If you understand the business relationship between record labels and radio stations, you understand the very essence of the music business. To put it simply, they need each other. A record label needs radio airplay to deliver the music of its artists to an audience of radio listeners. A radio station needs music programming to broadcast to that audience. But of course there’s a little more to it than that.
Anyone who is interested in getting their music on the radio must realize that the relationship between these two businesses is complex. Understanding some of the basic issues of record promotion and radio broadcasting will better prepare you for the challenges that await, should you ever attempt to solicit your music to a commercial or non-commercial radio station.
The Record Label Side
Radio airplay is traditionally the best way for a record label to get their recorded music heard by the public. The more a song is played on the radio and heard by listeners, the more chance the song has to become a part of the public’s consciousness. If people hear a song often enough to get familiar with it, they may like it and want to buy it—that’s the only reason a record label invests so much time and money to get airplay. It’s a proven marketing tactic that, when successful, leads to billions of dollars in record sales annually.
Although MTV, VH1, and other cable and broadcast television use to be an essential way to get mass exposure for new songs, today only the major labels MAY concentrate on getting such airplay. Obviously this type of video exposure can significantly increase the popularity of a recording artist. However, for most acts today, investing in the type of quality video that the commercial TV and cable broadcasters require is out of reach for most new artists and bands.
Any kind of radio airplay creates excitement about a new song, whether is be commercial, non-commercial, Internet, or Satellite radio So, smart music formatted radio stations work closely with the record labels to coordinate promotional events surrounding music releases. Today, Internet promotions, publicity efforts, retail store promotions, and live tours by recording artists each play an important role in supporting the radio airplay a song gets, all with the hopes of creating sales of that record.
Radio listener-ship is not what it use to be, even a decade ago, but it still can be a very strong tool used by labels for exposing recorded music product. Social Networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, and even YouTube are used by more and more indie labels and bands to discover new music these days.
Anyway, the money from the sales of CDs is a label’s only real source of income. So, until some newer technology comes along to replace the exposure that radios allows, radio airplay of any kind remains a priority for most record labels. But please remember: for independent recording artists putting out their own records, or those signed to small independent labels, getting significant commercial radio airplay can be very difficult and very expensive.
Getting songs played consistently on national commercial radio stations and getting songs aired on non-commercial radio are two different things. Commercial airplay is an effective type of radio airplay, but the costs of promoting songs to commercial radio may be prohibitive to many independent artists and labels. Opportunities for some radio airplay do exist for independent artists on many commercial stations through local music programs, but such airplay is usually spotty at best. However, many non-commercial radio stations, especially college radio, as well as Internet stations, air independent music on a regular basis.
The Radio Side
Realizing how record labels need radio airplay is only half the picture. Because record labels and radio stations need each other, let’s take a quick look at the radio side of things before we talk about promotion in greater detail. Record label combatants in the music promotion wars arm themselves with an arsenal of information to convince stations to play their songs. They prepare for a promotional campaign by studying some facts about the business of radio. Basically this is how the broadcasting business works.
Music-formatted radio stations both commercial and non-commercial get their music for free from record labels. The radio industry uses that music to attract listeners to their stations. If they get enough listeners, consistently, they can attract advertisers who are eager to reach a select demographic group of consumers. So, in a sense, a radio station uses music like bait to attract people of a certain age group, gender, and ethnicity so they can deliver listeners of that demographic group to their advertisers. If they do their programming right, radio stations can charge advertisers handsomely for the radio ads they air, and the income from advertisers is radio’s primary source of revenue.
What Is Record Promotion?
Promotion is the word used to describe the work done by record labels to get radio airplay for their releases. Promotional Representatives, or "Promo Reps" are record label employees who present the label’s new releases to radio stations and try to persuade the station’s music and/or program director to play the song the label has selected for promotion. Record labels decide very carefully what specific songs from an artist or band’s new record would most likely get the airplay they need to attract consumer’s attention, and at the same time fit into the radio station’s format.
The Promotion Department is a key department for any record label - major or independent. If a Promo Rep is successful in securing airplay for a record, the overall marketing plan conceived by the label will be given a significant boost. If a Promo Rep can’t secure airplay for a release, it’s very difficult for that record to become a hit.
Promo Reps are like sales people. If you’ve ever had any experience selling anything, then you know how important enthusiasm and a positive attitude are in convincing potential customers to buy your product. Staying positive and upbeat is essential in the music business. Every label Rep knows that they’re not the only label releasing new music every week, and that radio stations can only play a few of those new songs.
Record labels, big and small, release several hundred CDs every week. Radio stations have an over-abundance of records to choose from when they pick which, if any, songs to add to their playlists. A “playlist” is a list of songs a station is airing and it’s created every week by the station’s Music Director. So, a recording that gets a passionate and honest sales pitch (filled with information about the act and what support the label is giving the record) will have a better chance of being listened to by the radio station’s Music and Program Directors.
In order to fully appreciate what’s involved in promoting songs to radio, it’s essential that some basic understanding of the business of radio broadcasting be known. So, let’s take a brief look at who decides what music gets on the air at a station, why they choose the songs they choose, and other issues that affect music broadcasters.
Radio Station Decision Makers: Music Directors and Program Directors
Every music-formatted radio station, both commercial and non-commercial, has a Music Director and Program Director. The Music Director (MD) is the main contact for a record label’s Promo Rep. The Music Director’s immediate boss is usually the station’s Program Director. The PD is responsible for everything that goes out over the air and reports directly to the station’s General Manager. These General Managers (GMs) are then, in turn, responsible for the entire operation of a station and report directly to the owners of the station.
At most commercial radio stations, Program Directors approve all songs that their MDs recommend. There are variations on this, of course. Some PDs leave all music selection to the MD, while others are deeply involved in choosing the music with the MD, or act as the MD in addition to their other duties. Those duties can involve hiring and firing DJs, working with the station’s Sales and Promotions departments, meeting with the station’s Chief Engineer, Production Director and General Manager. A Program Director has to coordinate any and all issues that may affect the station’s sound. Radio stations, like record labels, are run by people in separate departments who act as a team.
Over the last two decades technology has radically changed the way radio conducts its business. In the early ’90s, at the same time as the SoundScan company was revolutionizing the way record sales were monitored, a company called Broadcast Data Systems unveiled a new software to help radio stations and record labels keep better track of the number of times a record got played on a station. Today’s music-industry trade magazines now track the exact number of spins a song gets every week on all stations that report playing it. These spins are called Plays Per Week (PPW) in the charts. Knowing exactly how many times a song is played can be very beneficial to both radio stations and record labels. Think of it…every time a song is played on a commercial station, the song’s unique ID number tracks it. Reports of the number of plays each song gets are sent via e-mail to the BDS offices in New Jersey, where they can compile very accurate national PPW reports on the cumulative number of spins each song gets every week on the various music-formatted commercial radio stations.
To help Music Directors and Program Directors put together their playlists and devise effective rotations of their programmed songs. The dominant company today for commercial radio stations is Mediabase. It has contributed to streamlining the job of creating and maintaining accurate programming logs. And as technology creeps even more into the business of radio, most commercial radio stations today no longer play actual CDs, which are cumbersome to organize and subject to too many technical glitches. Instead, radio stations invest in computer programs that store the selected songs on massive hard drives with hundreds of terabytes of storage which are then simply accessed by the DJ on duty, and played or recalled from memory at the time they are scheduled for airplay. (Did you think DJs actually play vinyl records, or even CDs? Times have changed, my friends.)
Music Directors have one main job to do. They deal with the glut of new releases coming into the station every day. That means they have to listen to every record and decide on its merits for airplay, keeping in mind the format of their station, the target demographic they are appealing to, and whether or not that song will work in their programming mix.
In addition to that awesome task, they must talk with the many Promo Reps who call them every week seeking airplay for their new releases or increased airplay of the songs they are playing. Then, in regular weekly meetings with the Program Director, they usually recommend specific songs to be added to the playlist. In most cases, the PD makes the final decision on what particular songs will be added.
By the way, for every new record added to a station’s playlist, another record is usually taken out of the playlist. Commercial radio stations play a very short list of songs in varying degrees of rotation. Around the clock, seven days a week, 365 days a year, music-formatted radio stations play a mix of new songs, fairly recent popular songs (called “recurrents”), and some older songs from the history of their format. No radio station on the planet plays only new songs, one after the other, around the clock. If they did, they would have very few listeners.
Music Directors and Program Directors are professional broadcasters who have studied the listening habits of radio listeners for years. They know how listeners use radio in their daily lives, and the fact is that most radio listeners listen to radio as background accompaniment to various tasks they’re involved in throughout the day.
Radio stations’ most listened-to times of day occur in the early morning and the late afternoon. These times are called “drive time.” Morning drive time is roughly from 5 am to 9 or 10 am. Afternoon drive time is approximately from 3 pm to 7 pm. More people listen to a radio station early in the morning than at any other time of day.
Americans use radio as a companion to whatever else they may be doing. Getting ready for work in the morning, driving to work or school, doing errands throughout the day, performing chores around the house, working on our computers, or playing around with our hobbies—whenever we want it, radio is there for us.
When Music Directors and Program Directors check out the new releases sent to them from the labels each week, they listen with an ear tuned to how most listeners use the radio and how each particular song can fit into a listener’s day. They know instinctively if a particular song would work for them in the morning, afternoon, or perhaps in the late evening or overnight off-time hours. Music and Program Directors are acutely aware of their audience’s listening habits. The time of day and even the day of the week play a role in their decision to play a record a lot, a little bit, or not at all. MDs and PDs may choose a song because they personally happen to like it, but as professionals, they’ve learned how to listen to songs for their audience. They are paid handsomely, in most cases, for having the ability to choose songs that keep listeners listening. They can tell if they’re making good programming choices when they read the Arbitron reports.
I will talk about other issues related to the relationship between radio stations and record labels another time. For now, you have a lot to think about after hearing a bit about how both industries rely on each other.