Emmanuel “E Man” Coquia is music director for radio station Power 106 in Los Angeles. Like radio programmers across the country, he’d received a note from Republic Records, which distributes Drake’s label, informing him that their priority for airplay was the song “Free Smoke,” the surly, rumbling warning shot that opens the playlist.
Most Top 40 hits are still the result of similar collaborations between record labels and radio stations, in which they work together to elevate one song from a given project—a single. But that Monday in March, Republic’s was neither the only nor the loudest voice Coquia was hearing. On streaming services like Spotify, on the name-that-song app Shazam, and on social media, he could see that another song, “Passionfruit”—a lilting, tropical ballad that floats over the collection like a cocktail umbrella—was outperforming “Free Smoke” with fans. He decided to keep the former in rotation, despite the label’s guidance.
The station’s played “Passionfruit” more than 400 times, while the label-sanctioned “Free Smoke,” at fewer than 60 plays. According to Nielsen BDS, which tracks songs that are played on the radio, other popular stations had similar instincts.
As a flood of information from streaming services and social media has helped demystify what music fans really want, radio stations are increasingly prioritizing this data in an intensifying battle for the affections of their listeners. The trend is loosening record labels’ historic grip on a powerful and jealously guarded pipeline to mainstream audiences—arguably the last remaining stronghold of the music industry’s pre-Napster golden era—and shifting the power to define popular music further toward consumers.