It’s harder than ever these days for a new singer to break into the music industry. But things just got a little easier for a lucky few: Those who land a coveted spot in the iHeartRadio “On the Verge” program run by Clear Channel, which has the largest reach of any radio outlet in the country.
While companies frequently invent ways to spotlight rising stars (MTV resurrected “Total Request Live” just to plug Ariana Grande’s new album), Clear Channel has made a particularly striking move, taking advantage of its massive audience to promote new singers. When an artist’s song is named “On the Verge,” all of the company’s radio stations are required to play that song at least 150 times.
Given Clear Channel’s huge listener base — 840 stations, about 245 million listeners per month — it becomes increasingly likely that the song will catch on, particularly with those repeated plays. That type of success can have a huge impact on an artist’s career, not to mention the music charts.
Just look at Katy Tiz. The British pop singer wasn’t even signed to a label when she was named an “On the Verge” artist in April. Then her new song “The Big Bang” soared on to the Mainstream Top 40; she soon landed a deal with Atlantic Records. Back in February, country crooner Craig Campbell’s single “Keep Them Kisses Comin'” was about to fall off the charts. A couple weeks on “On the Verge,” and it shot upwards, eventually cracking the Top 10.
Those were the types of scenarios execs hoped for when the “On the Verge” project was created this year, explained Tom Poleman, Clear Channel Radio’s president for national programming platforms. Though Clear Channel had spearheaded new-artist initiatives in the past, the company was brainstorming dynamic ways to break new singers — particularly by taking advantage of its multi-platform structure, which include the radio stations combined with the company’s popular iHeartRadio streaming Internet radio service and app.
“It’s important for the music industry to be constantly developing new artists, and we know that we have the biggest reach at Clear Channel,” Poleman said. “With that power comes a responsibility, and we take it seriously.”
So to all the artists thinking, “Hey, sign me up,” the question is — how exactly do singers get crowned “On the Verge”? It all starts with the brand managers at the top of the Clear Channel chain, who listen to hundreds of songs and filter them down to about five or six favorites from various formats (top 40, urban, country, adult contemporary, etc.) and send those selections to program directors across the country.
From there, the program directors vote on which ones they think their listeners will like the most. “It’s purely a gut feeling what they think our listeners will react to,” Poleman explained. That’s another thing that sets “On the Verge” apart, he added: “It’s really driven from our programmers and what they’re passionate about.”
After a winner is named, stations are committed to playing the song at least 150 times. Poleman says that’s approximately the number of plays it takes for a wide enough swath of listeners to form an opinion about a particular tune. Each artist generally gets about six weeks in the spot, which gives the station enough time to rack up the required amount of spins. Before it’s played, the song is usually introduced as an “On the Verge” artist with a quick clip of the singer telling the story behind the single.
Of course, stations can go over 150 spins — and if the song becomes a hit, they certainly do. (Iggy Azalea’s inescapable “Fancy” was once “On the Verge”– and now, can you turn on the radio without hearing it?)
Okay, so are Clear Channel staffers inundated with label executives and publicists clamoring for their artists to win the spot? Maybe, but that ultimately doesn’t matter. “Everyone wants to lobby for it, but it’s purely [decided by] programmers,” Poleman said. There’s no strategic formula for choosing the artist — there doesn’t have to be a specific number of men and women or a balanced amount between any particular label. It’s all about the quality of the music, he said.
That sounds ideal in theory, but the whole premise has still raised some eyebrows, particularly as new songs get very high placement on the charts, thanks almost exclusively to “On the Verge.” Other radio executives say “On the Verge” is very unusual — while there are various programs to promote new artists, Clear Channel stands out as a company that’s powerful enough to give a song an unprecedented amount of success very early on.
Asked whether it gives certain artists or labels an unfair advantage, Poleman is quick to say no. “Not really,” he said. “I think everybody appreciates the power of what it can do — it’s meant to be purely a positive for the music industry.” He noted that record labels can benefit in multiple formats.
Selected artists also cover a wide musical spectrum. So far, “On the Verge” honorees have been an eclectic mix including R&B singer Jhené Aiko; British quartet Rixton; country singer/songwriter Sam Hunt; rock group Bleachers; and many more.
Overall, Poleman emphasized, it’s about giving more voices a chance for big-ticket success in an extremely competitive industry.
“I think it’s good for everybody when we can break more artists,” Poleman said. “The listeners win; we win as a company that relies on music as our lifeblood; and our artists certainly win as well.”