I received a few questions and even one or two demands on the topic of radio. It seems everyone would like to be on the radio. Why would you want to be on the radio? I don’t get it. Only kidding. I get it. I also know that what most of you are talking about is commercial radio. For the time being you can forget it. It is impossible to get on the radio until you are large, established act. Not only do you need to be an act playing large theaters or greater you also have to fit into the “ya kinda sound like everything else” category to have a shot at being on radio. It’s sad. It’s also not the end of the conversation.
American pop and rock radio is rotting on the vine. Playlists for commercial stations are dominated by acts that are largely ten to fifteen years past their date of expiration or are one of the eight to twelve major label acts that have broken through. The explanation for this is all commercial radio is controlled by bribes that are controlled by consultants that are funded by the three major music groups.
The last time that commercial radio programmers had any idea where they were going and had a reason to be playing what they were playing was 1995. ( I almost typed 1955 and that might have made more sense). Radio is going through hell behind the scenes. It is under attack from web radio and college radio and I tunes and guitar hero and satellite radio and god knows what else. In short it is doomed. It will survive but radio will be changing soon or it won’t exist.
For a young band or even a regional touring band the possibility of being on commercial radio is an impossibility. It doesn’t matter. Instead new bands need to understand the use and performance (as in one of your songs getting played on some kind of channel) of their recordings through the prism of the new value of digital media. (fancy sentence huh?! I’m tryin to pat myself on the back) Let me put that a different way. Recorded music is not worth what it was worth twenty years ago. Recorded music is now like a business card. On the whole you should GIVE YOUR RECORDINGS AWAY. Offer a single as a free download, attach the single to an email advertising a show. Music has been moving in this direction for a long time.
[In case anyone gets confused here let me state quite clearly that I think a band has every right to charge for music the band has recorded. I think anyone that then steals that music is a thief. It’s that simple. Now if the band decides to charge $22 per song as a download they are looking for trouble. The price of recorded music has dropped. The major labels and Apple hasn’t realized this yet but they will eventually get it]
Time for a story. In 1989 or 1990 (I think) I signed Phish to my label. Great band, great guys. They only had released their music as cheap cassettes with black and white covers. We set about planning a complete professional release for them. They had already recorded the album, Lawn Boy. We pulled a track off of their cassette release, a song called fee which was kinda a hit, and added it to the album. We worked out really nice pro art work and hired a pain in the ass photographer with great talent to shoot the cover. Me and a kid called Jeff Raspe (he’s now a kinda famous DJ guy) put together a big huge mailing list of people that would receive free copies of the album. When we had done all of this I felt that there was something missing. This band was special and they really had a buzz going but I needed to get their name out quick all over the country. They were just starting to become popular with Deadheads.
I went to visit a friend who was a big deadhead. While listening to one of his live tapes it hit me. In those days (yes kiddies it was a long, long time ago) people traded cassette copies of live shows. This had started out as a Deadhead thing and had spread to every other act under the sun. The people that traded tapes were loosely organized. I asked my friend for a complete list of tape traders. The list was over 1200 names long.
Now the way it worked was you would send one of these guys a SASE (that’s an envelope with postage on it). They would stick a copy of their tape list in it and mail back to you. You would mail them a list of your live tapes. Then you would work out a trade or maybe ask nice for them to copy a few live shows for you. These people were deep into trading and would tape every show they attended, often against the band’s wishes.
(Robert Fripp of the band King Crimson once saw an ad from some kid saying he had live tapes of King Crimson to trade. Fripp showed up at the kid’s house, knocked on his door and then told the kid to go get all the tapes. When the kid returned with a box of tapes Fripp took them and stalked off without saying a word)
It’s important that you get the underlying message here. Music gets around in all kinds of ways. Each way is an opportunity if you know how to use it. So back to the Phish story.
I got a really good live show from the band playing to a sold out house at Nektars a hometown nightclub. I had twelve hundred copies of this tape made. I then paid a woman I knew to write notes that went something like this ” Hi Harold. It was great meeting you at the show. I know it’s been a long time and you thought I forgot but here’s a tape of that band I was talking about…” signed Judy. Now I knew that these traders went to tons of shows and would often receive multiple tapes in any given week. It would often take about three weeks for them to get around to listening to their incoming mail. I also knew that these people would go to shows that they weren’t really interested in in order to tape them if they thought the band would be valuable to trade with someone else.
After we mailed out all of these packages which were a primitive version of spam we waited. We did this about two months before the release of the record. Soon the show started to pop up on tape trader lists. Then like clockwork, other shows started to show up on lists as the traders went to Phish tour dates to flesh out their collection.
Now I knew that Phish didn’t have a prayer of getting on MTV or the radio so we had to take other routes to the top. When the album came out I went to a bunch of Dead shows and handed out promos (free copies) of the album to random people in the audience. Within four months the band’s buzz was ramping up nationwide……
Why did I tell this story in a blog about radio? Radio is changing. Find the new, alternative and experimental ways that music is being spread and work those systems SYSTEMATICALLY. If anyone tells you that bands get big by sheer luck that person doesn’t have a clue. When a band becomes big, someone is quietly working behind the scenes to make it happen…………..this is how you succeed at Rock………………
Copyright Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010