Although technology is changing rapidly, radio is the foremost way of marketing music today. As music streaming takes hold, the definition of “radio” will change. No matter how you slice it, radio is THE most important piece of your marketing plan for music. Everyone wants to be on the radio. So, how do you do it? In this article, I’m going to reveal to you the “how to” and the hard-knock-truth. I’m assuming that you have a commercially viable recording to market to radio.
- First of all, realize that radio exists to sell advertising, NOT play your music. If playing Beach Boys 24/7 gets them listeners, they will do it. Music Discovery is a different goal, which many radio stations are not interested in. In radio speak, radio music directors are interested in “playing the hits” which is code for “playing familiar/older music from huge established artists.” Just being real.
- Become familiar with radio formats. Most musicians are unaware of the types of radio formats. You must know these. Also, these formats usually directly correspond with Billboard charts, which as a musician you want to be on. Check the Billboard website and know what format/chart you want to target.
- CHR – Contemporary Hit Radio. Plays a wide variety of formats from hip hop to rock.
- AC – Adult Contemporary. The “lightest” format, that plays everything from Barry Manilow to light Katy Perry. Of course, certain stations are more “current” but the sound is the same. This format has a lot of weight for radio, as its listeners are older and have more money to spend, which advertisers like.
- HOT AC – Hotter Adult Contemporary. This format has a little more “spice” to it, possibly more beat oriented, but still quite light and similar to Adult Contemporary.
- RHY – Rhythmic. This is usually hip hop, R&B, and urban.
- ROCK – Straight up good time rock and roll.
There are even more formats – just do your research.
- Realize that only certain stations are “reporting” stations, meaning that their playlists are reported to Billboard. Major labels have figured out what stations tend to play their music, and they’ve worked over the years with Billboard to make sure those stations are the ones that report to Billboard. (In politics they call this “Gerrymandering”.) Reporting to Billboard for a station is a big deal because it gives a sense of prestige and allows the station to gain more advertisers, and the major labels will give these stations more access to their events. “Non-reporting” stations are all the other radio stations in the universe. Non-reporting stations tend to be in less-populous areas but the sum of all their listeners can be considerable. Some believe that taking your music to non-reporting stations first can be a good strategy because you can gauge listener reactions to your music, and build your audience.
- Become familiar with the stations that you want to be on. Have you ever listened to the station(s) that you would like to be played on? Like REALLY listened? Then you better write songs like those stations play. Don’t just think, “Oh, here’s my latest track, I’ll pitch it.” Make sure that it’s a song that they’d like to play, meaning similar to what they’re playing now. Also, you may even want to hire a producer of a song that they are already playing, to produce your song. You would be amazed how much a producer who already has a hit can sway a decision just on their name being on the credits.
- Make sure your songwriting is top notch. Big hooks (choruses) are key for radio friendly songs. Write songs with songwriters who have already been played on the radio. They are doing something right. Great songwriting (and art in general) comes from mentorship. Almost all great songwriters start out by co-writing with others.Also create lyrical themes that are uplifting or are from stories in everyday life. This is why artists like Taylor Swift get played. She says things that people want to say, but they don’t know how to say them. (Analogy taken from Paul Baloche.) She does it for them, like a greeting card. Another strategy is to just be straight up gimmicky (aka “Who Let the Dogs Out” or “Christmas Shoes”), although your fellow artists might not respect you.
- Tighten up your arrangement. Radio wants you to get that to that hook – and fast. They want a simple intro that is about 10-15 second long, which gives them room to talk over the intro. After that, your goal is to get to the hook as fast as possible. Usually a song will have a verse, but you want to get to the hook in no more that 50 seconds. Optimally, you should get to the chorus in about 35 seconds. If you can’t do that, then a simple trick is to just go ahead and play the hook up front, right after the intro, then go into a verse. There are several other tricks you can use like a “half chorus” up front, and then go into your verse, then a full chorus. But on the converse, don’t repeat the chorus needlessly. Listen to the songs that you love and analyze what makes them so listenable.
- Make the song no longer than 4 minutes. Yes, I said it. A song that is 5 minutes long will not get played on the radio – period. Get over it. Optimal length is 3:30-4:00. One trick is to also make an even shorter song, like 2:30 as some radio stations have weird timeslots where they have to fit content. So, if they have a short slot, they might use a super short song.
- Different radio formats may favor male vocalists or female vocalists. Adult Contemporary favors male vocalists. Jazz and trip hop favors females. Be aware of the format, and how your own artistry fits into it.
- Hire a reputable and PROVEN radio promoter. Do not go to stations directly or get your fans to request your song. WHAT?!!! You’re saying don’t have my fans call in? RIGHT. Do not do that. Music Directors know when they are being targeted by a flash mob. You want to present your music professionally, so you need to hire someone who can walk your stuff in the door and get it listened to. Research what radio promoters are getting songs on the radio in your target format. It is generally considered poor form for an artist to go directly to a Music Director at a station. Internet radio is the only exception as their playlists are often curated by a single person.
- Realize that the big three major labels (Sony, Universal, Time Warner in particular) have been courting radio for 50+ years. They have DEEP relationships with stations and networks that you will never have. As a result, there is a “major label stack” and the “everybody else” stack. Since you will most likely be in the “everybody else” stack, do all of the steps above, and particularly make sure that your radio promoter has the influential relationships at the stations that you want to be on. If you don’t know this information, you are not ready to bring songs to radio.
SIDE NOTE: There is a lot of speculation on the “pay to play” scheme that has plagued radio from its inception. The FCC has rules about it. Labels cannot pay stations to have their songs played. (But there’s also “no steroids in baseball” either as Sony had to pay a settle a lawsuit for this practice.) The way some labels get around this is to pay for “fly ins” – all expense paid trips for radio staff to meet artists and see them showcase. These are exclusive events that labels spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on each year to get radio staff’s attention. If you run an indie label or are an indie artist, realize that this marketing technique may be your most formidable challenge. Do you have the dollars to compete against the major label fly-ins? A low-budget way of starting out and competing against it is to simply have your radio promoter call the station and you take the Music Director or other staff out to lunch, or bring in breakfast for them.
- If you do get played, send a short, personalized “Thank You” card to the Music Director at the station. Work with your radio promoter on this. Station staff likes to get to know artists that they play. If they get a card with your autograph on it, along with a personalized note, it will go a long way to show that you care, and increase your chances to get played the next time you have a new song.
Realize that how songs get played on the radio is not just about “the best song.” It’s about the whole package. Are you on a major label or are you an indie or on an indie label? Do you have a great song that is undeniable? Who produced the song? Does it have a huge hook? Is it a gimmick song? Is it short and to the point? Who is your radio promoter? Do they have the relationships to get your song played?
In a future article, we’ll explore the new and emerging world of streaming and how it could be an alternative launching point for your music.