Radio play is one of those weird things that doesn’t really impact the modern industry but looks really amazing on your musicians resume. Billboard has basically come out and said that radio play doesn’t impact album sales – but if it didn’t profit artists to some degree, then labels wouldn’t be pouring millions into it right? Of course – you probably don’t have the money to get radio play, not yet at least. However you might be asking the perennial question, “If I keep getting positive reviews, why is it impossible for me to get radio play?” Or perhaps more specifically, “What is the difference between critical acclaim and being radio friendly?” This is a rabbit hole that goes deep and dark – and while this article will almost certainly require a follow up – here’s a few first steps.
One of the most important things that you need to realize is that the people who run radio stations and the people who write for top notch music websites have almost no overlap. While there definitely are some specialty shows out there (More on that later) the fact that I write for some of the biggest music websites in the world means nothing to a lot of these radio people. In all honest I know like two, and in years of work could MAYBE get airplay on one of their shows. The point being – it’s a totally separate universe. I’ve always felt that part of this is because kids who want to be music writers are really big music nerds with a vast knowledge of music whilst kids who want to be DJ’s actually got laid in high school and listened to popular music – they simply don’t care about the underground stuff. And given the nature of radio – why should they?
What does this mean for you though as an independent musician? Simply that if you’re not willing to pay an extravagant amount for a radio placement person you can pretty much kiss regular radio play good bye. The fact of the matter is that traditional radio, being such a publicly available format, is essentially forced to play lowest common denominator stuff most of the time if they want to keep having advertisers. That’s why rock stations have been playing the same 200 rock songs since 1984. College radio is no different since more and more now college aged kids are just listening to music on Spotify or other streaming services. Sure a new band breaks in here and there – but that is rarely ever the focus of these stations – and radio people know that most people aren’t listening to the radio for new music anyway.
But what about the people that are? Well – there are a handful of specialty shows for that. They are few and far between and probably overwhelmed with requests – much like people like me are in regards to music writing. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be reaching out to them – a placement on a solid independent radio show can, if nothing else, get you some of that sweet, sweet ASCAP money. There is hope though, radio has traditionally lagged behind the rest of the music industry, but now with the rise of podcasts and a general awareness of niche marketing satellite radio and independent stations are helping make radio relevant again. Why? Simply because radio dudes are figuring out what journalists knew a decade ago – if you create hyper targeted content people will come and in a world where cars are almost universally dominated by AUX cables this is going to be important for broadcast media to survive. One of the fundamental rules of entertainment is shining through – if you can create interesting content after a point people will pay attention.
I think that this starts to show us the essential difference between critical acclaim and being radio friendly. Critical acclaim can happen for anybody because the content is sold on the intelligence and quality of the writing about the music as much as it is about the music being covered. To get critical acclaim you just need to impress individual writers who are used to spending time with albums to really understand them. Obviously this is no mean feat – but I think you get what I’m saying. Radio friendly music needs to grab the listener right away and keep them on the channel so they can get ratings an sell advertisements for more money. Unlike on a record, radio friendly music can’t expect the listener to replay a song four or five times in order to properly understand the music. In other words radio friendly music requires instant pleasure, and the odds are if your music is brainy, alternative or just generally outside the norm you are going to have a very hard time getting any, even with a placement person.
That’s the crux of it really – to get any sort of reliable radio play you need to hire a placement person. You know how early on in this blog I emphasized how it’s practically impossible to get a decent amount of press on your own? Well with radio there are fewer outlets and higher demand – it should be pretty obvious what this means. Like how we always say no one cares until you make them care – radio people are even harder to impress. Can you develop good relationships with a handful of hardworking radio folks to build a better tomorrow? Yes. But will it be at all easy or take a realistic amount of effort? Not really.
That’s why I rarely try to get any sort of radio coverage for bands I work with – they sound too weird and ‘out there’ for it to make any sense. In the end – it makes a minimal impact anyway – because like I said, most ‘plugged in’ people are getting new music from streaming services. So even if I can get groups I work with to open for massive bands or in massive sites I probably will never get real radio play because that’s a totally different thing. If a radio opportunity comes up every now and then, then by all means take it – but don’t be upset when radio stations don’t play you. In some ways it almost works out to a compliment. Radio is a fickle thing that in the end without massive support it won’t affect your bottom line. Odds are no matter what you do, you won’t be radio friendly – don’t worry about it. Attack niche stations that don’t care and proceed to make the big ones regret not playing you earlier on.
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