“Billboard” Breaks Down, Dials Up Triple-A

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.

  • Clevertrousers

    I remember back at the end of the 90s when triple A was a dumping ground for Sara Brightman/Enya-esque new age/classical crossover and NPR/Nonesuch-approved world music… and, of course, the ever dreaded Ottmar Liebert… and I still shudder when I think of it…

  • Anonymous

    Triple A demonstrates one of the main, I don’t want to say problems, but hold-ups my friend and I have with “indie” rock. While we totally enjoy it, there is so little of it that would actually be considered “rocking” which may be way the Modern Rock chart usually avoids artists like Fleet Foxes, Iron & Wine, etc.

    Also, the format seems to be the only sure-thing for college acoustafrat rock and whatever singer-songwriter is being hyped as an “Artist To Watch” by Vh1.

  • Chris Molanphy

    You make a persuasive case that Triple-A is the Before-Time of Modern Rock — i.e. the time I loved (call it ’88 through ’95, maybe 97). Which makes me wonder why I don’t seek it out or enjoy it more as a format. (Not that I have that option in New York, unless you count FUV, which I don’t.)

    There’s something dry and airless about it, something NPR-ish. Maybe I’m just a self-loathing college-educated urban liberal (who listens to NPR daily), but the format seems so precisely targeted that it almost offends me in its eager-to-please-ness.

    I think there was also a less self-conscious sense of quirk in the early days of the modern-rock format, embodied by acts from the Violent Femmes to mid-period Morrissey to, hell, even Primus that is sort of missing in Triple-A, which is so goddamned earnest. Or more specifically, Triple-A is for people who call themselves “quirky,” but the format itself has no quirk.

    And yeah, 2ironic4u‘s right — the general lack of rocking is a problem.

  • Audif Jackson Winters III

    I’m curious, how many stations are playing this format? It can’t be that many, right? I mean, none of the artists on this current chart (besides Chris Martin and co.) are selling a ton of records.

  • Clevertrousers

    @Chris Molanphy: It’s confusing to listen to this kind of format without it being interrupted by pledge drives.

  • Al Shipley

    @Audif Jackson Winters III: I haven’t found a firm number, but this site lists over 200 (although there’s a good handful of internet stations mixed in with the terrestrial ones): [www.atasteoftriplea.com]

  • Anonymous

    @Audif Jackson Winters III: I think it’s usually in 2nd and 3rd-tier markets.

  • Audif Jackson Winters III

    @Al Shipley: Thanks Al.

  • DocStrange

    @2ironic4u: Again i’ll mention the more “experimental” modern rock formatted stations of New England: WBRU, WFNX and WBOS, that operate as a mixture of Modern Rock (the part that doesn’t have all the active rock songs with the exceptions of Mastodon (yay!) and Three Days Grace (boo!)) and Triple A.

    @Audif Jackson Winters III: You’d think there’d be one in Rhode Island – because you know it’s Rhode Island but there’s not. Mostly because WBRU and it’s hard rockin’ cousin WHJY have a duopoly on the Rhode Island rock format (with the exception of about 6 college stations). Of course that doesn’t mean that a Triple A station wouldn’t do great business in Rhode Island considering that Dispatch, Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz, Guster, Badfish: A Tribute to Sublime, My Morning Jacket and O.A.R. (especially O.A.R.) are some of the only bands of mid-popularity that could outsell 80′s one hit wonders/immediate local legends John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band on a given night.

  • MrStarhead

    Atlanta’s got a good-sized Triple-A station, and Ann Arbor / Detroit has two.