Current Commentary

Coming Next


TV Series Theory

LA in the 1970s:

Experimental Finance


Part I: The Long Goodbye

Comes of Age





March 11, 2013


Mutual Funds
Risk Management
Experimental Finance
Online Articles
Books and Articles
Finance Notes
Rigged Online
About Us
Contact Info

American Top 40


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
April 14, 2008

Finance has long recognized the monetization potential of a good pop song. Back in 1997, the Thin White Duke got the securitization ball rolling with his Bowie bonds and it is only a matter of time until a fully mature market for songs emerges.

Integral to a song's value is how long it persists in the public imagination. Most songs come and go, leaving little impression on anyone. Some rare songs, however, become part of the country's collective unconsciousness. There is a lot of money to be had if one can tell one from the other in advance.

Casey Kasem's "American Top 40" program provides some useful insight into what happens to hit songs. The shows that Casey aired over a syndicated radio network during the 1970s and 1980s are currently being rerun commercial-free on XM radio. The '70s station (XM Channel 7) airs the '70s shows on noon Saturday with a Wednesday night repeat and the '80s station (XM Channel 8) airs the '80s show on noon Sunday with a Thursday night repeat. All of the Top 40 tunes are played; albeit often with truncated endings and sometimes with entire verses excised to meet the original airtime constraints. The songs are taken directly from the Billboard Pop charts and are a mixture of Rock, R&B, Country, Easy Listening, and the occasional novelty tune. To make the charts back then a song had to be released a single. As a result, many significant album cuts are notably absence, so the '70s songs are more representative of what was playing on AM radio rather than what was on FM radio.

Over time, Casey developed a winning formula for his show. From the beginning, the show was designed to appeal to statistics geeks. Every show features a few weird statistical facts about songs, such as, which color appears most often in the titles of Top 40 songs. To keep listeners tuned in, trivia question are posed and the not answered until a few songs (and commercials) later. Other teasers included obscure factoids about artists, composers, producers, and songs. To add a more human angle to the show, in 1978 long-distance dedications were introduced. Eventually, a particularly pathetic story was the only way that anyone could get his or her dedication aired. Simply meeting Jill at a bar in Hoboken, losing her phone number, and wrangling Casey into hooking the two of you up would only work if Jill was quadriplegic, dying of the TV-movie disease-of-the-week, or being held hostage by terrorists. Something that might be "touching" when done just once or twice turns into self-parody over the years. Of course, considering many of the sappy tunes that dominated the charts, it is likely that Casey's audience took these dedications to heart rather than recognize their descent into absurdity. (An aside: I do not ever remember hearing any of these programs when they were originally broadcast because I did not listen to the type of radio stations that would have broadcast Casey back then.) Sentimentality notwithstanding, Casey is class act and a talented broadcaster who reminds me of his fellow member of the Radio Hall of Fame, Vin Scully, even if his taste and sense of music import often seems misguided in retrospect.

The interesting thing about hearing an entire Top 40 is hearing songs for the first time after they fell off the charts (yes, I'm showing my age here). This kind of reminiscence is not possible by simply looking at the old charts because if a song if sufficiently obscure one cannot recall it from its title and artist alone. It is easy to get the name of a song or even its artist wrong. For example, I always thought that "You're My Best Friend" from the '70s was a Partridge Family song, when it is actually a Queen song that severely rips off the poor Partridges down to Shirley Jones's Wurlitzer stylings.

Without benefit of scientific analysis it appears clear that songs that originally ranked higher on the charts have better staying power. It is difficult to a Number 1 song to entirely vanish from the culture—one Clear Channel station or another will keep it alive. Songs featured in movies or commercials, either contemporaneous with their hitting the charts or at some later date, also stand a good chance of sticking the in our neurons. Still, that leaves many songs that hit the charts, especially at the low end, and are never heard from again.

Some of the obscure Top 40 songs are from one-hit semi-wonders—artists who got a song on the charts, but not high enough to gain national attention, and then never charted again. Such songs are often the nuggets that are buried in old American Top 40 shows. One example, a song that I never heard until a recent airing of American Top 40, is Dean Friedman's song, "Ariel." This catchy song made it to #26 on the charts in 1977. Dean Friedman is a New Jersey contemporary of mine and apparently his song about a New Jersey "hippie chick" became a sensation in the New York metropolitan area back in the day and was a bigger deal than its national chart position would indicate. I was in Boston at the time and so I missed all the fuss as well as the song itself. Friedman appears to be big in the UK and seems like a really nice fellow, so I thank Casey and XM for bringing him to my belated attention.

Unfortunately, the Dean Friedmans of the world are responsible for a tiny minority of the lost songs of the Top 40. Many of these ignored or forgotten tunes are from established groups and these songs languished on the charts because the only thing that they had going for them was that a "brand name" recorded them. These turkeys would have never seen the charts if recorded by anyone without big promotion bucks behind them. Such songs are so completely forgotten that despite being turned into singles there are omitted from greatest hits collections until desperation sets in when it comes time to release Volume III.

There are great songs such as Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" (too risqué to be a Partridge rip-off) that were not fully appreciated upon release, but like this belated Queen hit, most of those songs never even made the American Top 40. Many wonderful groups from outside the U.S. have great difficulty making the singles charts despite posting respectable album sales and making it to heavy rotation on the Clear Channel stations and supermarkets across the country. Squeeze, for example, had only two Top 40 U.S. hits. Neither of them was "Tempted," which topped out at #49. Roxy Music and its front man Brian Ferry similarly had limited U.S. chart success even though "Avalon," "More Than This," and "Slave to Love," (among others) live on an as adult contemporary standards.

While some Top 40 songs from the 1970s are shockingly vapid; however, the delightfully cheesy songs that the decade is known for are in the distinct minority. Numerous bizarre gems, such as T. Rex's "Bang a Gong" and Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," somehow managed to sneak on the list during that decade. Except for when disco totally dominated the charts late in the decade, the '70s charts frequently have pleasant surprises tucked in them.

While most Kasem rebroadcasts are overflowing with trashiness, the Top 40 contained many high-quality songs for a short time around 1983 and 1984. That was back when MTV was getting started and actually played music videos. Because of a scarcity of suitable content, "experimental" could get on the air. The surrealistic cow video of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) propelled that Eurythmics' song, which sounds as good today as when it came out in 1983, topped the charts back then. MTV's brief burst of high-quality music ended when it the cable channel discovered that it could use videos to promote movies and those stealth commercials displaced crowded out the innovative videos, which were shipped off to the "120 Minutes" if they were lucky.

As music began increasingly fragmented during the 1990s, the Top 40 became utterly meaningless and the mainstream recording industry would soon follow. Next time, I'll revisit the world of Internet radio and look at what that nascent media is doing right in the form of Radio Paradise.

Copyright 2008 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to