Is BBC Radio 1’s refusal to playlist new Madonna solely about ageism?
Back in February 2013, we published an article titled “The rampant trend of ageism in modern pop music”. Of late, we have seen a resurgence of interest in that article and most of it seems to be coming from music community forums. We were curious to understand this sudden spike of traffic towards what we consider a rather old article. We soon discovered that the article was being shared in threads on music forums that were devoted to Madonna’s new single “Living for Love”. The song is the lead single off her new album titled “Rebel Heart” (slated for release on March 10, 2015 in the US). To the chagrin of fans, this song has NOT been playlisted by BBC Radio 1 – the key music gatekeeper of the world’s second biggest consumer market for popular music. The general belief is that for a single to chart in the UK, it must get playlisted by BBC Radio 1. Outraged Madonna fans claim that the dismissal of Madonna’s “Living for Love” from the BBC Radio 1 playlists is a blatant demonstration of an ageist bias. The playlist programmers have responded by saying that they are not biased against older artists and that the song simply did not make the cut. In our article about ageism in pop music from two years ago, we made references to many artists that we believe had become victims of this unfortunate trend. Noteworthy examples include David Bowie, George Michael, Kim Wilde, and Tears For Fears. We made a conscious decision to NOT include Madonna in that list of artists – primarily, because we believe she is probably one of the lucky few that has managed to shield themselves from an ageist bias through a mix of clever brand strategies, music that is considered relevant, shock value, and most importantly being the poster-child for stylistic reinvention. In the commercial mainstream, she has outlived her contemporaries. We believe that Madonna’s dismissal from BBC Radio 1 is only partially rooted in an ageist bias. We figured it might be a good idea to shed some light on the other factors that have contributed to “Living for Love” not being featured on BBC Radio 1.
Ageism is an indisputable reality in the music industry. In the past two decades, this unfortunate trend has been less pronounced in the UK than it has been in the US. The fact that older bands such as Duran Duran and Pet Shop Boys could have top 10 singles in the UK in the mid-2000s is proof of that. As far as the US is concerned, these bands belonged only in the past and had no place in the current mainstream – and their music never saw the light of day on American terrestrial radio past the mid-90s (interestingly enough, this is also roughly around the same time that the Telecommunications deregulation act was passed in the US and conglomerates took over to start the slow destruction of terrestrial radio). The ageist bias in the UK, especially on BBC Radio 1, has a somewhat different flavor than that of the US.
In the UK, it works a little differently. The victims of an ageist bias can be as “young” as 35 years of age. The probability of being featured on a BBC Radio 1 playlist is dependent on the success of the SINGLES of the artist’s last album. An artist’s prior album sales have minimal act on their ability to get his or her newer material featured on BBC Radio 1. All it takes is one or two lackluster singles in succession that barely scraped the UK top 10 for an artist to be deemed irrelevant by Radio 1’s playlist programmers. Younger artists can steer clear of this dynamic provided they don’t have a succession of lackluster singles. One or two misfires (from a singles perspective) are considered acceptable. Older artists (i.e. artists over the age of 30) are not cut the same level of slack. Their “punishment” for two consecutive singles (or a lack of a follow-up single to compensate for the poor chart performance of the album’s former single) that do not ignite the interest of the music market is a permanent banishment from BBC Radio 1. The only way these artists’ newer material can be heard on Radio 1 again is through a guest feature alongside an artist that Radio 1 considers relevant enough for radio airplay. A noteworthy example of this is Paul McCartney. He is a featured artist on singles by Kanye West and Rihanna. The folks at Radio 1 seem to claim they are NOT ageist by making an example of Paul McCartney. They conveniently fail to admit the fact that he is only a featured guest and that a new solo single by him would NEVER see the light of day on Radio 1. We would love to give Paul McCartney the benefit of the doubt here but we cannot help but consider the possibility that the only reason he even agreed to feature on the tracks by Kanye West and Rihanna was to have one last stab at the youth market and commercial mainstream – something BBC Radio 1 was likely to pave the way for.
We have plenty of examples of established artists in the UK that can sell out stadiums and massive arenas and still fail to get newer material featured on BBC Radio 1. Their trajectories from a singles release perspective are almost identical. Here are a few examples:
A] Robbie Williams:
In 2006, former Take That member Robbie Williams, empowered by his megastar status, decided to try something new on the lead single for his album “Rudebox”. He rapped through the entire length of the song. This was where it started to fall apart. He then followed up the single with “Lovelight” ( a cover version of the Lewis Taylor song) which was pleasant enough but certainly not the best the album had to offer. It peaked at #8 on the UK singles charts. It was only with the album’s third single “She’s Madonna” that he started to feature the best the album had to offer but by then it was too late. The momentum of the album had been lost. Fortunately, Robbie Williams was blessed with his youth and “Rudebox” was dismissed as just an odd misfire. He had the opportunity to make things right with his 2009 album “Reality Killed The Videostar”. As an album, this just might be one of his greatest and most cohesive efforts to date with maestro Trevor Horn at the helm of production. Robbie Williams seemed to be getting it right with his lead single “Bodies” – a high-energy uptempo track with cinematic orchestration and Gregorian chants. The song peaked at #2 on the UK singles charts. There were plenty of potential singles on that album. Sadly, for some reason, a generic downtempo track (albeit quite pleasant) called “You know me” was released as the album’s second single. It did well peaking at #6 on the charts but was not enough to build on the momentum generated by the prior single. Outside of his core fanbase, “You know me” is a largely forgotten song and this spelled the end for Robbie Williams on Radio 1. His last dance with Radio 1 would be as a guest feature on a single by rapper Dizzee Rascal and of course with his former bandmates from Take That(in 2010). Age wise, he was in his late 30s when these misfires started happening. He did have a UK #1 single with “Candy” in 2013 despite the song not being featured on BBC Radio 1. This was a victory against all odds for Robbie Williams – but not necessarily one that he is likely to replicate.
B] Kylie Minogue:
Ever since the return to her pop roots with her 2000 hit single “Spinning Around“, Aussie Pop Princess Kylie Minogue has enjoyed quite a stronghold on the UK singles charts. This was also propelled, to a large extent, by BBC Radio 1’s support. Strangely enough, things started to go wrong for her in the UK with “Aphrodite” – one of her strongest albums to date. This is the album on which producer Stuart Price truly started to scale new heights. Our theory (and we don’t expect anyone to agree with this) is that Kylie Minogue’s choice of lead single (i.e. “All the lovers”) for the album was a poor one – even though it charted in the top 5. It was bound to chart well based on the momentum Kylie had generated from her prior album “X” but that momentum was not enough to drive the success of the second album off “Aphrodite” – titled “Get outta my way”. This song, is not only the high point of “Aphrodite” but it is probably Kylie Minogue’s best single since “Love at first sight” (from the “Fever” album). Furthermore, the gap between the single release of “All the lovers” and “Get outta my way” was far too significant and it seemed like the song was doomed despite its inherent merit. Rather unsurprisingly, it peaked at #12 on the UK single charts. This marked Kylie’s BBC Radio 1 demise. While #12 is by no means a bad chart position, it did indicate a declining commercial trend (in terms of singles sales) for Kylie Minogue. In BBC Radio 1’s eyes, that slight hint of a downturn was a glaring sign of Kylie’s diminishing “relevance”.That misfire, in combination with the fact that she was past the age of 40, seemed to reason enough for BBC Radio 1 to NOT consider future singles of hers for airplay. What happened next was quite predictable. When Kylie returned in 2014 with her album “Kiss Me Once” – which was preceded by her single “Into the blue“, BBC Radio 1 did not pick up that song or any subsequent singles. Kylie had officially been exiled from BBC Radio 1.
C] Take That:
We have said plenty about the miraculous and historic comeback of Take That. They were certainly older when they returned in 2005 to mark 10 years from the time the band folded in the mid-90s. But they were not too old to be given a fair chance with a newer generation of music listeners. They got it right with the singles from their 2006 album “Beautiful World” and partially right with the follow-up album titled “Circus” – but it was with the singles from “Circus” that the band started to lose steam because they were not picking the best songs as singles. The chart positions of these singles reflected the non-ideal choices. This, interestingly enough, did not hurt Take That when they returned in 2010 as a quintet with Robbie Williams. They were fundamentally a different musical entity – building on their own success, a stellar legacy, and the reintroduction of a solo superstar as part of their line-up. Their reunion album with Robbie Williams was called “Progress”. It spanned the hit single “The Flood”. Like “Reality killed the video star” by Robbie Williams, this album had some fairly obvious singles that were practically begging for a radio release. Noteworthy examples include “Eight Letters” (the 2010 equivalent of the band’s signature hit “Back for good”) and “Wait”. “Kidz” proved to be a rather weak single from a chart perspective. It peaked at #28. This was it for Take That from a Radio 1 perspective. Their new material as a three-piece has NOT been featured on Radio 1. The “boys” were in their early 40s at the time the singles from “Progress” were released. It was the precursor to one of the greatest stadium tours ever but it also marked the end of their love affair with Radio 1.
It only makes sense for our final example to be the inspiration for our post. Madonna has defied all odds and has continued to be a force to be reckoned with on the UK charts with her most recent UK #1 single being “4 Minutes” from her 2008 album “Hard Candy”. By this time, Madonna had already crossed the age of 50. Her ability to defy the odds despite her age can be attributed almost entirely to a string of successful singles. Sadly, her “MDNA” album (released in 2012) is where it went wrong for Madonna from a BBC radio 1 perspective. The album’s lead single just about scraped the bottom of the UK top 40 peaking at #37 on the top 40 singles chart. The album’s second UK single “Masterpiece” (a collaboration with producer William Orbit) also failed to crack the top 40 in the UK. Subsequent singles “Girl Gone Wild” and “Turn Up The Radio” fared much worse. As we had mentioned earlier, a string of lackluster singles in addition to the age factor spells the end for an artist on BBC Radio 1.
In summary, the refusal to playlist “Living for Love” by Madonna by BBC Radio 1 has only a little to do with ageism. If ageism was the only factor, Madonna would have been ejected from the Radio 1 airwaves around 15 years ago. In this post, we have only cited three examples of “singles” trajectories that lead to an artist’s Radio 1 demise but there are several other examples – George Michael, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Kylie Minogue and more.
For those complaining about ageism in the UK, all they have to do to feel better is to look at the US. Artists have it much worse on this side of the Atlantic. This “radio banishment” is unfair at best. Artists should be allowed to make mistakes. It is part of their education as performers, creators, and strategists. Most conventional professionals are allowed this education and the forgiving culture around that education. Why are artists treated any differently?
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