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He Crunches the Numbers to Pick Country Music's Next Hits

Radio: Nashville record labels pay John Hart to poll fans and then use that data to help decide which songs to promote--and which ones to dump.

April 30, 1998|JIM PATTERSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — If you love the songs played on country radio stations these days, John Hart is a hero. If you don't, he's a villain.

Hart polls country music fans and then uses the data to help record companies decide which songs to promote and which to dump. Seventeen Nashville record labels pay his company, John Hart Media Inc., a $2,000 to $3,000 monthly retainer for polling information.

Detractors see Hart as an unwelcome gatekeeper who keeps the wraps on exciting new music. Hart says he just ensures that the mass of country music fans get what they like.

"We show record labels how to fight the battle at radio with research, because radio uses research against them," he said.

To satisfy radio programmers, a song cannot just be good. It has to blend in well with a station's other songs, ads and disc jockeys.

"It eliminates or reduces tune-out," Hart said of his research.

"Tune-out" is that dreaded moment for radio stations when someone switches the dial. Even popular records can cause tune-out, if some listeners strongly dislike them.

Hart fought tune-out as program director at country station WXTU-FM in Philadelphia from 1991-95. WXTU, like 34 other stations across the country, does its own research to help decide what songs to program. It's virtually impossible to get a Top 10 hit in country music without the support of those stations.

He saw a niche and moved to Nashville in 1995. He expects competitors, but right now has the country market to himself and is expanding into urban music.

Hart runs snippets of songs for fans over the phone, and sends them cassettes to listen to for six weeks. The subjects are screened so only avid fans are polled.

Sometimes, the results startle record executives. When Atlantic Records had Hart test the 1994 Neal McCoy CD "No Doubt About It," a silly dance song called "Wink" proved popular.

"It wasn't the kind of thing we flipped over," said Rick Blackburn, who runs the Nashville office of Atlantic. "It's like the 'Peppermint Twist' or something."

The song was released as a single and went to No. 1.

"We had no idea," Blackburn said. "If we had known, the name of the album would have been 'Wink.' "

Sometimes, Hart is commissioned to do a "perceptual study" on a particular artist.

"I just finished one on Randy Travis for DreamWorks, and we did one on Reba [McEntire] for MCA."

DreamWorks officials wanted to know if they should sign Travis as their first country artist. He left Warner Bros. after having increasingly less success on radio.

"The answer was yes," Hart said. "He's got plenty of life left in him."

MCA wanted to know McEntire's status with fans after her 1995 album, "Starting Over," scored only one hit. Hart pinpointed the problem: The album contained McEntire's versions of old hits like "Please Come to Boston."

"Their expectations of Reba is that she will give them new songs. They like that better than her singing someone else's music," Hart said. "So she learned a lesson there and came back with a very strong album."

Despite such positive lessons, the major criticism of research like Hart's is that it discourages experimentation, resulting in bland music that doesn't offend, but doesn't excite either.

"It's true, it does produce to some degree a homogenized product," Hart said.

The process often keeps talented--but unconventional--artists like Steve Earle, Jack Ingram, Lyle Lovett and others from getting exposure on country radio stations.

And new, unfamiliar sounds tend to test poorly.

"This is something we as researchers have to come to understand," Hart said. "There comes a time when you just have to believe in [a] product--you cannot research it.

"You can't ask people to value or judge what they don't know or are unfamiliar with. Shania Twain probably would have researched in the pits. It's drastically different than anything that came before it."

Blackburn said he considers Hart's research in making decisions, but isn't a slave to it.

"It's nice to know what 100 or 125 fans out there think, as opposed to me and the guy across the hall," Blackburn said.

Hart says the gut instincts of seasoned executives like Blackburn, Joe Galante (RCA) and Tony Brown (MCA) are still the best predictors of success.

"Research is just one of those tools that you just got to use," Hart said. "It's not about telling you what to do, it's about making a better decision."

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