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Alternative Is About to Have Its Hair Band Moment

Nirvana and grunge wiped out Hair Bands almost overnight. A similar purge is brewing at Alt…

By Paul Marszalek

It isn’t news that the Alternative Rock radio format, branded largely as “Alt,” has been running on fumes for years.

With few stations cracking a 2-share, considerable denial has finally given way to reflection as to what went wrong.

The “there’s no good new music out” argument is now seen as the joke that it always was, with more thoughtful arguments being made about too few decision makers, using streaming as a proxy for actual research, and an ill-fated pivot to pop.

There’s also the head-scratching major-label dominance of the format. For example, if roughly 40% of the music business is independent, shouldn’t there be more than one or two indie label tracks on the charts? Yes there should, but lazy programming, corrupt indie promotion practices, and a transactional mentality with regard to playlist additions has led to a near complete shutout of much of the most exciting music available.

There are two more factors that helped push Alt the the brink, and these will shortly be addressed – giving the format a chance to bounce back.

We’ll start with math. Too many programmers have forgotten that radio is just math — how many listeners do you have and how much are they listening.

Two very different mathematical failures have driven the format into the ground.

The first is the misread of Nielsen’s time spent listening data.

When the Personal People Meter rolled out, radio execs were shocked at the extremely short duration of listening sessions. Their tactical answer to short average listening sessions was to pivot to sky-high rotations on not only the new music, but library songs.

The mistake here was failing to recognize that these short average listening sessions were driven down by the station’s worst customers – those who rarely listened. However, by cranking up the rotations, stations were actually trying serve their worst customers – while driving their best customers away with repetition.

Alt’s inability to serve its best customers is why you see major market stations that have more than a million listeners, but can’t crack a 2-share. In short, little customer loyalty.

The second mathematical problem for Alternative is its target demo. Not only are there fewer 18-24 year olds out there, but they’re the most diverse set of 18-24s the country has ever seen. Virtually none of them own a radio outside the car. So, you’re going to target a small number of highly diverse people who don’t own radios with a format that is historically rock-based? Okay. This explains the pop experiment, but by positioning it as Alt made for a branding error.

So how does this all add up to Alternative having a Hair Band Moment?

There’s yet one more factor that played into Alt’s demise: Authenticity.

Great brands win with authenticity, and Alt simply lacks it.

This is the same phenomenon that wiped out the Hair Bands. Big hair and glam was fun, but suddenly looked pretty phony when Nirvana and Pearl Jam showed up.

Alternative Rock Radio’s success will be pinned on two things: an ability to build a coalition audience out of multiple demographics, and authenticity.

Kevin Weatherly, who will re-take KROQ next month, knows this.

The leadership vacuum will soon be filled, and programmers starved for direction will mimic his every decision.

There will be winners and there will be losers.

Many artists who dominated “Alt” over the past three years will be shocked to find themselves headed to the county fair circuit.

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