By Michele Kadison
Adult Contemporary music, also called AC, mix music online, or The Mix, is a category of mainstream music geared towards 25 to 54 year olds. The Mix is generally divided into three categories that satisfy sub-groups within this demographic: Soft (or lite) AC, Hot AC, and Urban AC. Individual tracks in streaming music “club mix” radio stations, for example, often overlap between categories, but on-the-air radio as well as Satellite radio stations, cater to each of these four categories, sometimes with overlaps as musical tastes evolve and as artists begin to cross over into multiple formats.
Before Mix Music Online: The Early Days
In the early days of radio, the top 40 was played on AM stations, regardless of what type of music it was, be it ballads, R&B, or more rock oriented styles. In the 1970s music began to become divided according to demographic groups and their preferences. Specialized radio stations began cropping up, playing music specific to various genres. As music and the listening demographic became more diverse, radio programmers had to find creative ways to classify sounds which appealed to maturing age groups. As listeners began to get older and evolve toward the mix music online listeners of todya, their tastes changed, gearing more towards vocal-based music from the 1960s and on. Adult Contemporary music was born out of this need to create a pocket for people looking for softer, less demanding sounds.
The FM dial was the first place to introduce “beautiful” music, which was also called “easy listening.” The FM stations featured popular vocal-based hits from the 60s as well as more current ballads. In 1961, Billboard published an Adult Contemporary music chart, which in 1979 became just plain Adult Contemporary. As the genre evolved, rhythmic dance tracks and teen pop were added, but still maintaining a mainstream feel that stayed away from hard rock, alternative, and hip hop.
The Mix: AC Evolution
After MTV made its debut, Vh3 was born as an Adult Contemporary version of its big brother. During the mid 80s you could see artists on Vh3 that fit into the AC category, which made it very inviting 30 to 40 year olds who did not feel as comfortable with the MTV format. Videos by Alanis Morissette, Hootie & the Blowfish, Melissa Etheridge, Ace of Base were in relatively heavy rotation, rivaling some of the harder rock videos seen on MTV. Eventually, mainstream AC music became infiltrated by artists with strong video exposure like Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Culture Club, Whitney Houston, and Tears for Fears. Additionally there began to be a profusion of artists who crossed over from one genre to another, helping to create what is called The Mix.
The Mix: Adult Contemporary Breakdown
Born in the 1970s and evolving through the 80s, this has been the longest running AC format, and is still popular today. A combination of middle-of-the-road (MOR), easy listening, and soft rock, its appeal is to an older demographic of listeners in mix music online.
Soft AC generally keeps songs in rotation for many years as there is limited listener pressure to expand the format. Lately newer guitar-driven sounds have been added to the classics to create a more diverse mix without compromising Soft AC standards. Some of the artists include Avril Lavigne, 2 Doors Down, The Fray, Hinder, and Fall Out Boy. Added to this are musicians who are considered “cross over”, which includes country artists such as Faith Hill, LeAnn Rimes, Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flats, and Darius Rucker who are all finding success on both charts.
Hot AC is another area where the balance of music includes sounds from the early 60s to today’s mainstream hits. It seems that each Hot AC station has its own formula for determining format, where some stations include more classics than new mix music online, or visa versa. Today the format can often be harder to define as more and more music falls into “cross over” categories. Still, certain genres remain outside Hot AC programming such as Alternative, which is too far from the taste of mainstream listeners.
Since the 2000s however, Hot AC stations have added R&B as well as hip hop to their play lists. Artists like Akon, Amy Winehouse, Beyonce, Black Eyed Peas, Ne-Yo, and the Pussycat Dolls are heard on many of the Hot AC stations, as well as some conventional hard rock bands such as the Goo Goo Dolls, Bon Jovi, and Aerosmith. Dance music artists like Kylie Minogue, Rihanna, Paula Abdul, and Madonna are also part of the mix. Slowly Hot AC is stretching its boundaries by introducing bands like Linkin Park, Third Eye Blind, Pink, and Red Hot Chili Peppers if programmers feel that local listeners are receptive.
Mix Music Online: The Current Phenomenon
The modern Adult Contemporary format is currently in a state of flux as it competes with many top 40 stations. Some AC stations are dropping soft artists in favor of harder sounds. Artists like Daughtry, Nickelback, and Kelly Clarkson are staples on mainstream AC stations, as well as ballad singers like as Josh Groban and Nick Lachey. Because of changing demographics, which alter the standards for an adult format as people age, additional categories are forming to embrace changing tastes. Streaming music “club” mix tracks also create shifts as remixes give a new energy or dimension to old favorites.
Mainstream Adult Contemporary is a format that often gets the highest ratings with listeners aged 24 to 54. Urban and rhythmic AC is geared towards adult African American audiences, where airplay favors R&B, soul, and some hip hop artists. Musicians like Luther Vandross, Dionne Warwick, Patti LaBelle, Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston, Sade, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Mary J. Blige, and Des’ree are popular in this format among mix music online listeners. Rhythmic AC or “MOViN” features dance music, remixes, R&B, and early hip hop and caters to African American, Hispanic, and white audiences. Here everything from soul and R&B hits featured during the 60s through the 90s, including the Motown sound and disco are in rotation.
A final AC category has emerged in the past years called Quiet Storm. Usually this format is heard from early evening until late at night and features Urban and Soft AC sounds. Whitney Houston, Angela Bofill, Toni Braxton, En Vogue, Johnny Gill, Anita Baker, and Howard Hewett are good examples of artists that fit into this pocket, appealing to an adult demographic of all ethnicities.
Radio programming, whether it is on-air or via satellite, will always be searching for better ways to satisfy listeners’ tastes and expectations. Programming will continue to eliminate and add artists as their popularity ebbs and flows. The one sure thing is that listeners are constantly aging, which creates a constant demand for music that falls in the Adult Contemporary category, whatever songs the format — and any mix music online radio — embraces in the future.