In-Depth

Pop Radio Avoids EDM, Despite Massive Following in Houston

Mass appeal vs. niche audiences: Why Houston’s pop radio stations avoid electronic dance music, despite sold-out festivals and crowded venues.

WATCH: Interview with EDM Producer/DJ, ARTY

For years, music lovers have complained that some songs, if they’re too new, too cutting edge, won’t get played on pop radio stations.

The latest — what’s called “Electronic Dance Music,” or EDM.

It’s become more popular in Houston with some of the genre’s biggest performers doing shows here. But radio stations are reluctant to play EDM.

We wanted to find out why.

In 2017, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo added for the first time on their roster an EDM group, The Chainsmokers. They had a hit song, “Closer,” which they’d done with an established pop star, Halsey.

It was a good choice by the rodeo — The Chainsmokers brought in about 75,000 in attendance. But despite success like that with EDM live shows and many sold-out performances here in Houston, chances you’ll hear electronic digital music on pop-radio are slim.

“We’re a mass appeal radio station, ” says Leslie Whittle, Program Director at Houston’s hit music station, KRBE. “We don’t want to get into niche formats.”

Whittle says if EDM acts want pop radio exposure, they’ll need to do what groups like The Chainsmokers did and collaborate with other well-known pop vocalists to get the attention of mass appeal.

“We see a lot of these artists pairing up with big names to do these collaborations, and for me, those are the exception with what they do; but it definitely helps get their name out and I’m going to use these words: “Grow their brand!”

And it’s true — with the popularity of streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify and Pandora, along with other social media platforms, building an artist brand to capture the attention of the masses is crucial for any musician nowadays, especially if that artist wants to be heard on the radio.

Just ask Russian-born EDM heavyweight, ARTY — who has performed in two different crowded venues here in Houston, but under different aliases. He was booked as ARTY at a Midtown fundraiser in September, then as ALPHA 9 at an October sold-out music festival called, Freaky Deaky, at Sam Houston Race Track.

I recently caught up with him at the festival just minutes before he got on stage and asked him, ‘Why the two brands?’

“ALPHA 9 is me getting back to my older roots when I started making trance music, ” the musician states, who’s real name is Artem Stoliarov. “ARTY is like, more for the younger roots for like progressive house music.”

ARTY adds that he created the two brand names because he didn’t want to get stuck within a certain genre.

But pop radio stations still consider performers like him, niche — despite millions of plays on digital platforms as well as heavy airplay on satellite radio broadcasts.

“The ‘niche’-attitude comes from the idea that most of these EDM producers you’ve never particularly heard of,” says Paul Garza, Music Professor at Lone Star College-North Harris. He says artists like ARTY are getting massive views and listens online, and that’s not being reflected into airplay on commercial pop radio.

“I don’t believe that most EDM artists particularly care about commercial radio,” says Garza. “I think that internet radio, and really SoundCloud, and other avenues like that, are taking off in those communities.”

And the consumers within those digital communities may not be relying on terrestrial pop radio for much variety. That’s according to University of Houston-Downtown Communication Professor, Lucas Logan.

“Commercial radio doesn’t play a lot of EDM because it’s a hard sell to advertisers,” says Logan. “It is a non-traditional format, unlike classic rock or Top 40 or Country; and so it’s a little bit harder of a sell to those advertisers that make those radio stations run.”

Logan calls FM-pop radio an “older paradigm” that’s similar in nature to network television and it’s not really known for music discovery today.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed these big giant media companies to buy up all these smaller FM radio stations and then start playing these typical formats across cities, across states and making them very similar and about the same thing as something that really held back that from music discovery.”

KRBE’s Leslie Whittle disagrees.

“I think radio still is a place where people discover music,” says Whittle. “When we test our music, it takes a long — we have to play it a lot, for people to really know what it is, to get familiar with it overall.”

Commercial pop radio stations really do play a song over and over and over again. But in an ever-changing landscape of unlimited choices for music consumption, will that pop radio format strategy survive in the digital age?

And with that being said, who’s really operating in a niche-environment?

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Eddie Robinson

Morning News Anchor

A native of Mississippi, Eddie started his radio career as a 10th grader, working as a music jock for a 100,000-Watt (Pop) FM station and a Country AM station simultaneously. While the state's governor nominated him for the U.S. Naval Academy, Eddie had an extreme passion for broadcast media, particularly...

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