THINK TANK: Active Rock, Canadian vs USA

Say “Active Rock” and chances are those words will conjure up thoughts of tattoos, long hair and aggressive guitar-driven music, the creation of which was probably fueled by large amounts of Jack Daniels and testosterone. An old saying alleged that it was “music to weld by,” but does that hold true for Active Rock today, especially for the unique flavour that’s heard in Canada?

This month, we wanted to (again) dig into the format and see how it stacks up to its namesake in the USA. By comparing the latest charts & various other data from Mediabase, and by listening to stations online through, we’re able to evaluate just how “Active” things are on both sides of the 49th.

To begin with, let’s see what’s happening on the charts recently. To appreciate the scope of the music being played, we thought it best to present the entire Top-40 (from August 8th), along with the spins each track received (number in parentheses), which will help give a sense of just how dramatically airplay drops off for songs outside of the Top-20. Shared titles are in bold:


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We realize that music is subjective – what’s too hard for one person is not hard-enough for another – and the entire Active Rock genre is subject to endless hours of debate over this very thing. But in trying to keep an objective eye (and ear), one can’t help but notice that there’s currently a very distinct sonic difference between the two charts, with the American one being much more intense and aggressive. Largely due to the fact that Active Rock Can-Con is in a particularly “jean jacket” phase as opposed to the traditional “leather jacket” norm.

A few key things to consider:

  • • There are only 12 shared titles (not including material that’s already gone recurrent), and of those 12, only the more mainstream-sounding efforts by heritage acts (STP, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains) manage to receive widespread support from the Canadian panel.
  • • The #1 song in Canada on August 8th (when we put all of this together), Airbourne’s “Live It Up”, appears to have stalled in the US, fluctuating 43-40-41-42 over the past month.
  • • Already Top-10 here, Rival Sons have yet to register any airplay in their home territory with “Until The Sun Comes.”
  • • Thanks to the sonically-broad playlists of a few smaller-market stations, several Alternative-leaning tracks (Imagine Dragons, Frank Turner, Jake Bugg) appear on our chart but would be very much out-of-place on the American one. (Disclosure: Jake Bugg is a Frontside client.)
  • • Cancon tracks from Three Days Grace & Redlight King are reacting well in the US but mid-charting in Canada.

So what are some of the reasons for this variance from one side of the border to the other? We’ve got to start by crunching some numbers.

First, let’s look at the “Current / Recurrent / Gold” ratios, which can give an indication as to how contemporary a format will sound. The figures are based on total titles played during the broadcast week, which are then separated into the three categories, with “Gold” encompassing all material from early-2011 back to the mid-60’s. What’s interesting to note is that US Active Rock actually plays more current titles than the format in Canada, despite the fact that Can-Con exists, allegedly, to support the development of new artists.

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Next, let’s check playlist sizes. Knowing that there’s less potential airtime for currents makes it reasonable to assume that playlists would be smaller here, and that’s exactly what our research found. Canadian stations average 33 titles spread between their heavy, medium, light & feature categories, while that number in the USA is 47, meaning that Canadian stations play about 30% fewer currents.

Another factor to take into consideration is Can-Con. Using that average playlist size of 33 titles, our data shows that Can-Con typically takes up 14 of those titles, or 42% of the total current playlist real estate, which leaves just 19 slots left for International material.

So what would a programmer look at when trying to fill those few precious International slots? The goal of every radio station is to not only attract listeners but to keep them tuned-in for as long as possible, and the easiest way to do that is to deliver a consistent and familiar stream of entertainment. With so few International slots to fill, programmers have the luxury of cherry-picking songs that’ll fit best within their station’s overall sound, which is why you’re much more likely to hear the latest from Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains than Deftones or Five Finger Death Punch emanating from your radio. It’s a path of least resistance theory: Don’t play anything that might cause someone to tune out.

Upon reviewing everything that was available to us in this piece it seems that the takeaways are as follows:

  • • Canadian stations play less currents
  • • Can-Con takes up about 42% of available current slots
  • • There is a major trail-off in spins count on songs outside of the Top 10 in Canada
  • • In the USA the #20 single generates 40% of the spins that #1 does
  • • In Canada the #20 single generates 21% of the spins that 1 does
  • • 8 Top 20 titles in the USA did not chart in Canada (in this data set)
  • • 14 of the Top 20 titles in Canada did not chart in the USA (mostly due to Can-Con)
  • • At the moment “Can-Con Active Rock” is a lot more “mellow” than it’s US Counterpart