Monday, February 22, 2010

Working the album part 14,375: Radio

This post is a continuation of my on-again, off-again series about creating and selling music, a topic upon which I have much less expertise than I tend to give the impression of having, but it's fun to watch me try and figure it out, anyway.

See that pic up there? That's me, taken two minutes ago, holding a bunch of CD mailers. And in those mailers are CDs! So far, so good.

On those mailers are mailing labels (see? you knew I was a genius, right?), and those mailing labels are addressed to a select group of radio stations across the USA. Now, you probably have some experience with listening to the radio, and you know that there are different stations for different types of content. Talk radio, pop radio, hip hop radio, commercial rock radio... whatever you're into, it's out there on the airwaves. But as you'd discover, if you were an independent musician trying to get your music broadcast on the radio, not all stations are created equal, at least not for your purposes. Let's talk about why it's a good goal to be heard on the radio, and how one would go about accomplishing that goal.

Left side of the dial
Like all broadcast media, radio is a big deal, and like all big deals, there's some big money behind the scenes. If you're an artist on a major label, those labels have existing relationships with radio program directors, DJs and other influential people. In those cases, your label (if it's doing what it's supposed to be doing for you) has staff whose entire job is to promote your music to radio station decision makers who can put your music on the air.

But indie musicians like me don't have anyone to do that for us. We have to do it ourselves. And the first thing you learn as an indie musician is that all those stations that are well known in your area are exactly the ones that will NOT be playing your music. I mean, if it makes you feel good, go ahead and send them a disc. Or, you could save the postage and just light the disc on fire, and then pee on the burnt plastic. The same result will happen. Those stations have specific rules about whose music they will and won't play, and unless they happen to have a special show that features local and unsigned artists (usually running between 2am-4am on a Thursday or something similar), you will not be hearing your stuff there.

Instead, the stations you want to focus on are those on the left side of the dial, as we used to say before radios were tuned in using digital readouts. The frequencies of these stations are way down low... usually like 88.1, 89.9, 91.3 and so on. Why? Because that's where the public stations, the college stations, and the other independent and non-profit community radio stations are. And those, my friends, are the ones that are hungry for new music.

Being no one is good!
There's a huge variety of radio stations across the USA that fall into this group. Not all are appropriate for your music. Many are mostly dedicated to news and talk. Others only play classical and/or jazz music. Once you get into the list of those stations that do play other music types, there's a common bond within all the variety: almost none of them want to play music that can be heard on the mainstream stations! For once, you actually have an advantage by being a relatively unknown indie artist. It's about time, eh?

Another piece of good news: many of these stations will play almost anything that their staff feels is cool in any way. It doesn't matter if you play rock, pop, hip hop, electronica, experimental music, or damn near any sub-genre of the above. The good public, college, and indie stations will likely have a show where your music will fit.

What do I send?
Kat and I (partners in our tiny indie label Frothy Music) did a ton of research on this topic, and now I'm going to tell you about it so you don't have to go through the same process. Many of you probably know that when you send out a press kit to try and get your album reviewed, you include a bunch of stuff: pages of bio info and photos, clips from other press, and so on. Do NOT send all that crap to the radio station! These people get deluged with music, and guess what? You don't want to make their job more difficult for them! Allow them to easily get to the music, and keep the info you include short and sweet. What I put in my mailer was simple.

• The CD. Oh, and since my disc is shrink-wrapped, I also removed the wrapping so that they wouldn't have to spend ten minutes wrestling with it before they could get to the music.

• A "One Sheet". Like it sounds, it's a single sheet of paper that includes a short bio paragraph, a list of songs with a one-line description of what kind of song it is so they're able to tell what program it's appropriate for, and some contact info in case they have any reason to get in touch with me.

THAT'S ALL. Don't send the radio people a bunch of superfluous crap. First, they don't want it. Second, it gets thrown away immediately, so it's a waste of money and resources to include it.

To whom do I send It?
This is actually a two-part topic. First, you need to choose which radio stations might be the best fit with your music. Second, you need to find the right contact person so that your music has the best chance of being aired.

In terms of choosing the right stations, it's often said that nothing worthwhile is easy, and this is one of those cases. You can start by looking for lists of NPR (National Public Radio) and campus radio stations. You can find them everywhere; Google and Wikipedia are your friends. My advice, if you want it, is to narrow the list down by choosing stations in larger markets (i.e., New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Seattle, Atlanta, San Francisco, and so on). However, there's a huge caveat here in that some of the top rated college radio stations, for example, are in smaller places like Ithaca, NY, or St. Paul, MN. Again, do your homework, and look around the web for info in this regard. You'll find it.

Second, get ready to do some listening. Nearly every single one of these stations have an Internet broadcast stream, so we're lucky to live in a time where you don't have to physically be in these cities. Just find the station and click a "Listen Now" link, and you can actually hear each station. Look at their web sites for a programming schedule and find the show that seems right for your tunes.

That brings us to the second part: who do I send the disc to? Great news in this regard: almost every station has a specific address you can find on their site for music submissions. But I also want to make another recommendation in this regard: try and find the specific DJ for the show you want to be on, and send it to them directly if possible. If you don't have a name available, the best bet is to send it to the attention of the program director or music director. There's usually a staff list on the station's web site. Use it.

Can't I just email them an MP3?
In 99% of cases, no, you can't. Here's why: imagine you are a program director, and you get into work on a Monday morning, and it takes you an hour and a half to open your email since it is filled to the brim with 150 MP3 files that are each 5MB. You get the idea. Not cool. The other thing is that as we know, not all MP3s are created equal, and the stations really don't want crappy quality music, usually. Finally, and this part is just my opinion: sending them a tangible medium like a Compact Disc lets them know that you're serious about your music, and what they're getting isn't the product of some guy in his bedroom doing music for his hobby. Most stations specify the format that they want for their submissions. Again, pay attention to what they tell you on their web sites.

Following up (and don't bite off more than you can chew)
There are some 900 NPR affiliate stations in the USA. You can eliminate a bunch of them off the bat who don't play pop music at all. Then you can narrow down others by the markets they serve and the types of music on which they focus. But that will still leave a lot. First, as an indie musician, you probably don't have the budget to send out hundreds and hundreds of CDs that you paid to have replicated. But more importantly, there's another aspect to this: you will likely want to follow up your submission of the music with a contact at the station. Once again, listen to what the stations tell you! Most have info on their web sites as to how they prefer to be contacted. Some like to be emailed; others accept phone calls on a particular day/time. In either case, you should wait a short while after the disc has been sent, and then get in touch with them to find out if they received the disc, and if they might be interested in airing your music.

Obviously, it's more possible to manage this process with a reasonable number of stations. For my first radio mailer, I only sent a couple dozen discs out to very targeted stations across the country. Will I send more eventually? You bet. But hopefully by then, I'll have received plays on the first batch of stations, possibly making it even easier to get subsequent stations to play my stuff.

Why bother doing all this?
Ultimately, there's only one reason for this effort you put in on radio promo. You want people who would have otherwise never heard of you or your music to become familiar with it. And, given the nature of these stations and their listeners, you will find people who are receptive to new and different artists than what they get shoved at them on commercial radio and MTV. Those people might actually track you down and buy your stuff, if they like it. And besides all that, presumably you are proud of your music and feel it deserves to be heard by a wider audience. I know I feel that way.

Whew! Well, that's all I have to say about that, for now anyway. As you might recall if you're a regular reader of this blog, we've already been very successful with being played on several Internet radio stations, and one NPR affiliate (89.9 WJCT in Jacksonville, FL) has already played some Zak Claxton music on a couple of occasions. Assuming I'm successful with this expanded outreach to radio, I'll let you know about any other station where I end up getting played. As to how I'll go about finding out whether I got played or not at each of the stations is still unknown to me, so hopefully I'll learn more about that as I progress down this road.

Wish me luck.

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