As a retired radio programmer I get asked a lot about how radio works. I hear a lot of complaints that radio is too narrow minded and dependent upon major label artists. I hear and read often that the major labels own radio. Essentially, all I seem to be confronted with are grumbling arguments as to why commercial radio, and to a lesser extent non-commercial radio, seems to be screwing the independent artist. In truth, there are many reasons why the vast majority of radio-ready independent artists do not receive airplay. In fact, there are two primary reasons; distribution and catalogue inventory or play list space.
Many years ago a new label (I’ve long since forgotten who) came about. When the promotions person for that label approached me about adding their artist, the first thing they asked of me was a list of all the retail record establishments in my market area. They said they would be willing to seed each and every store in that market area with product and to keep track of all sales from that area. Nowadays, of course, bar codes and Soundscan take care of all that, but back then it all had to be done manually.
Lack of good retail distribution is a major faux pas of the independent artist seeking radio airplay. Radio programming has historically been based on the idea that the largest selling records in any market receive airplay. While that practice has lessened somewhat with time, it’s still true that new artists who have little buzz and little, if any, distribution is virtually denied access right out of the box. Today, the five major distribution companies (commonly referred to as the “big five”) virtually control the marketing and distribution of literally thousands of major and minor label recordings. The best of the secondary and tertiary independent labels have distribution deals with these major distributors, insuring that their product at least gets into record / cd stores nationally, and in some cases internationally.
A quick scan of the two biggest radio airplay charts shows a plethora of smaller independent labels represented across several formats. The most recent Gavin Report AAA radio airplay charts shows that of the top 50 songs in rotation, no less than twenty-two of those listed are from independent labels. In addition, there are a few more which are independent or minor labels associated with one of the “Big Five” distributor / labels. This easily leads to the conclusion that the independent artist is not completely ignored in favor of only major label artists, as some have contended.
Here’s a look at the most recent Gavin Report AAA radio airplay chart. There is another surprising element represented herein as well, but I’ll wait until the next installment on radio formats and their relationship to genres to discuss it.
- 1 AFRO CELT SOUND SYSTEM – Volume 3: Further In Time (Real World/Virgin)
- 2 LUCINDA WILLIAMS – Essence (Lost Highway)
- 3 R.E.M. – Reveal (Warner Bros.)
- 4 DAVE MATTHEWS BAND – Every Day (RCA)
- 5 ERIC CLAPTON – Reptile (Reprise)
- 6 U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind (Interscope)
- 7 WIDESPREAD PANIC – Don’t Tell The Band (Sanctuary)
- 8 MELISSA ETHERIDGE – Skin (Island/IDJMG)
- 9 BLACK CROWES – Lions (V2)
- 10 PETE YORN – Music For The Morning After (Columbia/CRG)
- 11 COLDPLAY – Parachutes (Nettwerk/Capitol)
- 12 TRAIN – Drops Of Jupiter (Columbia/CRG)
- 13 BLUES TRAVELER – Bridge (A&M;/Interscope)
- 14 ROBERT CRAY – Shoulda Been Home (Rykodisc)
- 15 WHISKEYTOWN – Pneumonia (Lost Highway)
- 16 JOSH JOPLIN GROUP – Camera (Artemis)
- 17 TRAVIS – The Invisible Band (Epic)
- 18 FIVE FOR FIGHTING – America Town (Columbia/CRG)
- 19 COWBOY JUNKIES – Open (Zoe/Rounder)
- 20 OLD 97’S – Satellite Rides (Elektra/EEG)
- 21 DEPECHE MODE – Exciter (Reprise)
- 22 NANCI GRIFFITH – Clock Without Hands (Elektra/EEG)
- 23 STEVIE NICKS – Trouble In Shangra-La (Reprise)
- 24 STRING CHEESE INCIDENT – Outside Inside (Sci-Fidelity)
- 25 RADIOHEAD – Amnesiac (Capitol)
- 26 DAVID BYRNE – Look Into The Eyeball (Luaka Bop/Virgin)
- 27 DELBERT McCLINTON – Nothing Personal (New West)
- 28 KIRSTY MacCOLL – Tropical Brainstorm (Instinct)
- 29 BETTER THAN EZRA – Closer (Beyond)
- 30 CHRIS WHITLEY – Rocket House (ATO)
- 31 DAVE CARTER & TRACY GRAMMER – Drum Hat Buddha (Signature Sounds)
- 32 ACTION FIGURE PARTY – Action Figure Party (Blue Thumb/Verve Music Group)
- 33 ROBERT EARL KEEN – Gravitational Forces (Lost Highway)
- 34 CAKE – Comfort Eagle (Columbia/CRG)
- 35 LIFEHOUSE – No Name Face (DreamWorks)
- 36 CPR – Just Like Gravity (Gold Circle)
- 37 ANI DiFRANCO – Revelling/Reckoning (Righteous Babe)
- 38 INCUBUS – Make Yourself (Epic)
- 39 J.J. CALE – Live (Virgin)
- 40 ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO – A Man Under The Influence (Bloodshot)
- 41 SCOTT MILLER & THE COMMONWEALTH – Thus Always To Tyrants (Sugar Hill)
- 42 BARENAKED LADIES – Maroon (Reprise)
- 43 matchbox twenty – mad season (Lava/Atlantic)
- 44 JOHN MAYER – No Such Thing (Aware)
- 45 JOHN MAYALL & FRIENDS – Along for The Ride (Eagle)
- 46 JONATHA BROOKE – Steady Pull (Bad Dog)
- 47 SUGAR RAY – Sugar Ray (Lava/Atlantic)
- 48 RUFUS WAINWRIGHT – Poses (DreamWorks)
- 49 MARCIA BALL – Presumed Innocent (Alligator)
- 50 SHAWN COLVIN – Whole New You (Columbia/CRG)
Perhaps equally as important as retail distribution in getting radio airplay for the independent artist is playlist inventory and how and why it works the way it does.
One of the biggest complaints we as radio programmers hear from music connoisseurs is, “I hear the same song every hour.” Actually, this is a myth. There is NO radio station I’ve ever heard, dating back to the sixties, that has a one hour rotation. At the height of the “ultra new music” top forty station idea, some major market stations had a power rotation of two hours and twenty minutes. Typically, however, most radio stations that play large amounts of “new” material have a power rotation of over three hours … usually around three hours and twenty minutes or three hours and forty minutes.
There are four categories for newer music at the vast majority of radio stations; power or heavy, medium, light, and recurrent. Most radio stations that I’m aware of have anywhere from twenty to forty songs in the power, medium and light rotation categories. Power rotation will, typically, hold ten to fifteen tracks. Assuming a station plays three power rotation tracks every hour (the average hour will support approximately twelve songs, depending on length of track and commercial load), the ten song power list would rotate every three – point – three (3.3) hours, approximately. Stations that program four “heavy’s” per hour will often have fifteen songs in that rotation, providing for just under a four hour rotation time.
One thing that a lot of people don’t seem to understand or think much about is what it takes to create the emotional connection between the average listener and creating a hit song. Repetitive listens, throughout a long extended period of time is essential. Years ago, I read of a theory that supported the premise that it requires a song be played six times by a station before the average listener even hears the song once. This theory went on to support the idea that it requires six discreet listens before the average listener “heard” and recognized the song being played. Furthermore, it was hypothesized that it would require six months of listening to a song, as it was played on a radio station, before the average listener had connected emotionally enough with the song for it to become not only recognizable, but also ingrained enough in the listener’s mind to become “singable,” and therefore nostalgic. It is, based on the theory, at this point that a song maintains its power with the consumer, thereby creating a hit worthy of “recurrent” or further “classic” or “oldies” status. These songs are considered “hit” records when they reach across the national charts, establish strong airplay and sales chart positions, and are requested heavily by the listener.
This then is what leads to the second reason why the vast majority of artists do not receive radio airplay; there is simply no room on the playlist. In order for a radio station to build a song to a successful level, thereby insuring its placement in the heart and mind of the listener, playlists must be restrictive. If they were not, as was the case during much of the eighties, radio stations that focus on being classic hit oriented would have no recognizable songs to play in the future. To a large degree, we see this phenomena now with what is called the classic hits format. There is a very high order of seventies material, a bit less of music from eighties and then very little from the nineties.
Playlist inventories are very carefully controlled by research. A successful station wants to play those songs that are the most recognizable to the average listener, while being careful to not play music which may have a high burn out factor. Call out research, auditorium testing, and focus groups have been the primary ways that radio stations have tested the songs in their catalogues. While each has its pros and cons, this research assists the station program director in his or her efforts to maintain a sound that will help them to not only maintain its existing listener base, but also garner new listeners.
Since the average playlist inventory will support between five hundred and seven hundred fifty songs, it becomes easy to understand why so few songs are actually added to a station’s playlist. This further helps to illustrate why program directors are so picky in the process of adding new material, and often look to the national airplay charts as a way to establish which material is most likely to become a “hit.” Airplay and sales charts are no guarantee that a song will maintain its “hit” status over time, however. During the eighties, pop teen hitmakers like Tiffany and Debbie Gibson had high charting hit songs. However, today, these artists are virtually forgotten. This has been true during each of the past four and a half decades of rock-n-roll.
For the non-label aligned independent artist, widespread and consistent radio airplay is almost certainly nearly impossible. Lack of distribution and effective promotion are the two areas that the independent artist needs to address in order to begin the process. It does nothing for the independent artist to send out hundreds of cds to radio if the listener in that area cannot easily go out to a major retailer and purchase the recording. Building local and regional success stories with small independently owned radio stations, supported by strong local sales will garner the attention of other stations, and eventually the larger promotion and distribution groups which make their money off the sale of that product they put on the market.
As songs go from lite to medium to power rotation on radio station playlists, the average listener becomes more familiar with that song, thereby leading to the best possibility that a song will be remembered and liked enough to become “nostalgic.” Very few songs ever truly reach this level, and it is those that do which become future classic hits. This is as true for the major label artist as it is the independently produced artist.
In the effort to procure radio airplay there is one more element which must be understood by the promotion team; relevant format to genre applicability. That is the topic of the next article.
Chris K. is a retired radio programmer and broadcaster, with over 25 years experience. He is also a published music and industry critic, with articles and reviews appearing in both local and national trade publications. Currently he is the Director of Pro Critic Radio on MP3.com, a member of the Board of Directors for CMAP Music International, an active member of Colorado Musicians Association, and a manager and editor for Godsofmusic.com. He can be e-mailed at [email protected] This work is protected under all applicable copyright laws as may exist on the Internet or elsewhere in the physical world. Copyright 2001, Chris “K” Kresge.