Outkast plus R&B Ballads from Alicia Keys Usher

Cycle 6
American Idol Artists...Kelly Clarkson etc, Britney Spears, Justin TimberlakeBlack Eyed Peas, Rihanna, Lady Gaga 
Green Day Nickelback Fallout BoyBoysLikeGirls, All American Rejects, Kings Of Leon, 
Beyonce Mary J Blige RihannaJay Z, Lil Wayne, Young Money