Nothing but static

Broadcast Data Systems listens to the radio so you don't have to

On January 21, 500 record company employees were fired, told to gather up their personal belongings, turn in their company credit cards and security keys, shut down their computers, and be out of their offices by 5 p.m. More than 280 staffers were let go at Geffen and A&M Records, another 200 or so at Motown, Island, and Mercury Records on a day already being called Black Thursday by the music industry.

It was the first official byproduct of Seagram's $10.4-billion purchase of PolyGram Music in December, the first part of a restructuring plan that could see thousands more employees looking for work before the year is through. And in the next few months, the labels will severely pare down their respective rosters as well, trimming down to lean, and most definitely mean, operations. As many as 200 bands--including local groups such as Slowpoke and the tomorrowpeople--could be in the unemployment line next to their former A&R guy.

It was a show of power by a label so big it could say it invented the bar chord, and bands would have to agree. Yet even though Seagram's acquisition of PolyGram made it the biggest record label in the world, it's still not the most valuable player in the music industry--not in terms of making hit records, deciding what people listen to.

Broadcast Data Systems, a little-known company based in Kansas City, Missouri, has as much to do with that as anybody else, tracking every song played every day. It knows what station's playing what song, at what time of day they're playing it, and how many times a day. BDS, which gathers information from 16 Dallas-area radio stations alone, can tell you what's the most popular song in Dallas at any given time--at least on the top-rated stations in town. A visit to the company's Web site (www.bdsonline.com) allows anyone to search by region, artist, city, or format: Want to know the most-played song on Los Angeles radio? (Sugar Ray's "Every Morning.") Or on adult-contemporary radio stations across the entire country? (Try "Hands" by Jewel.)

In Dallas, for the week of January 16-23, Brandy's "Have You Ever" topped the local charts, followed by Edwin McCain's "I'll Be," Shawn Mullins' "Lullaby," and songs from R. Kelly, George Strait, Dru Hill, the Dixie Chicks, and Tiranos Del Norte.

And believe it or not, that's with KDGE-FM (94.5) among the 16 stations reporting. But apparently you can't spell homogenous without KVIL.

Partnered with Billboard magazine and SoundScan--which keeps tabs on record sales at major retail outlets--BDS is the engine that drives the music industry, likely responsible for as many firings as Seagram's bloody buyout of PolyGram, at least indirectly.

"BDS has changed the industry," says Thomas Bacote, program director at KRBV-FM (100.3). "Without a doubt. Lately, I've paid very close attention to Billboard because of BDS. Since it has come into play, the Billboard charts have been very reliable. We really get into more of what's happening locally, but the Billboard charts and Broadcast Data Systems gives us a strong idea what's happening consistently across the country. It's a gauge. If we have an interest in an artist or we see a record that's happening, in our music meeting we'll listen to a record as part of our justification process, and we'll definitely take a look at Broadcast Data Systems."

Broadcast Data Systems was formed in 1988 by Kansas City businessman Robert Uhlmann, who had tested the music industry waters in the '70s with his own label, released just one album, and drowned. But he never knew exactly why. So he started Broadcast Data Systems to get to the bottom of why his label didn't work out.

Back then, there was no reliable method to determine how many times a record was getting played, or even if it was getting played at all. The previous arrangement--radio stations submitting weekly playlists to Billboard--was based on the honor system, and honor is a quality the music industry has never been known for. The labels would lean on radio stations to include their bands on the playlists the stations turned in to Billboard, promising gifts such as concert tickets or hard-to-get interviews, anything to ensure their bands charted.

Of course, just because a band made it onto the charts didn't mean it should have: Record labels might as well have made the charts out themselves. The chart system was a zoo filled with paper tigers.

"One of the amusing and unfortunate things that was happening at record companies was they were buying their own hype," says Geoff Mayfield, Billboard's charts editor. "You'd have meetings where the sales department would get beat up because, 'Hey, we're getting heavy airplay in Seattle, and we're not selling much there.' Actually, some of the first fans of BDS were the sales guys, because now they could turn around and say, 'Oh, yeah. Since when is five plays a week heavy airplay?' They were not only influencing how those stations would report, but when it'd actually get back to their home offices, they'd think, 'Oh, wow, we've got this really big thing going on,' when they really, really didn't."

Billboard and Broadcast Data Systems joined forces in 1991. BDS had already been bought by Billboard parent company BPI Communications, so the staff at Billboard could see BDS' new technology as it was being developed. In 1990, the two companies began overhauling Billboard's country chart, which at the time was a complete mess: One year, there was a different artist at the top of the chart 50 out of the 51 weeks the magazine was published. With BDS' help, Billboard changed its country chart to radio airplay-only and used only data gleaned from BDS, a move that eliminated some of the games that were being played with the chart's figures. Soon after, Billboard turned all of its radio airplay tracking responsibilities to Uhlmann and BDS, making the charts more relevant than they'd ever been.

Uhlmann's system eliminated the middle man: BDS, using computer listening technology created by the defense industry during the Vietnam War, listens to selected stations in each market, tracking each song using a digital fingerprint. Before a new song is released, the record labels send BDS a copy of the master recording so the computers can listen to it and remember it when--or if--it shows up on the radio. In the early-morning hours of each day, the results are tabulated, ready for use by industry executives, programming directors, managers, even the bands themselves. More so than ever, the data shows what songs are actually being played the most.

But is BDS' information really all that accurate? After all, it doesn't listen to every station in every market. The company decides which stations to follow based on Arbitron's quarterly ratings books, as well as certain other demographic factors, coming up with a list of stations that mirrors the local population and its tastes. In Dallas-Fort Worth, among the stations BDS tracks are KDGE-FM, KRBV-FM, KDMX-FM (102.9), KEGL-FM (97.1), KKZN-FM (93.3), KHKS-FM (106.1), KYNG-FM (105.3), and KESS-AM (1270).

BDS may not be completely thorough, but Kristin Clark, director of media operations at BDS, insists the company's statistics are as accurate as possible.

"I mean, we have to keep some things in mind," Clark says. "We go with the top ratings books. We also do some other tracking for other purposes other than charts. Sometimes we'll get a request from Coca-Cola or someone to do some additional stations in the market, and if we have room, we'll add them. We try to get as many as we can. But ratings are basically the first consideration. First of all, we have to think about the charts and how many they need in each panel, especially with all the format changes that have taken place just in the last few weeks and the first part of the year. So we get information for them [Billboard] based on what they request."

Billboard, in fact, recently revamped its Hot 100 Singles chart to give more weight to BDS' findings. Previously, the Hot 100 Singles chart was based 60 percent on information from BDS, and 40 percent on SoundScan figures. The trade magazine decided to tinker with the formula to reflect the decreasing number of singles customers, unveiling the new version of the chart in December. Now, the ratios have changed to 75 percent BDS and 25 percent SoundScan to emphasize radio airplay and Billboard's belief in BDS' accuracy.

"There are still problems that happen from time to time in terms of missing detections, but we have experience now, they have experience, [and] our chart managers have experience in keeping track of these kinds of things," Mayfield says. "Most important, the record companies keep us honest. If they have reason to believe that they got more plays on a certain station than the BDS report says, then that gets investigated immediately. I would say most times--a very high percentage, over 90 percent of the time--if there is a discrepancy, we get it taken care of before a chart gets published.

"It takes the fudge factor out of it, just as using SoundScan information takes the fudge factor out of the sales information," Mayfield continues. "We were aware [of inaccuracies], and there really wasn't much you could do about it. You try, but it's very difficult to police it. When you're aware that the record companies are calling radio stations or calling retailers and trying to influence what they're going to report, it becomes very difficult to find out how accurate or fuzzy the information is. It's a much cleaner deal now. It's not the only reason for these systems. It's the biggest reason for Billboard to be interested in them."

With BDS' support, in the last decade Billboard has significantly cleaned up its charts. BPI Communications--the company that owns Billboard and BDS--is itself owned by VNU, a Dutch publishing company that also owns SoundScan. Together, the triumvirate of Billboard, SoundScan, and BDS is like a three-headed monster, the eyes and ears of the industry, the ultimate bottom line when it comes to what's hot and what's not.

SoundScan knows what's being purchased (except at smaller, independent record stores), BDS knows what's being played (on the top stations in each market), and Billboard knows how to combine the two into an easily digestible chart. They are the "record companies' Big Brother," as KKZN-FM's assistant program director Abby Goldstein calls the trio, telling program directors what they are playing and what they should be playing. They almost function as a program director's program director, the all-time quarterback of radio.

It's especially true now that formats overlap until they practically lie on top of one another. For example, Sugar Ray's "Every Morning" can be heard on practically every format except urban, and it's only a remix away from that, and a few months ago Shania Twain's "Still the One" was heard as many times on KDMX-FM and KISS-FM as it was on country stations such as KYNG-FM, crossing over like Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson in new sneakers.

There seems to be no way a program director can justify not adding Sugar Ray or the Barenaked Ladies to its playlist when the Billboard charts suggest everyone else has already added them. It's a setup that encourages the chicken-before-the-egg question: Do the charts drive radio stations, or is it the other way around? Some, like KRBV-FM's Thomas Bacote, give the charts high priority when it comes to making out playlists. Others, such as The Zone's Abby Goldstein, feel that the charts are merely a mirror, the cause and not the effect.

"Some folks in our format don't look at the chart at all," she says. "They just play what they like. You know, it's definitely one of the many considerations that go into our decision-making process. But it's not it. I think that the chart is the reflection. [If a song is high on the charts] it's not something we automatically add, but it's certainly something that we look at. I mean, if something is charting at our format, that means that there are stations around the country in our format that are having success with it."

As much as Billboard, SoundScan, and BDS have revolutionized the chart system in the past few years, even they know that they aren't the last word when it comes to what people hear on the radio. They, like the radio stations and record labels, can only do so much. The most valuable player in the music industry is the same person it always has--and most likely--always will be: the listener.

"Ultimately, responsible programmers aren't just going to play stuff," Mayfield says. "They'll play stuff because their listeners want to hear it. With the stakes being as high as they are in broadcasting these days, there's really not a lot of room for them to play things that they don't think their audience wants to hear."

Death to the music biz
There has been much hand-wringing of late concerning The Merger at the Universal Music Group, referred to above. Music-biz folks are mourning the recent "deaths" of Geffen Records, Island Records, and A&M Records. Two weeks ago, Seagram's honcho Edgar Bronfman and his toadies went in and fired 500 employees from those labels in Los Angeles and New York; in coming weeks, 700 more hard-workin' folks are expected to be cut loose, in a so-called effort to streamline UMG's operations at labels such as Mercury and MCA. The winner in all this, if there is such a thing, is Interscope Records, which will emerge as one of UMG's main labels. For now, that means most of Interscope's currently signed bands will remain on the label, while at least 150 acts on other labels under the UMG umbrella will get their runnin'-not-walkin' papers.

So far, two Dallas bands will definitely remain affiliated with UMG: As reported in Street Beat on December 17, 1998 ("Dude, you dropped"), Radish will indeed release its second album, Discount Fireworks, on March 23. And Street Beat has learned that the Toadies will also remain on Interscope, though there is no release date set for the band's sophomore effort--because, like, the record's not done yet. (To pass some of the time, guitarist Clark Vogeler has formed a side project with Baboon singer Andrew Huffstetler. The two have recorded casually under the name Mommy, and there may be a gig sometime in the near future...or not.) The hold-up on the Toadies' record will not stop the band from making a very rare local appearance on February 26 at Trees, with a possible second show to come the following night. Might be your best chance to hear some new Toadies music this year.

--Robert Wilonsky

The death, or not, of Hagfish
Based on an interview with Hagfish frontman George Reagan that appeared in Street Beat last week ("Tele like it is," January 28), many people have gotten the impression that Hagfish has broken up. Even the band's official Web site (www.hagfish.com) reported as much, with Reagan's ambivalence about continuing with Hagfish apparently confirming months of speculation on the site about the band's demise. "[Hagfish] is still in my heart and everything, but I really, really like doing what I'm doing now," Reagan said, referring to his new band, Tele.

But there were a few things Reagan forgot to mention, according to Hagfish bassist Doni Blair. No, the band isn't breaking up, he says, but Reagan is leaving. Sort of.

"George doesn't want to tour at all," Blair says. "So he's going to stay home and write songs for us. He already has another record done. We'll still be doing business with him. He'll still print up our T-shirts and sing backups and help us produce the records. He'll do everything he can, except sing lead and tour. It wouldn't be right for him to sing lead if he's not going to play the songs on the road. We're not going to have a second-string singer."

Reagan isn't the only one splitting: Drummer Tony Barsotti has also left the group, replaced by former One Hit Wonder drummer Chris Webb, whom Doni and his brother, guitarist Zach Blair, met when Hagfish toured with Webb's band last year. Like Reagan, Blair says Barsotti is looking for a new challenge, something "to prove he can do more than play furry drums and twirl his sticks." (Which is all fine and good, but how does playing in a Generation X cover band--with Peter Schmidt, Mike Graff (ex-Course of Empire), and Johnny Hawkins (Cool Christine)--fit into his new plan?) Barsotti may also end up playing with Reagan in Tele, at least live.

For now, Blair says the band's strategy is to tour every summer and put out a new record every year. In fact, Hagfish plans to release at least two albums this year. First up is a live album, Caught Live, due in a few weeks on Cold Front Records, the label that released an EP, Texas Rockers, by the Blair brothers' side project El Diablo last year. A few months later, Cold Front will also put out a collection of Hagfish demos, songs that didn't make it on either of the band's last two albums, 1995's ...Rocks Your Lame Ass or 1998's Hagfish. As for new material, Hagfish is ready to go into the studio as soon as they find a new singer. Blair promises the new material will be a little heavier, but fans shouldn't be disappointed.

"If you like our older stuff, then you'll like this," Blair says. "It's just a new singer and a new drummer. If people want to be pissed off about it, that's fine. Just give us a chance."

--Z.C.

Cable Bound
In the say-wha? department, the Discovery Channel has licensed a song off Captain Audio's debut EP, my ears are ringing but my heart's ok. The tune "Often Mistaken for the Sun" is scheduled to appear in an episode of Outward Bound, a new show aimed at the pre-teen crowd that premieres April 3 at 9:30 a.m. during the channel's block of kids programming. "The program is sort of a Real World-type program for kids, where they follow a group of 14- and 15-year-old kids on the Outward Bound program," says Laurie Goldstein, a publicist at the Discovery Channel. "And interspersed are interviews with the kids where they talk about their feelings toward the other members of the group. It's really fast-paced editing, and the music captures that. It's really a fun program." And when we think of Captain Audio, damn it, we think of the outdoors...and fun.

--R.W.

Send Street Beat your playlists to rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com.

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