“Billboard” Breaks Down, Dials Up Triple-A

Al Shipley | October 9, 2008 - 10:00 am

Many people find it hard to tell the great from the godawful when it comes to 21st-century mainstream rock. To help figure out which is which, here’s “Corporate Rock Still Sells,” where Al Shipley examines what’s good, bad, and ugly in the world of rock and roll. This time around, he gives Billboard’s newest radio-airplay chart, which focuses on the lighter rock offerings served up by Adult Album Alternative (or “Triple-A”) stations, a once-over:

One of the biggest rhetorical divides that distinguishes music broadcasting from visual media is the difference in accepted connotations of the word “adult.” In film and television, using that word to describe content means that something sexy and/or exciting is on the horizon, but in radio, “adult” formats are the dullest, slowest stations, programmed for the broadest, most boring possible audience. Adult Contemporary and Adult Top 40 are looked at as background music for waiting rooms, the stations where the lamest pop hits go to die. Those formats have a younger, hipper sibling–Adult Album Alternative–that splits the difference between adult contempo and modern rock stations, but it didn’t have its own Billboard chart until this summer, when the mag added Triple-A to its stable of rock airplay charts alongside the long-running Hot Modern Rock Tracks and Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks. Chris Molanphy touched on the new chart last month, but I thought I’d take a closer look since I’ll be discussing it a bit more often in the future.

One of Billboard’s sister publications, Radio & Records, has been publishing a Triple-A chart for years; Billboard simply appropriated the same data for its own chart, which first appeared in the July 10 issue. So while the Triple-A chart is technically only 14 weeks old, but several of its songs have been on it longer than it’s ostensibly existed, including Matt Nathanson’s 29-weeks-charting “Come On Get Higher.” The most recent available Arbitron data shows that while AAA hasn’t experienced substantial market share growth in the past decade, it’s held remarkably steady while Alternative stations have declined in listenership.

One of the things that immediately struck me about the Triple-A chart is its resemblance to the Modern Rock chart of the pre-Nirvana years: tons of singer-songwriters, bands that are a little too hip for the mainstream, and bands that are so far behind the curve that most young rock fans are so over them. In an era where the Modern Rock chart is marked by AC/DC’s first appearance and Metallica reaching unprecedented new peaks, it’s refreshing to have an alt-rock chart that filters out all the insurgent hard rock and metal elements. For the first time in almost a decade, we now have both Counting Crows and Sheryl Crow on a rock singles chart. Classic rockers with declining commercial fortunes like John Mellencamp and the Pretenders are sharing space with young bands from the MOR end of the indie rock spectrum like My Morning Jacket and The Hold Steady.

Since Modern and Mainstream are both top 40 charts, it’s always been easy to measure how many songs they have in common (the average is around 50%). Triple-A will be a little harder to triangulate, since it’s only top 30, but the crossover is pretty minimal. It currently shares no songs with Mainstream Rock, and only “Cath…” by Death Cab For Cutie, “Take Back The City” by Snow Patrol, and two Coldplay hits with Modern. But that’s not taking into account the fact that several songs have been hitting both charts at different times. Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale’s “Love Remains The Same” was a blip on Modern Rock months ago, but it’s been a solid performer on Triple-A.

And then there are the getting airplay on both Modern Rock and Triple-A with completely different songs. R.E.M.’s up-tempo “Supernatural Superserious” was a moderate Modern hit, but the lighter, piano-driven “Hollow Man” is all over Triple-A; Beck has “Gamma Ray” on the former and “Orphans” on the latter. And while the Raconteurs charted with two singles from their latest album on Modern Rock, it’s a non-single, the rootsy “Old Enough,” that’s getting all the Triple-A love. Just for the novelty of it, I’ll be very curious to see what song, if any, will be the first to appear on all three rock charts; my best guess is that it’ll depend on whether U2 or the White Stripes releases a new album sooner. But then, if one of those bands releases a single hard enough for Mainstream Rock, I would be surprised if Triple-A stations skip straight to playing a mellower deep cut instead.