SiriusXM put the ‘discovery’ in 2015 music
Let us count the ways...
To tell the full tale of where and how Alt Nation’s Alt 18 Countdown made its biggest waves in 2015, you actually have to start in 2014. For it was then (beginning the week of November 24, to be precise) that a crazily catchy, joyously retro dance-rock anthem by an up-and-coming quartet from Cincinnati spent five straight weeks atop the Alt 18. By January, Walk the Moon’s Shut Up and Dance was on its way back down that chart, but its journey to the mainstream had just begun.
Within a few months, it would climb into the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 4 and going three-times platinum. It was one of the biggest rock songs of the year — a huge success by any definition — and Alt Nation was there at the very beginning.
“I hope that our listeners feel a certain sense of pride about what happened with that song,” said Jeff Regan, Alt Nation’s Director of Music Programming. “They latched onto it right away, and their feelings about it were totally validated. They can say, ‘See, I knew this was a great song months ago, and now everyone’s listening to it.’”
You’ll find this same basic theme popping up again and again when you look at a year’s worth of data: Alt Nation listeners tend to act as an early barometer for what may become a hit on terrestrial radio, streaming services, and sales charts. Often they’re two, three, even four months ahead of a song or artist’s big commercial curve. It happened with Elle King’s Ex’s & Oh’s, which never quite made it to No. 1 on the Alt 18 but hung around the chart’s upper reaches for months in the spring of 2015, and which became the singer/songwriter’s first Billboard Top 10 hit in November and lead to two Grammy nominations: Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song.
It happened with X Ambassadors’ Renegades, which topped the Alt 18 in June and now has reached platinum sales, with nearly 70 million streams on Spotify. And it happened with Night Riots’ Contagious, which spent two weeks in March on top of the Alt 18, on its way to the band’s first ever Billboard placement (No. 24 on the Alternative Songs chart).
“Our listeners are the ones driving this,” Regan said. “My job as the curator of the channel is to present something and then take a step back and watch what develops.” Here are three of his favorite developments from this year, cases where early exposure on Alt Nation helped take a band to the next level.
A “First” for Cold War Kids: Hold My Home, the latest album by veteran SoCal alt-rockers Cold War Kids, came out in October 2014, and one of the album’s most dramatic tracks, First, was selected as a single in February 2015. Beginning July 18, the song spent five straight weeks at No. 1 on the Alt 18. After a brief pause, it returned to the top for another three weeks in September. By that time, good things had begun happening to First elsewhere, as it reached heights the band had never previously attained: No. 8 on Billboard’s Top Rock Songs, No. 5 on Bubbling Under, and No. 1 on Alternative Songs — Cold War Kids’ first time (appropriately) topping that chart. To date, First has been streamed nearly 20 million times on Spotify, four million more than any other Cold War Kids track, and it has five million YouTube views, better than any Cold War Kids track except Hang Me Up to Dry from their 2006 debut. “Cold War Kids have been around for 10 years and they already had a great fan base,” Regan acknowledged, “but this has been their biggest year as a band, and we saw that coming.”
Saint Motel Is Just Alt Nation’s Type: Listeners in the U.K., France, and Italy fell in love with the L.A. dream-pop quartet Saint Motel’s My Type EP as soon as it was released in August 2014. But few took notice in the U.S. — besides Regan and his listeners, that is. During the spring of 2015, Alt Nation got behind the EP’s disco-tinged title song in a big way. For six consecutive weeks starting on April 27, My Type was No. 1 on the Alt 18. It has since become the band’s most downloaded track on iTunes, nabbing a Top 10 spot on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart, more than 10 million YouTube views, and 31 million streams on Spotify, dwarfing any other track by the band (the closest runner-up has 6.5 million). “Yes, we’re seeing this translate into chart position and radio airplay,” Regan noted, “but we’re also looking at the first festival lineups for 2016, and Saint Motel is moving higher up those bills. And because that EP came out so long ago, their new album is basically done, so they’re not going to go away for two years the way artists traditionally do in this situation. It’s great to be already preparing for the next release.”
Twenty One Pilots Soar to the Top: It’s been a tremendous year for the Columbus, Ohio, twosome Twenty One Pilots, with not one but two Alt-18 chart-toppers. First there was the rollicking Tear in My Heart, which spent two July weeks at No. 1; it’s been streamed 32 million on Spotify, has almost 20 million YouTube views and peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot Rock chart and No. 2 on Alternative Songs. Next came the anthemic Stressed Out, which was on top of the Alt-18 for three weeks in October, with five additional weeks in the top five. It’s now been streamed 42 million times on Spotify and viewed 28 million times on YouTube, reaching a well-deserved No. 1 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart in November. “We could still be talking about Twenty One Pilots on the countdown a year from today,” Regan said. “That’s how strong this record [Blurryface] is. Their music sounds very relevant to people right now, and it has its own sound. They didn’t soften their edges to fit into a box, and our listeners appreciate that. This is a classic case of a relatively young artist’s career reaching a major transition point. Proof positive of that is they’re playing Madison Square Garden twice next year.”
So what will be the big Alt Nation crossover stories for 2016? Right now, Regan his eye on Foals — whose Mountain at My Gates has topped the Alt-18 for a solid month as of this writing — as well as the Wombats, JR JR (f.k.a. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.), Bastille, and a host of others. If things follow their usual course, though, it’ll be the slow builders that pique his interest most over the next year. “I’m sure all artists and their managers would love for something to go zero to 95 in two seconds, but we’re very conscious of helping develop artists here,” he said. “There’s always going to be these flashes, these comets that come and go, and those are wonderful and should be celebrated, but when you see an artist really progress, that’s what gets me excited.”
The mission of The Spectrum is right there in its name: to play music that spans the generations of adult rock music — past, present and future. And while the channel has no shortage of great songs from decades past and from established acts who continue to put out inspiring new material, The Spectrum’s Shortlist, a weekly countdown of the top five songs trending with listeners, aims to focus on the latter — the future of rock. These are the up-and-coming artists that will, with any luck, one day becomes the classics.
The Shortlist saw its fair share of these “future rockers” in 2015, and the breakout artists all seem to have one thing in common: a retro sound. Music lovers will forever lament the golden days of rock and roll, but the spirit of those times has been resurrected by three artists in particular on The Spectrum.
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, whose eponymous debut album was released in August, draws upon the retro-soul sound the front man fell in love with at an early age. But it took until 2015 for Rateliff to fully adopt the style for himself, with the Missouri native working for more than a decade as an alt-Americana singer-songwriter before finding the sound that would define the Night Sweats in 2015.
Although his former attempts led to gigs opening for Mumford & Sons, they failed to resonate with a larger audience. But when you hear the howling of his seven-piece soul band, it becomes apparent why their Otis Redding-inspired style connects with legions of new-found fans.
Rateliff himself even recognized it, telling Rolling Stone that “It’s a lot easier [to find a meaningful connection with the audience] if the crowd is on its feet and clapping and putting their phones away.” And that’s exactly what he accomplished with his breakout single, S.O.B.
S.O.B first appeared on the Shortlist back in July, just weeks after the newly formed band released it as a single alongside their album announcement. Debuting at No. 2 on the list, it quickly became a long-running chart topper, showing up on the list 17 times up to November 7.
Oozing with raw, vintage soul, Rateliff’s gospel-tinged number — complete with organ and horn — has had fans stomping their feet and singing along with a spirit of drunken revelry.
The moment The Spectrum’s director of music programming — who landed on Billboard’s list of Most Powerful Women in Music in both 2014 and 2015 — Jessica Besack, heard the band play at The Box in New York City’s Lower East Side last summer, she was sold.
“I put S.O.B on the air that night,” she said. “At the end of their show, the entire crowd, to most of which Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats was a new band and S.O.B a new song, sang so wholeheartedly along with the chorus that I knew right then they were something special.”
The response from listeners was immediate, she explained.
“They loved it right away, and sales jumped as soon as we started playing the track,” she said. “After a month of exclusive airplay of S.O.B, digital track sales jumped 500 percent.”
Beyond record sales, S.O.B’s success on The Shortlist helped draw a sold-out crowd of SiriusXM listeners to the band’s Spectrum-hosted concert at Music Hall of Williamsburg on November 2, following their exclusive in-studio performance three months prior.
Longtime SiriusXM subscriber and owner of Inner Sanctum Audio in Brooklyn, Dave Lackey, said he first heard of the band about a month before the concert while listening to various SiriusXM channels.
“They were playing the song S.O.B. in fairly heavy rotation,” he explained. “So when I got the email about entering the contest, and it was right here in my neighborhood, I thought, ‘Yeah let’s try to win that.’”
Since first appearing on The Spectrum, the band has made appearances on various Billboard charts as well as performances on late night shows like The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, CONAN and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, a feature in Rolling Stone, and offers from music festivals such as Firefly.
“SiriusXM was one of the first sessions we did as a band,” said Rateliff. “We are always grateful for that and their support of our album.”
The Spectrum continues to support NR+NS, giving airtime to their second single Look It Here. Chances are the band will find itself perched high on top their Best of 2015 countdown in the weeks to come.
Leon Bridges on the other hand, has been able to find success much earlier in his fledgling career. After being discovered by White Demin’s Austin Jenkins, Bridges attracted the attention of more than 40 record labels before signing with Columbia Records in December 2014. He, too, has taken a page out of the classics, this time by plying Sam Cooke’s playbook to reinvigorate 1960s R&B — with the clothes to match. His hometown paper, The Fort Worth Weekly, described him as someone whose “music sounds like he looks.”
Bridges’ breakout single Coming Home first showed up on The Spectrum Shortlist upon its release in February, appearing five weeks in a row until March 21. The next month, he stopped by our New York City studios for an exclusive performance.
“I loved Leon’s throwback soul sound and his classic style,” Besack said. “I hadn’t heard a voice like that in ages and was so excited to hear it on the air.”
His success has since lead to performances at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, CBS This Morning, Outside Lands, Austin City Limits, Hangout Festival, and Apple Music Festival. Last month, he received a Macklemore cosign when the two performed their collaborative single Kevin at the AMAs, and he recently made his Saturday Night Live debut on December 5th’s Ryan Gosling-hosted episode.
The year has lead up to Bridges receiving his first Grammy nomination. Come February he’ll go up against D’Angelo, Charlie Wilson and Jazmine Sullivan as well as his current touring partner (another breakout artist), Andra Day, for Best R&B album.
Elle King is another artist whose sound recalls an earlier era. The singer/songwriter/guitarist/banjoist draws comparisons to Janis Joplin and rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson, singing about heartbreak in a retro style that encompasses country, soul, folk, rock, and blues. King’s allure is amplified by her raucous, irreverent, intimate and engaging presence on stage, where she’ll talk about flashing her boobs while taking swigs of booze and thrashing her hair around. You might even catch her licking someone’s face.
Elle King is the female rock star mainstream music has been missing in recent years, and her breakout single Ex’s and Oh’s is bursting with that devil-may-care grit steeped in vintage Americana. This blonde-haired, tattooed man-eater has mastered the art of authenticity. Ex’s and Oh’s is at once vulnerable and strong, defeated and fighting.
It’s no surprise then that soon after first being introduced to her on Alt Nation and OutQ (via Larry Flick), listeners of The Spectrum became enthralled with her reckless charm. A few weeks after King dropped the video for Ex’s and Oh’s, it appeared on the Shortlist and stayed there for 10 weeks from May 16 to July 18, reappearing for an 11th week on August 29.
“Once Alt Nation began playing Ex’s and Oh’s and saw such a huge response, I knew I wanted The Spectrum to be a part of Elle King’s story at SiriusXM,” Besack explained. “After we started airing it, we saw the momentum that started at Alt Nation continue to build.”
From there, King hit the late night and festival circuits and was later dubbed a VH1 You Oughta Know artist after making her debut on the Billboard charts on July 14. On September 8 she became only the second woman in two decades to top the Alternative songs chart.
Following this success, she treated her loyal SiriusXM listeners to an in-studio performance and later an Alt Nation-hosted subscriber-only concert at Webster Hall while in New York City in October.
Her success has only continued to skyrocket as she heads into the Grammys in February with two nominations: Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song for Ex’s and Oh’s.
Looking to 2016: Time will tell what new artists will break through in the coming year, but The Shortlist seems to point to acts like Bears Den, Kaleo, Jimi Charles Moody, and Shakey Graves, who have been making repeated appearances on the list but haven’t quite yet made into the mainstream consciousness. If Elle King, Leon Bridges and Nathaniel Rateliff are any indication, however, a few more months of grinding and they, too, will find themselves on the Billboard charts.
The sun is setting on another year in country music. Yep, after 52 weeks, three country awards shows, 6,482 Luke Bryan hip gyrations, one misguided quote comparing women to tomatoes, and more high-profile country divorces than we care to count, “the year that is” has officially become “the year that was.” And what happened in country music this year? A lot, actually — from the meteoric rise of Chris Stapleton to a new crop of female artists who are more than just garnish — and The Highway was there for all of it.
The biggest and most obvious change in country music this year was its shifting sonic style. Over the past 12 months, the biggest hits in country music weren’t barn-stomping party anthems about getting drunk in cornfields, as they have been in recent years. Instead, slower songs that took a slinkier approach and incorporated elements of R&B into their sound were the ones to really hit it big. Little Big Town’s longing ballad Girl Crush, which first appeared on The Highway’s Hot 45 in April, later to become the year’s most purchased country song — it’s been downloaded over 1.9 million times and counting (not to mention an epic cover by Halestorm on SiriusXM’s Hard Rock channel, Octane) — followed closely by Sam Hunt’s half-sung-half-spoken bar flirtation Take Your Time, which topped the Hot 45 in February, and Eric Church’s organ-driven sex jam Like a Wrecking Ball, which hit No. 1 on The Highway’s Top 45 all the way back in April and went on to reach No. 52 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July.
“A beat, an uptempo rhythm — all those things are fantastic, and we went through quite an era with Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan and many others who are still in it,” said The Highway host Storme Warren. “We’re still infected by the beat and the rhythm of music, but ultimately we’re connected to the story.” Thus, said Warren, new songs that showcase songwriting more prominently than catchy beats — tracks like the already soaring Die a Happy Man by Thomas Rhett, released September 2015, which has been working its way up the Hot 45 ever since — are winning over listeners’ attention. “We partied it up on Saturday night,” he said. “Now we’re in the mood for a really cozy morning under a warm blanket.” Fortunately, country music has ample room for smart songs that are both contemplative and comfortable.
Yes, the genre’s sound and style have diversified wildly this year, and not just because of these slowed-down hits. The much-ballyhooed “bro-country” trend has mostly fallen by the wayside, giving way to a more urbane style of music and an infusion of 1960s funk/soul production on releases from Rhett and Brett Eldredge, and even some 1990s R&B touches in music by Chase Rice and Sam Hunt. In 2015, fans were more likely to see A-list country stars in flat-brimmed snapbacks jamming to electronic drums than stars in cowboy hats swinging along with pedal steel. That said, there was still room for traditional songs like George Strait’s Cold Beer Conversation to break through. “Our listeners appreciate the broad landscape of music that we present to them,” said SiriusXM Programming Director Al Skop.
Encouragingly, part of that broad landscape has been the rising prominence of a new crop of female country talent. For a long time now, Nashville has taken criticism for its seeming inability to produce new, viable female stars that could join Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood at the top of the country pack — even as new male stars appeared all the time. One radio consultant, Keith Hill, found himself in hot water this summer when he compared women to the garnish of the “country music salad,” inspiring the likes of Martina McBride and Lambert to proudly don “Tomato” shirts in response. Ironically enough, Hill’s statement came in a year when young women had more than a few notable successes, thus exciting fans that want to hear more ladies on the airwaves. Maddie & Tae followed up last year’s Girl in a Country Song with their tender single Fly. Jana Kramer found success with I Got the Boy. Cam scored a smash with her haunting Burning House.
Kelsea Ballerini seems to have enjoyed special momentum among this new class of women. Both her debut single, Love Me Like You Mean It, and her follow-up, Dibs, have thrived on The Highway Hot 45. And her bubbly persona and confident songwriting perspective have made her a breakout artist that’s blurring the lines between country and pop — reminding everyone of a certain pop princess that just so happens to be a big Ballerini fan. Yes, Taylor Swift has taken Ballerini under her wing, often praising her on social media. “One tweet can be heard around the world for sure,” said Skop. “We believed in [Ballerini] long before Taylor said that she did, but that certainly helped!”
But no star made a bigger breakout this year than Chris Stapleton, whose electric CMA Awards performance of Tennessee Whiskey and Drink You Away alongside Justin Timberlake sent his album from relative obscurity to the top of the Billboard 200 for two straight weeks and minted the genre’s new superstar. Suddenly, Stapleton, who previously had thrived behind the scenes as a songwriter with hits like Luke Bryan’s Drink a Beer and Josh Turner’s Your Man, became the equivalent of country music’s Adele — a critical and commercial powerhouse. (Fun fact: Adele, proving how cool she actually is, covered Stapleton’s If It Hadn’t Been for Love on the deluxe version of 21 in 2011.)
“In my entire 30-plus year career in country music, I have never witnessed a more impactful explosion of an obscure artist ever,” said Warren. “I will actually get emotional talking about it.” Of Stapleton’s sudden appeal Warren said, “Part of it is obviously his talent and the love of what he does, and the respect [Justin Timberlake] has for what Chris does. But I think the statement, on a much grander scale, is the starvation and desperation of the country music audience to connect with something that’s real.”
Skop agrees, and he said that’s why The Highway has been playing Stapleton for the past two years (in fact, the artist thanked SiriusXM specifically following his CMA Awards sweep), and now that the mainstream has caught on to his greatness, could Stapleton’s success be a sign of things to come in country music?
Perhaps. “Change kind of brews underneath and accumulates and accumulates and accumulates and you get that watershed moment of ‘Boom, Chris Stapleon wins three CMA Awards,’” Skop said. “Now, good, it’s okay to turn the corner and go in this other direction we’ve kind of been eyeballing anyway.”
Whether that means that a new crop of hirsute soul belters will arise in the wake of Stapleton remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: The Highway will keep playing the diverse cross section of country music that people want to hear right into 2016 and beyond. So here’s to a happy new year!
SiriusXM’s pop station Hits 1 has always leaned out ahead of the curve. Unlike terrestrial radio stations, Hits 1 is focused on recapturing the feel of an old Top 40s radio dial — one that encompasses pop, R&B, and hip-hop; but also rock, and even a little bit country. But sometimes a single genre isn’t big enough to contain a songwriter, which is where SiriusXM Hits 1 has the freedom of format that terrestrial radio stations may not. But whatever it is, Hits 1 is guaranteed to be on the cusp of what’s next, mostly, because they defer to the ultimate taste makers — the listeners themselves. “This is a listener driven show,” Hits 1 DJ Spyder Harrison said. “You’re in an exclusive club, and therefore, we cater to you. Not to everybody on planet earth. We cater to our listeners, that’s how we’re different.”
Such was the case with Taylor Swift and her leap of faith into the pop world. Since October 2014 Taylor Swift was ruling the Hits 1 charts via her unstoppable haters rebuff Shake It Off. This wasn’t a one-song phenomenon though; over the course of 2015 each new 1989 single solidified her reign.
“Top 40 is a song format, it’s not necessarily an artist-driven format,” said SiriusXM Pop Channel VP Kid Kelly. But most artists don’t grab fans onto a whole album anymore. Consider the success of both OMI’s Cheerleader and Andy Grammer’s Honey I’m Good. These two songs both charted on Hits 1’s Weekend Countdown long before they picked up steam on the Billboard and traditional radio charts, but they remain the sole hits for both those artists this year. Perhaps it’s their thematic connection that drove them to the top? Or maybe it’s the way both of those songs stick out sonically: OMI’s has a tropical house vibe and Grammer’s has a bit of country muddled into traditional pop and rock elements.
Speaking of rock, acts like Twenty One Pilots, Walk The Moon, and even All Time Low were a big part of Hits 1 as a whole. Even when these songs weren’t in the upper echelons of the chart, they remained a steady presence in the Top 20. “Rock is something I implemented on Hits 1 when I first started here 13 years ago,” Kelly notes. “That’s part of the identity of Hits 1 overall, and it’s built into the hits.” That’s just one way that SiriusXM’s Hits 1 channel differentiates itself from the rest of the pop world, and even if Taylor Swift and Adele are succeeding externally too, Kelly and Harrison identified them early on, along with this year’s OMI, Andy Grammer, and the inclusion of rock in pop programming.
Young Female Songwriters & Their Intimate, Authentic Fan Relationships: This year was book-ended by the enormous success of Taylor Swift and Adele — both of them prodigy female songwriters who broke into the industry at an early age. They each co-write every song on their respective albums, cultivating a dynamic, authentic relationship with their fans. Taylor Swift is one of a kind. While 1989 came out in the fall of last year, it was still a dominant force throughout 2015. Billboard reported that the album hit 5 million copies sold in July, making it the fastest-selling album in a decade. And it kept selling. Swift’s almost unprecedented success was followed by the world-stopping force of Adele’s return to the charts.
Following the success of her own heartbreaking return-to-form, Hello, Adele’s third album 25 went on to break the all-time album sales record by selling over three million copies in one week. Between the two of them, Adele and Taylor have an uncanny ability to connect with fans. “Taylor’s an entity unto herself, she kept being Taylor throughout the whole year,” said Spyder Harrison, host of the Weekend Countdown. “Then at the end of the year, now, it’s Adele mania. Adele is amazing. It’s not hype, it’s just reality. That’s why her album is flying out the door -- or should I say her downloads. So that’s a trend in itself this year, digital downloads have pretty much taken over.” Whatever format their fans are buying, these two female powerhouses are setting new records and shattering them again at a breakneck pace. Their powerful, intimate songwriting represents the rise of girl power in the music industry in the most literal sense.
The Newest Pop Trend Is Celebrating Monogamy: OMI’s Cheerleader and Andy Grammer’s Honey I’m Good don’t have much in common sonically. In fact, what they have in common is that neither of them fit firmly into any one genre. But their thematic element is loud and clear: I love the woman I’m with. As feminism and deeper, lasting respect for women becomes more and more mainstream, the idea of praising the one you’re with made its way all the way to the top of the charts. Of course, both of these songs bubbled up on SiriusXM first, thanks in part to some strong instincts from Kid Kelly. “I first heard Honey I’m Good as a raw track played through headphones from a laptop, literally sitting at a bar,” Kelly remembered. “’That’s either everything or its nothing,’ I said. ‘It sounds like it could be a hit, there’s an obvious anthem there.’ When you listen to words, you get it. Luckily, we were right, and it’s done phenomenally well.“ The success of Cheerleader follows the same logic. “Both women and people in relationships in general want to feel like they’re number one, and their significant other is their biggest cheerleader,” Harrison noted. “So those songs obviously are no-brainers.”
Pop Goes Rock, or Vice Versa: Walk The Moon’s Shut Up And Dance is one of the biggest alt-rock songs of the year, but it also made huge waves on the pop charts. And while neither Twenty One Pilots with new album Blurryface or All Time Low with Future Hearts made their way up as high as that Cincinatti breakout act, their presence in SiriusXM’s pop chart is a big part of the Hits 1 identity. “We’ve actually helped put rock back on the terrestrial radio stations as well,” Kelly said. “Because nobody had rock on when I launched Hits 1.” Harrison also sees the rock elements resurfacing through bands like 5 Seconds Of Summer, who incorporate plenty of guitar and pop-punk elements into their music. “I love having that because it’s the closest thing to rock and roll these days,” he said. “It’s nice to have a little taste of rock and roll, and I’m glad 5SOS are committing to it. I’d like to see them become so successful that on their next album they take it two or three steps further. I think they’ll have an even greater audience if they do that.”
Although they just put out their second album, Sounds Good Feels Good, 5 Seconds of Summer are definitely an act to watch out for in 2016. The return of rock to the Top 40 seems to be sticking a bit. Adele of course, will continue to rule well into next year, pulling almost the exact same move as Taylor in 2015. Will songs about monogamy and respecting your partner remain popular, too? Only time will tell, but pop has always been a song-driven format. Who knows what the future will hold.
“People say rock is dead, but I beg to differ,” said Vincent Usuriello, Programming Director for Hard Rock and Metal at SiriusXM. “It keeps kicking ass.” As Octane’s program director for the last two years and a SiriusXM employee for five, he knows what he’s talking (rocking!) about.
Octane’s Big Un’s charts, which are often weeks or more ahead of predicting a band’s success on other charts and rankings—including Billboard and YouTube—had a healthy mix of new and classic bands in 2015. “Historically, and this year as well, Shinedown, Five Finger Death Punch, and Disturbed do well. But with upcoming and emerging bands, we had a lot of success with Bring me the Horizon, Highly Suspect, Royal Blood and Parkway Drive.”
Usuriello is a big fan of Bring Me the Horizon, and the feeling is mutual — the British quintet has seen a lot of U.S. success thanks to the channel’s support. The band’s fifth studio album, That’s the Spirit, came out September 11, and by September 26, it was No. 1 on the Big Un’s countdown with Happy Song. Usuriello noted that the record was a musical departure for the band, with SPIN agreeing, calling the disc an “epic reinvention.”
“They were very much a metalcore band who evolved, and it’s a good thing. They’re reaching a lot more people, and I believe this has the potential to cross over to alternative. Follow You is a track I really like that could work for our Alt Nation channel. I hope we can expose this band across multiple platforms. For Octane, we saw their Happy Song as a smash right away, and the research and sales continued to show that we were correct,” Usuriello said. “We were way ahead of the game.” Following suit, the band’s album entered the Billboard 200 album charts at No. 2 on October 3.
More than 51,000 rabid Octane listeners helped shape the channel, and their feedback is crucial to Usuriello’s programming. “Our Airforce, a free, exclusive club for listeners, receives free surveys every week. It’s a list of song hooks — and we don’t put the title or artist — and that way it’s totally on the music, no preconceived bias.”
Airforce member Michael S. noted some of the Octane attributes he likes best, echoing the responses of many others: “... Staying current on new music, but still hearing some of the best older songs.” Tiffany C., another Airforce contributor, said “Octane keeps me pumped up driving my big truck!” while Heather R. raved about “the hosts. Funny, snarky, and witty ... they all bring something to the table and make Octane something extra special.”
The year began on Octane with perennial faves Slipknot slip from its top spot, as Florida’s Nonpoint broke Slipknot’s streak in Octane’s Big ‘Uns Countdown on January 3, 2014, though Slipknot’s The Devil In I returned to No. 1 quickly.
“One of the great things about Octane is we have larger playlists and we can do what others can’t really do — take chances on younger bands we like and really give them a shot, a nationwide platform for exposure.”
For instance, Michigan’s Pop Evil released their Up album on September, and Footsteps shot up Octane’s Big Un’s, also peaking at No. 1 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart, the official video on VEVO garnering more than 1.6 million views.
“Octane was hugely supportive of Pop Evil back in the day,” noted Usuriello. “The last album had 3 No. 1 singles, and they’re a fantastic band for us, and it’s so good to see other outlets really picking up on these guys.”
Another success story for the channel is a band formed in 2013. Usuriello discovered Pennsylvania’s From Ashes to New shortly after they’d formed. “They were a really indie band, I started to play one of their songs, and next thing I know, they got a call from a manager who heard them on Octane ... Then they got a label, and we continue to support the music, and now, this year they were on Rock on the Range and a major tour with Five Finger Death Punch. It started on Octane.”
Back in late May, Nothing More’s Jenny took the Big Un’s by storm, coming in at No. 1 on their first week on the countdown. Fans worldwide concurred, viewing the official Jenny video more than 3.4 million on YouTube. The song, about mental illness, has earned more than 5 million Spotify streams, bearing out its skyrocketing status on the Big Un’s chart. As singer Jonny Hawkins told Billboard, the song and clip was a “labor of love for me.”
As 2015 winds down, some of Usuriello’s favorites are on top: the week of November 28, Bring Me The Horizon nabbed the top spot with Throne, right above Five Finger Death Punch in second place with Wash It All Away. But, the programming guru stresses, it’s certainly not just his taste driving the channel.
“I am a huge fan of everything rock & roll. I like too much! I pay attention to my audience and what they’re requesting. I’m passionate, but sometimes I think something’s great, but it doesn’t work for the audience, so we move on to other things. It’s remarkable,” he concluded, “we’re connected right to the audience through the Airforce, and they’re so passionate and into this music that of course they’re paying for our service. A few Octane bands have even made it onto late night TV — Highly Suspect on Late Night with Seth Meyers for one — and that’s really cool. It’s great to see bands in our world get that kind of recognition when they start here.”
And the Octane bands agree. “Every single day someone tells me either online or at a show that they discovered us on Octane,” said Johnny Stevens of Highly Suspect. “I don’t think we had any idea how powerful Satellite radio is until this year. It’s pretty crazy shit,”
Obvious artists like Martin Garrix, Alesso and Major Lazer have all had massive success in 2015, both within dance music and the mainstream, releasing dominant singles and, in the case of Alesso and Major Lazer, albums. While acts such as Armin van Buuren, Tiësto, Kaskade, Hardwell, Tritonal, Cash Cash, Eric Prydz, Martin Garrix, Audien, Borgeous and Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike have all “zeroed in on a specific style within the EDM genre that is cutting edge but also very related to North American fans,” said Geronimo, Senior Director of Electronic and Dance Music Programming at SiriusXM and No. 21 on the Billboard list of the Top 30 EDM Power Players. But then there are those artists — like Mako, Tritonal and Odesza — who came in slow and got a big boost with the help of SiriusXM’s Top 15 BPM Beats of the Week Countdown.
Electronic music has become a global phenomenon, but the United States is the biggest market for DJs to try and conquer, and the charts represent that change. American talent has finally become dominant, not only at home for the first time in decades, but also globally.
And the mainstream American market took notice, too, this year with Calvin Harris as a prime example of a DJ who has established himself as a pop star. While someone the size of Justin Bieber decided to work with Diplo and Skrillex on the global smash Where Are Ü Now.
But the BPM Beats of the Week Countdown is really showing just how much U.S. talent has been making waves in 2015. Tritonal made the BPM Beats of the Week 27 times this year, primarily from their collaboration with Cash Cash on Untouchable, making the emotional collaboration between the two American acts the countdown’s most-charted song of 2015 with 21 plays, and netting the collaborators a three-month long tour of the United States.
Untouchable has since percolated onto some electronic music radio shows, but SiriusXM has been out front pushing the record that has arguably been the biggest collaboration for both parties on their incredibly successful year.
Other American acts like Odesza, Disco Fries and Mako all had strong years with the help of BPM. Los Angeles-based duo Mako has collaborated with the likes of Avicii, as well as Steve Angello on the track Children of the Wild, which was released in June. However, BPM focused on their solo tracks — most notably their collaboration with vocalist Madison Beer Won’t Let You Walk Away — which played for 18 weeks on the BPM Beats of the Week and helped it break after its February release.
Another act that had a banner year was Major Lazer with the release of their album Peace Is the Mission and the hit single Lean On, which was just crowned the most streamed song on Spotify ever. The track’s rise to arguably the song of the summer began in the spring, when it first found its way onto the BPM Beats of the Week and remained there for 17 weeks, peaking at No. 4. Major Lazer pushed the track primarily through non-traditional outlets with a focus on streaming, but SiriusXM’s electronic channels, both BPM and Electric Area, helped it break it into the mainstream through radio.
Lean On has become a staple of traditional pop and electronic music-leaning radio since SiriusXM picked it up, and it remains relevant as 2015 comes to a close. But Geronimo was actually surprised by the song’s success because it “became not only a festival banger, but also a club and radio anthem and a huge global hit,” he said.
Odesza released their sophomore album In Return last year, but it seems as though the Portland-based electronic music duo is continuing to pick up momentum. The pair is currently on a several month-long tour around the globe with sold-out dates in almost every city.
Their melodic and glitchy brand of electronic music was well represented in the charts through the track All We Need, which appeared on the BPM Beats of the Week for 15 weeks, taking the No. 1 spot twice and staying in the top three for well over a month. While there was still a whole lot of love for the main stage DJs, the rise of Odesza is another sign that there is plenty of room on the airwaves and in the hearts of listeners for a wide variety of electronic music.
Deep, melodic and tropical house has been bubbling up over the past year or two, and in 2015 we saw it really break through into the mainstream. “In 2015, the phrase ‘tropical house’ became a true legitimate genre,” Geronimo said, pointing to Kygo’s success and even Justin Bieber’s with What Do You Mean.
Robin Schulz’s remix of Waves still saw some considerable airtime to kick off the year, but 2015 saw the German move towards successful original productions and a full-length, titled Sugar. His single Sun Goes Down, from the 2014 album Prayer, appeared on the Beats of the Week 12 times, landing the top spot twice, while the 2015 LP Sugar’s title track has picked up steam on the countdown in recent weeks.
It should be no surprise that one of the fastest rising stars in all of electronic music, Kygo, would also have a banner year. His records received immediate hype and landed him on the countdown 17 times in 2015. All Kygo’s albums have picked up steam almost immediately across various platforms, and SiriusXM has been there with each from the beginning. Firestone, arguably his most successful record to date, appeared 12 times, peaking at No. 4 on the chart, while his other songs, Stole the Show and Coming Home with Dillon Francis, also landed in the Top 15.
This has been a year of diversification in electronic music. The genre continues to grow and despite the shrill cries of some who warn of an impending bubble bursting, there are more choices than ever, with exciting, new artists breaking every day. Technology has lowered the barrier to entry to almost nothing, giving everyone the ability to start making music and DJing. This diversity seen around the world has impacted festival bookings and radio, forcing tastemakers to always be on the lookout for the next trend. SiriusXM has helped to shape and educate their listeners through the constantly evolving electronic music landscape, which is apparent through varied charts, songs that SiriusXM helped to break and the litany of artists that pay homage to SiriusXM’s EDM channels every day.