I spent almost nine years of my life working for 99X radio here in Atlanta. It was a great gig. The majority of that time was spent as music director (MD) for the station, which means that I, along with the program director (PD) would, among other things, choose which songs made it to the air, and which ones didn’t.
There were two questions that I would get asked on pretty much a daily basis. They were (1.) Why do you play the same songs over and over and over again? And (2.) How can I get my band on the radio? Although I used to have a very clear cut answer to the first question, the longer I’ve been out of the radio business the fuzzier that answer becomes. In fact, if I listen to radio at all, I find I have the same complaints, unless it’s a band that I happen to work with then my complaint is that they aren’t playing them enough, so I’ll leave that one alone. Today I’m going to address the answer to the second question.
Interestingly, I realized after entering the record business, that my criteria for signing bands is strikingly close to the criteria we used in deciding whether or not to play a band on the radio, so consider this a two for one deal. Here it is in an over-simplified nutshell…
It always starts with a great song. Without a great song you’re toast. So go write an amazing collection of tunes (or just one good one) and you’ve begun to scratch the surface. Radio sells advertising based on the ratings they get. They get ratings by “playing the hits” because hits are familiar to the general audience, so chances are the listener will stay around a little longer if they hear something they know, and the longer a listener stays on your dial position, the better.
So how does a song become a hit? It all starts with a PD or MD taking a chance on an unproven song that they feel will work for their radio station and the audience that station is trying to reach. Most of the time, those chances would be taken on bands that are on a record label because every PD/MD knows that the label will make a concerted effort to support the airplay by having the band stop by the station for a live session, interviews or whatever, but also they know that a band on a label will have a national campaign that will help get airplay across the country thus helping increase the chances of the song in question becoming a hit. Incidentally, whether a song is a hit or not is determined by a lot of research, on the part of the radio station, as well as (believe it or not) requests, and perhaps more importantly record sales. The record sales part is another reason why stations tend to gravitate towards songs by bands that are signed as they know that the label will have albums (or at least singles) readily available in stores and on-line for customers to purchase thus making it easy to track how listeners are responding to the song. It is a business after all, and the music a radio station plays is its product, and the product of any business has to be just right, otherwise they lose customers, and in turn ratings, and in turn advertising, and then they’re dead.
So where does that leave you the unsigned band? Well, every now and then you’ll find a station with a PD or MD (or more rarely both), who hears a song and knows in their gut that it’s a hit. They then add the song into rotation because they simply believe in the band and the song. Often times these bands have already laid a lot of groundwork by playing regularly throughout the region, selling CDs on their own, and just building an organic fan-base (what we look for on label side as well), and that is enough to get the attention of a radio station. A great example of that happening right now is the Atlanta band The Constellations. The PD at the recently resurrected 99X heard their song “Felisha” (sic), loved it, and took a chance on it by playing it in regular rotation. That airplay has caught the attention of record labels (including mine) and chances are the band might get signed as a result. The same can be said for many bands over the years, and it all started with a great song, backed-up with a solid fan-base and an obvious commitment on the part of the band to work just as hard at breaking out as those who have taken a chance on them.
There’s no doubt radio play is great for raising the profile and sales numbers for any band. The problem is that getting radio play or getting signed should be the icing on the cake for a band rather then the cake itself. In other words, lay the ground work by touring at least regionally, build a buzz, legitimately sell a few thousand albums on your own, and proceed as if radio and labels don’t exist. The truth is even signed bands don’t automatically get radio play. I work with a band that put an album out almost a year ago. Because they were still building their fan-base at the time, we waited before trying to get radio to play them because we knew that until the band proved themselves out in the marketplace first, it would be difficult to get them played. They’ve since sold sixty thousand albums without a single spin on radio, and now because of that, we are going to try to get some airplay and now we have a much greater chance at success.**
Create your own sustainable living with your band and then by the time radio stations or record labels begin to pay attention, you’ll be ready to go where that level of attention takes you, or you won’t need them at all, and that’s a great place to be, it’s the place where careers are built to last.
** Another common assumption about radio play is that labels or band management pay to be played on the radio either with cash or expensive trips or whatever. While this may be true in some instances, the act (called payola) is illegal and as a band should never be attempted. I can honestly and proudly say that in all my years at 99X, we never once accepted any type of payola in any form.
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