With no small assist from Adele, Columbia Records has made staying at the top of the charts look “Easy” — not just with her indomitable smash but major hits from the Kid Laroi and Lil Nas X, too. Between those three artists’ songs, Columbia has held onto the No. 1 spot on Mediabase’s Top 40 radio chart for 20 straight weeks… a longer run than any single label has ever previously enjoyed in Mediabase history.
The three songs contributing to that unprecedented five-month streak: Adele’s “Easy on Me,” the Kid Laroi’s “Stay” (with a featured appearance by Justin Bieber) and Lil Nas X’s “Industry Baby” (with a guest shot by Jack Harlow). Just for perspective, the last time one of these three Columbia songs wasn’t on top was just prior to Labor Day 2021.
In the case of “Stay” — speaking of staying power— the Kid Laroi’s tune set its own record, remaining atop the Mediabase Top 40 chart for 12 weeks, more than any other single before it.
“Easy on Me,” meanwhile, has been No. 1 at Top 40 for the last seven straight weeks — a personal record for as big a superstar as music has right now.
“Industry Baby” spent a single week at the top, but no one had reason to feel sorry Lil Nas X for not having a longer run, given his being shmushed right in-between those other two blockbusters… and given the wholly satisfying news that this represented Nas’ second straight single to go No. 1 at Top 40.
Peter Gray, the executive VP/head of promotion at Columbia, came on board at the tail end of 2019, after leaving his executive VP/GM role at Warner Records. Needless to say, he hasn’t given Sony any reason for buyers’ remorse, reaching this historic milestone just over a couple of years into his tenure there. Gray is reluctant to thump his chest too much — “We have a lot of other headlines that we’re chasing this year,” he says, and he doesn’t want to jinx 2022 — but setting an all-time chart record isn’t anything to keep under wraps, either.
“Radio stations don’t necessarily want more songs,” Gray says. “They want more confidence in the songs that they are playing. There are only so many spots on a playlist. So if something is performing in that way” — speaking specifically about the Kid Laroi’s three months at No. 1, and Adele being on top for close to two months now— “no one’s going to look at it and say, ‘Something’s wrong.’
“Our fundamental responsibility is to break new artists and to elevate the careers of superstars. And in this run at No. 1, we’ve done all of those things. You have Leroi exploding on the scene to become a household name. Adele is Adele, and now she’s had the longest-running No. 1 of her career.” And somewhere between the veteran and the newbie, “you have Nas X transitioning from the early stages of a pop artist to a fully realized superstar, in this case, with back-to-back No. 1s at pop radio. You know, that’s like a lightning strike plus a lottery ticket.”
When you’re representing a single label that has multiple artists poised to become or stay at No. 1, there’s a science to working with radio and timing promotion to make sure no one misses out on a claim on the top spot, assuming the audience is first of all involved in making these planes stacked up over LaGuardia, as it were, all come in for a landing at the proper point.
“We were orchestrating the handoff at the top of the chart,” says Gray. “‘Stay” had been there for such a long time, it was important to us that Nas have his moment, also — full well knowing that Adele was heading to the top of the chart without anyone’s help. So we had to work to manage the top of the chart to ensure that Nas got that shot, which he very much deserved. So we handed off three different No. 1s to ourselves — and in fact, ‘Stay’ went back to No. 1 for a second time. So there was a really fun and unprecedented juggling act at the top of the chart to make sure that all three of them had their turns. It’s a lot of people, a lot of towns, a lot of time zones and a lot of math. And our team is excellent at managing all of those things. “
America doesn’t train public attention on the idea of a “Christmas single” the way the U.K. does, in terms of placing some kind of importance on which non-holiday song has captured the national mood toward the end of December. But if the U.S. did think in those terms, it might seem ironic that America’s Christmas spirit was exemplified by… Adele being sad.
“Yeah, exactly,” laughs Gray. “If there’s a sequel to ‘Love, Actually,’ there should be a Christmas scene with Adele singing ‘Easy on Me.’”
In all seriousness, though, it was funny to look at the Mediabase or Billboard charts throughout the holiday season and see the upper ranks populated almost entirely by Christmas oldies — plus, “Easy on Me” and “Stay,” songs that have proven not only capable of surviving the apocalypse but surviving Burl Ives.
“We know what happens to listening behavior during those critical holiday weeks: Everyone gets thrown out at the top, and you know, it’s Mariah (Carey) and Bing Crosby. So for these things to still hang around the hoop in that way and be that strong is incredibly powerful.”
The Adele song’s survival instincts really can’t be underrated: It’s essentially a piano ballad with almost no rhythm track to speak of, in a format that’s all about rhythm nowadays. Gray says he didn’t have any question marks in his mind about whether Top 40 would play an unqualified ballad out of the gate, but it was up to the audience whether “Easy on Me” held on to the public imagination once the gate was well back in the rear-view mirror.
“The world was waiting and there was great enthusiasm (for the song’s debut), period. But yes, to have it stick in such a lasting way, particularly considering how youthful music is — and by that I mean how fast, young and fresh material kind of cuts its way to the top of the chart — for Adele to have that level of staying power is obviously very, very meaningful, in having a world-class superstar… I don’t want to say reclaim, but maintain that stature. It’s competitive out there.”
In this case, it involved Sad Adele holding onto the top spot for seven weeks so far even as Bop Adele waits in the wings, getting plenty of airplay on her own. “Once the (’30’) album was out, based on the success of ‘Easy on Me,’ we knew radio would be very keen to play a number of songs off the album. So it was critical that we found a pathway to single number two relatively quickly. That is ‘Oh My God,’ which is also succeeding on the radio at multiple formats, all while ‘Easy on Me’ is parked at the top of the charts. This is really just a great scenario where you have a successful follow-up, on the move and multi-format, while your original single is literally locked into the top spot for months. Those are rare scenarios where it works that well.”
The odds would suggest that Columbia’s streak will be coming to an end in short order, but then, they would have suggested that a month, too. If there is destined to be a gap between “Easy on Me” being No. 1 and, say, “Oh My God” possibly having its own OMG chart moment, that’s OK — Gray has faith in all the follow-up singles to come from her, Laroi and Nas X. The latter artist now has the most obviously pop-friendly song off his album, “That’s What I Really Want,” climbing up through the top 10, and that could be Columbia’s next No. 1.
When it comes to picking singles off these albums, and the all-important order of them, Gray says: “Our promotion department is very good at delivering them, and our A&R department is even better at choosing them.”
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