MusicBiz101 radio

Published on January 8th, 2010 | by Hugh Hession


Why is it so hard to get radio airplay?

Note: This post is part of makingitinmusic’s MusicBiz101, a category that was created to answer the typical questions musician’s have when they are starting out in the biz.

Probably one of the biggest questions I get from people is on getting radio airplay. “How can I get my songs on the radio?” people ask me.

In addressing this issue; I’ve decided to start a category called “MusicBiz101.” This category will include the major questions most musicians starting out have about the industry. This doesn’t shut out you vets. If there is some stuff in here that can give you knowledge, by all means….partake!

Before we venture more into this topic, it’s essential to provide an overview of radio and promotion to get a better understanding of its origins.

A brief history of radio and promotion

When radio was young, it was not uncommon to walk into a radio station, hand the DJ a 45 and have them listen to it. In those days, DJ’s were instrumental (no pun intended….well maybe!) in launching the careers of wanna be recording artists. You would think with that kind of access, every aspiring singer would be handing DJ’s records. You have to remember however, that you couldn’t just plug in to your audio/midi interface and bring up Pro-Tools to record a song, and then send it to Discmasters for duplication, all for under $1200.

Not many had access in those days to recording equipment or the means to transfer a recording to vinyl – let alone the the money to do it! Record companies typically owned the best studios.

It didn’t take DJ’s long to figure out how lucrative of a position they really were in. When promoters showed up with records and favors (money, drugs, you name it), they suddenly became big fans of the music that was being pushed on them.

Of course, not all DJ’s were like this. There were many who prided themselves on cherry picking hit songs. Regardless, anyone that knows about payola and Alan Freed, understands how manipulative of a process it was.

As radio grew up, the indie stations were becoming a thing of the past, as consolidation was becoming the norm. The entertainment business is about relationships, and indie record promoters knew this, oh so well…so well, that they had the major labels paying them crazy amounts of money (often up to $250,000 to $300,000 per song) to guarantee radio airplay. This was payola on crack.

There is some great information about the history behind this – the obvious being Hitmen by Fredric Dannen.

The majors looked at it like this: the more expensive the indie promoter service was, the more competition they kept out. Thus, independent labels were essentially shut out from any type of commercial airplay. There were exceptions, but very few.

The indie promoter scene has died out quite a bit in regard to the extreme nature of its activity. After indictments were handed down to many of the record companies and indie promoters in the late 80’s, the industry cooled its engines. Well, for the most part.

So let’s get back to today. You are probably thinking, yes…let’s do that. That was then, this is now. Well, hate to burst your bubble, but indie promoters are still a big part of the industry, and yes, they are still, should I say, “influencing” radio…just not as blatantly. This is evident with the 2005-06 prosecutions by then New York prosecutor (and ultimately, embarrassed governor) Eliot Spitzer involving the major record companies and the communication (broadcasting) companies involved.

What radio is really for

Yep…I know. You hear it all the time from your fans, your family and your friends. “Your stuff is just as good as what is on the radio.”  Unfortunately it ain’t that easy.

Like television, radio is in the advertising business. It is how they make their money. The songs that are played on commercial radio (that ever- shrinking, repetitive list we all know so well) are carefully chosen with loving care by the program directors. Almost got you excited, didiStock_000005544549XSmalln’t I?

The real deal is that commercial radio relies heavily on the major record companies to “inform them” of what will draw listeners to their station. The bigger an artist’s “campaign” the more exposure the artist gets. Can you read in between the lines?  Read the following email threads from Sony Records. You’ll get a kick out of it.

The idea here, is that record companies choose the hit single and pitch it to a radio station through  various “influential” ways. Concert tickets, mp3 players, sneakers, clothing, weekend getaways, cruises you name it. Then, hopefully the song will be played so much that listeners will start to catch on.

This is good for the artist, in that they get paid by their performance rights organization for airplay. This is good for the record company, because they are making the majority of the money from the sale of the hit single. This is good for the radio station, because more people are tuning in and listening to their commercials from all those local car dealerships, restaurants and hair salons.

It is not good for you, as an independent artist unless you have that kind of monetary influence. Simply put, you don’t have that kind of cash to compete! Notice how I didn’t say “song.”  I said cash.

So you see where I’m going with this. You’re song might very well be incredible. And, I will say, great songs have a way of finding great homes. Establishing yourself as an independent artist takes some work!

Do the songs that are pushed to radio suck? Well, that is obviously the most subjective statement out there. Sound off below. I’d love to hear your comments!

I will say this. A ton of airplay does not always equal record sales (note that any fixed recording medium is still referred to as “records” in the music biz).

I love the example that Moses Avalon mentions in his book Confessions of a Record Producer.  In 1986, retailers had an initial order of over 2 million units of Bruce Springsteen’s live album. The album was number one on Billboard and instantly went double platinum. What they don’t tell you is that many of the records were shipped back, as it is commonplace for retailers to ship back product that has not sold.  Prior to 1991 Billboard was not remotely an indicator of true record sales or radio airplay. They merely tracked shipping invoices!

Radio is not the same as it used to be

I was speaking with Denny Keitzman a couple months ago backstage, about the demise of radio. Denny is the tour manager for the mega-Christian recording act Casting Crowns and an experienced promoter with his company, Strait Gate Productions. His take was radio is a fading star.

At one time, it used to be the way to break new artists and for listeners to hear new songs. Although to a degree that is still true,  kids just don’t listen to much radio anymore and they are the ones who buy music. The Internet and digital downloading is killing both radio and the CD. Why tune into radio, when you have your choice of what song you want on demand, then download it to your iPod?

So as an aspiring artist, should you give up on radio airplay all together? Well, the major stations won’t touch you if you aren’t signed. This is just a given. Yes, I know there are exceptions…there always are, but as a rule of thumb, commercial radio is reserved for signed, major league recording artists. There are local shows that are a plus for your promotional campaigns and you can’t forget college radio (although this can be heavily influenced by the majors as well).

Radio is not what it used to be. Back in the day, it was the only medium to break an act, but there wasn’t as many promotional opportunities as there are now for the indie artist. The good news, is nowadays there are more and more outlets to promote your music – especially online – bringing a synergistic relationship to your music that older musicians never had.

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About the Author

owns and operates Emerging Artists Entertainment Marketing & Consulting, LLC - a company devoted to cultivating aspiring music artists, He is also the head of Hession Entertainment Group, LLC (artist management) and the Music Industry Liaison for the artist discovery site, TalentWatch ( He has over 25 years experience in the music business as a performer, composer, producer and artist manager. Hugh holds a BA in Marketing and is a professional member of NARIP and a voting member of The Recording Academy. He often speaks at seminars and workshops on artist development.

6 Responses to Why is it so hard to get radio airplay?

  1. MartinT says:

    What about other forms of radio?

    I have a list of over 100 IRC that’s Internet Relay Chat radio’s with listeners in their 10’s to there 1000’s.

    You can contact the DJ there and then in the channel and more than likely succeed in getting air play…

    You can take this one step further in regards to promotion and ask as your a band member if you can relay your website or what have you in there channel periodically if they like your music… I’ve seen hundreds of people in radio’s on IRC idling and chatting away.

    Nice site btw!

  2. Hugh Hession says:

    Good tip, MartinT. Your comments are appreciated. It’s refreshing that the Internet helps to considerably level the playing field, especially with the various types of online radio that are available. Though competition may be fierce, never before have I seen so many avenues for an indie musician to promote themselves. BTW: thanks for the compliment.

  3. Pingback: Getting Radio Airplay

  4. Hi,

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the great work Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

    Michael David.

  5. Grace R says:

    Hi Hugh, Terrific insight and knowledge for the non-radio person. I find your article to be so informative and detailed. As I remember Payola, it is amazing at what is still happening in the Radio industry and it appears to be legal. I understand a lot more reading your blog and all the links to it. Thank you. Grace

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