BY Klaus Walter in Frieze | 06 JUN 01
Featured in
Issue 60

Hook, Line and Singer

Advances in music marketing

BY Klaus Walter in Frieze | 06 JUN 01

'You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling' (1964) by the Righteous Brothers is one of the most frequently played songs on the radio, yet it owes its popularity to a lie. Phil Spector, architect of the 'Wall of Sound' and the song's producer, had its duration printed on the label of the single as 3:05, instead of the correct time of 3:42; 'otherwise, we wouldn't have gotten any radio play.' Before zealous radio programmers could check their stopwatches, Spector's little symphony had already conquered the listeners' hearts and Pop history had its first long hit. Three years later the Beatles broke the singles sound barrier: 'Hey Jude' ran for over seven minutes. That was a long time ago. Spector's trick wouldn't have stood a chance against the digital counter on a CD player.

During the last year that same digital counter might have revealed one of the tracks on a CD single to be only a few seconds long. More and more singles have begun to appear with an additional short extract from the main track, the 'call-out research hook'. This is a new spin on an old instrument of music marketing: costly telephone research campaigns in which 20-second excerpts from new tunes, chosen and edited by radio programmers, are played to 'representative' listeners whose judgement decides the fate of a song. The 'call-out research hook' cuts the length of these extracts to under ten seconds.

However, as a refrain can't be condensed into such a short time, we simply hear a teaser, the most outstanding attraction from the would-be hit. The first hits based on this technique speak for the success of this industrial psycho-acoustic innovation. The hook of 'Caught Out There', the début of R&B goddess Kelis, was reduced to a scream: 'I hate you so much right now.' The trademark of the hip-hop group Outkast is the slightly cacophonous gurgle of the two rappers - 'Hi, we are Outkast!' - that, in almost every song, distracts you from the narrative and melody. For 'Miss Jackson' this immediately recognizable sound was distilled into the hook, and the track went straight up the Top Ten worldwide.

With the introduction of the CD - and the rise of music television to become sovereign ruler over the making of hits - Pop radio has experienced an immense shift. The first commandment in music programming is to avoid the 'turn-off impulse', which basically encompasses everything that is unfamiliar to the average listener. A few years ago, when a German programmer dared to cut an alleged 'turn-off impulse' (an Eric Clapton guitar solo) from a song, a storm of protest was heard: 'Can he be allowed to do that?'

Since then the various remixes that appear on CD singles have made such editing by radio programmers redundant. The same song is offered in three, four or sometimes eight versions. The words 'radio edit' are a signal to the programmer caught in the midst of the media thicket: you're in the right place! The 'radio edit' is free of disturbing noises and 'turn-off impulses'; there are no dirty words in the 'rap-free edit' (for cuddly R&B numbers), which is purged of the fast-talkin' niggers who supposedly get on the nerves of a white public. And no guitar solos. In this way listeners and target groups are quickly defined in a short-circuit of age, race and taste. Social engineering of the airwaves is already anticipated in the CD single.

Against this background the 'call-out research hook' is just the latest reaction of the industry to the listening habits of young people. MTV promoters know that the short attention span of the hit-making public under 25 has become even shorter. Their readiness to zap is becoming greater and greater, and instant recognition helps to counteract it. These days creating a trademark is far too important to leave to individuals in radio stations, who seem happy enough to use the 'call-out research hook' in their fast-paced, hit-parade medleys intended to trademark the 'sound' of their respective stations. The development of Pop radio in the digital age resembles the way Charlie Chaplin packed his suitcase in Goldrush: everything that doesn't fit in is cut off. And year by year the suitcase gets smaller.

Klaus Walter is a writer living in Frankfurt am Main. He works for various radio stations, including