If you ask artists what their dream in music is, a lot of them will answer “to hear my song on the radio!” and they’re talking mainstream, countdown of the charts radio. Cool dream, but in this piece, I’m breaking down what I’ve learnt from talking to record label people, artists and those who work in radio about what really goes on. At the end, I’ll give an idea of what you could try instead.
How Programming Works:
Contrary to popular belief, the radio DJs whose voices you hear on your favourite station did not choose the song playing. Those decisions are made by the program director. On large stations, such as ones owned by media corporations, the song catalogue can even be decided at their headquarters, as opposed to on the ground level, and then every station in the chain of the company plays the same top 40 songs.
To get a song into rotation, an artist must hire a “song plugger.” Their job is to take radio programmers out to lunch and convince them to play a song by an unknown artist. Not quite payola, but it does cost money. In Canada, artists and bands can apply for grants at www.factor.ca and compete against everyone else for limited money to hire a song plugger. According to Tara Shannon, head of Willow Sound Records, in the United States of America, it’s estimated to cost around one million dollars to break a pop song onto mainstream radio.
How Radio Makes Money:
Mainstream radio is in the business of not making listeners change the station when the commercials come on. The tried and true way of making people feel comfortable when tuning to their favourite station is to play unthreatening songs they know. That’s why political protest folk songs or super edgy pieces don’t get much radio play unless they chart on Billboard.
The price the station can charge for ads depends on how many people listen, and for how long. Therefore, playing a song by a small artist with very little buzz at rush hour is a huge risk for them. Many bands assume that to get radio play, they have to compete and prove themselves more worthy than every other band trying to get played too. They’re wrong. These bands are actually competing against everyone already on air. They need convince the program director to swap out the Bruno, the Selena and the Rihanna for them. Once again: one million dollars.
Radio And Billboard:
Have you ever kept up with the Hot 100? If you’re interested in doing so, I highly recommend the Spectrum Pulse YouTube channel’s weekly Billboard Breakdown show. Anyways, different factors come into play when songs chart, affecting their position. The main factors are sales, streaming, YouTube and radio. Every song has different strengths (very few are 25% all around). So for example, the latest rap song that’s hip with the kids has more YouTube views than sales, Adele’s 25 wasn’t available for streaming right away, so its points were pretty much only sales and radio, and Ed Sheeran’s ÷ album had monstrous streaming before anything else kicked in. They are all weighted differently; it takes 150 on-demand streams to equal a single sale, to give you an idea.
Where I’m going with this is that whenever a song that’s not super commercial sounding charts because the artist has an insanely loyal fanbase, radio takes a while to catch on. They want to seem cool, but also be in the safe zone of having enough people recognize the song that they won’t change the station. The radio doesn’t make the hits; they just play them.
How To Get On The Radio (If You Insist):
Like the rings on a tree, you must grow outward. In less poetic terms, be small hot stuff first, before you become bigger hot stuff. Have quality music that’s ready for radio (no more than five minutes long, no swear words) and cold email program directors of small (or college) stations to start building a relationship. If you segment your email list by the city your fans are in, aim for those areas so that they can tune in and eventually request you. Like with blog features, if you build enough buzz, it’ll snowball as other people chase you.
But What’s The Point?
Sure, you have bragging rights that your song played on a small, local station (at 11pm on a Sunday, of course), but in 2017, radio play for smaller artists hasn’t proven to lead to sales of the album. It might help with name recognition, but unless the DJ explicitly says you have a show coming up, air play won’t help you sell tickets. Radio doesn’t pay you big bucks to play your song either. That’s your performing rights organization’s job to send you a very small cheque. Besides, other than in the car, do you know many people who listen to the radio within your target demographic?
What To Do Instead:
Streaming playlists are where it’s at! Especially if your music is more progressive, edgier, or ahead of the curve than what your genre’s radio station plays. They’re saying that these playlist curators are the next generation of what DJs were in the rock-n-roll days – they chose the songs that played. Yes, they are called curators. Just like the person who decides which priceless works of art will be displayed in their museum.
Almost every music reviewing blog has a SoundCloud playlist of their favourites from what they cover (a five star review and being part of organic curation?! Sign me up!). Some playlist makers at Apple Music and Spotify are very influential. In fact, Lorde’s Royals was one of the first cases of a song with no radio airplay (at first) getting big from making it onto Spotify’s new music playlists. Human naturally like to discover things; that’s why these playlists are so successful.
At The End Of The Program:
Instead of chasing mainstream radio programmers bound by bureaucracy and traditional advertising revenue, start making connections with music bloggers and playlist curators. There are no commercials making listeners tune out, and you’ve got a more loyal and niche potential fanbase listening. On SoundCloud, an artist can even add their website and social media links in the song description, which carries over when the song gets placed onto the playlists. Stop chasing this dream of getting mainstream radio play that only amounts to bragging rights. Go get your music into the museums of these niche curators.