I can remember as a teenager believing in music, believing in bands, in artists. They could take me to a place no other form of media could; they still can. It's possible that even at a younger age I felt this; I was playing air guitar to Alive II by KISS for most of grade school, and I had already begun to listen to albums my father owned. Luckily for me my Dad was into The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, The Band, and Ray Charles.
As a kid, even though I knew about radio, I wasn't aware that what radio played was deemed to be what mattered. I'd listen to as much music as I could. I didn't know or care what radio or the press felt about a particular track by one of my favorite artists. I knew there were tracks which received airplay, but that didn't mean I discounted the remaining tracks on a particular album just because radio ignored them.
Even when radio began to play a bigger role in my listening experience the radio we had in the New York metropolitan area during the 80s was, in my mind, a quantum leap in quality over most of today's radio listening experience, even satellite radio. Listening to WNEW-FM or WDRE-FM (we had great reception in Rockland County - I could get stations from Long Island and Connecticut most people couldn't hear)you got the sense you were part of a community - the DJs seemed to care about bringing the audience a comprehensive overview on artists they played, they cared about breaking acts, they played artists that, frankly, didn't matter in other parts of the country, even after the advent of MTV as a "national radio station" where local tastes got subsumed.
Today - if a label doesn't release a song as a single, or it doesn't license a song to a popular television show, then for all intents and purposes the track doesn't exist. We've been programmed that all albums suck, that the album is two decent tracks and a bunch of filler that artists record just to rip off the consumer. That perception is self-fulfilling if radio is so micro-managed that it no longer serves the function I described above. If a track doesn't research well, then most stations won't play it. They want to serve whatever corporate master owns that station by playing the songs within a tight format which get the greatest response and hammer those songs over and over again.
You can even see this on services like iTunes, where album tracks tend not to be bought as singles unless that track is being worked at radio. In the 80s we all knew what the lead singles were from an act's record, but we also knew other tracks, songs we knew were so good they'd be played live by the band on tour, that we knew might or might not be radio hits over time (but even if they weren't "official" singles might still garner some airplay on stations with taste).
As marketers, while it is tempting to look at an artist's single(s) as the track to place in a TV spot or on a compilation, or stream on your web site, etc... as part of some partnership with the artist or label - don't overlook the deep tracks! As tempting as it is, in the face of time pressures and accountability as you and your agencies plan for your brand take the time to explore each artist's "long tail."
The long tail concept applies to musical artists' catalogs very well. Each artist, over time, has tracks which (mostly measured by iTunes sales and radio airplay) are the "hits," while other tracks receive less attention. Some bands are more prolific with hits than others. The fat part of their tail is thicker. But also remember that radio airplay, and how it is measured, has never been an exact science. There have been numerous payola scandals that have marred the record industry.
But every single track in and of itself has a life and potential revenue stream for that artist and the songwriter(s) involved. That is also an opportunity for every marketer.
I recently put up my own MySpace page for Kohan Music Group and I have been pleasantly surprised at the number of quality acts that are both unsigned and on indie labels. But even for acts on major labels or acts who have had past success in different eras - there is a myriad of little used music to be discovered and applied to your brand's marketing efforts, whether that be a branded CD compilation, synch license for a TV spot of viral video, ringtone or download promotion.
Does your brand want to be an imitator? Do you want to use the comfortable, the familiar, the hit song everyone knows? Or will you dare your agency or consultant to go find something new that is a reflection both of your brand, and of the consumers who buy it, or should be buying it? I love hit songs, don't get me wrong. If you are a retailer selling a branded compilation you should program it so it sells well, but it doesn't mean your company has to follow a strict doctrine to achieve that goal. It doesn't take an exhaustive search to find some hidden jewels.