Let's Make A Deal: The Politics of Radio Promotion

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Title: Let's Make A Deal: The Politics of Radio Promotion

This is Celia Hirschman for On The Beat, with KCRW.

The goal of every major label is to try and get a song on commercial radio. If a radio station's playlist was made soley on the basis of the music, life would be much simpler for everyone, and in my opinion, radio would be far more interesting. But the truth is that the radio and record business are engaged in high level deal making and records are often added to playlists on that basis.

Getting airplay on the radio is more about power, relationships and money than ever before.

The problem really begins with the fact that record companies and radio stations have very different business objectives though they both serve the same audience. A record label wants radio to support new and developing talent, to help build a national story of success, in order to sell more records.

On the other hand, a commercial radio station earns its income, building the largest audience it can, to command the highest advertising rates. Most listeners want to hear music they already know, so all commercial radio stations limit the amount of new artist music they play. Instead, they try to create a delicate balance of familiar hits, with a sprinkling of new artists.

Since each station only adds a couple of songs a week, the play list is a political football, to be negotiated. So how does a baby band get on commercial radio these days?

The answer, more often than not, is through a highly sophisticated dance of lets make a deal . One of the most effective ways to get a airplay, is for the label to offer something of value to the radio station. And it's not surprising. Since consolidation, radio stations have had to service the debt of their owners and have lost a lot of their local budgets. So anything that will help boost the listenership and will help them be the envy of their competition, with little or no cost attached, is of interest to most radio stations.

It's pretty common for record labels to mortgage one of their more successful acts, to help get a baby act a shot on the air. Some ways that record companies do that are: Giving stations box sets, autographed guitars, and concert tickets of bigger name artists on the label in exchange for good will in the future. Or perhaps an exclusive interview with that bigger named talent. Valued exclusives are highly prized in the world of radio. Sometimes, labels will leak a single by one of their big acts to a top radio station in the market, in hopes of future benefits. And labels will offer gifts, trips, and automobiles for giveaway to curry favor with the station. They'll buy radio spots, finance flyaway contests for winners, and try and do what ever is necessary and legal to get their band on the air. These days, one of the most popular ways to get on the radio is by committing the baby band to perform at a radio sponsored live event, at the expense of the band and label.

It's standard operating procedure among radio stations, and it's not unusual for bands to tour the entire country and play radio sponsored shows for free, though the radio stations will take the revenue for themselves. And as soon as that show has ended, it's also pretty common for the record to drop right off the playlist, unless the track has performed exceedingly well.

Whatever you may think about the practice, don't be naive. If you want to play in the pool, you better be prepared to swim with the sharks. And if you don't swim? Be prepared to try other, far less effective ways to sell records in America.

This is Celia Hirschman for On The Beat, with KCRW.