You may be asking yourself: in a world full of online streaming services, why on earth would anyone want to consider radio to promote their music in the 21st century?
The answer is: radio is still a very powerful and valuable way to promote your music, establish connections with fans and industry, and maybe even earn a bit of extra royalty coin at the same time.
In fact, there are a lot of serious benefits to promoting on radio that streaming services just can’t provide – so let's dive into those!
People like to throw around the word ‘curator’ now, but radio stations are the original curators of music. Radio could almost be thought of as a combination of both a playlist and a podcast - DJs and music supervisors establish on-air programs that often have very dedicated listeners.
If you think your next track would sound great on a certain radio station, and they wind up playing you, you know your music is getting out to those people who will almost certainly connect with your sound. This also makes it a great avenue for promotion, like if you’re planning a tour.
There are a few different types of radio stations out there: commercial, public, college, and satellite. For this post, we’ll talk mainly about commercial, college and public radio.
Which radio model is right for me?
Commercial, or corporate (privately owned) radio
These stations generally showcase pop music stars, Top 40 hit-makers, and mainstream powerhouses. If a station says it’s “Classic Rock,” “Oldies,” “Country” or “All Hip-hop All Day Long,” chances are it’s a commercial station.
Commercial radio makes money from advertising, and so commercial radio stations are very aware of who their listeners are and what they want. Often the prices that companies will pay radio stations for advertising is dependent on their listener numbers. So, it’s in commercial radio's interest to make sure that they have a lot of listener engagement by playing great music that’s tailored to their audience.
With a typically large broadcast range–big cities and beyond–as well as online radio streaming, commercial radio really can give you a lot of promotional leverage through airplay.
Also, if you are a member of a Performance Rights Organization (PRO) like ASCAP, BMI, or SOCAN, commercial radio stations are required to pay these organizations for every play of your song. They keep meticulous records, and lots of play can mean you can get solid royalties through your PRO (and you earn a lot more for one radio play than one streaming play).
A hurdle to commercial play is that modern commercial radio now tends to be more ‘playlisted.’ Most of the time, these playlists are not made in-station; rather, they’re submitted in advance from the head office of the company that owns them.
So it’s not the DJ or Station Manager melting into a puddle of excitement at hearing your new single and breaking all the rules by playing it on repeat for a week straight because your song is so awesome.
Most commercial radio now is owned by a small group of large media companies who distribute playlists across all their stations. These stations are also very ‘genre’ based, so the curation of music is much more restrictive, which makes it very difficult for indie artists to get played.
All that to say, it's not impossible to get played on commercial radio! But if you’re an indie artist, you’ll have to first make sure that your music fits the parameters of what the station plays’, and you’d probably need the help of a publicist or radio promoter who already has established connections with these companies.
Even then there’s no guarantee, but the rewards of success can easily outweigh the effort required to get there.
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Compared to commercial radio, there is likely a whole lot more opportunity for an indie artist to get airplay on college radio stations. College radio is just that: a radio station on the campus of learning institutions like universities or colleges. How these are run varies greatly from campus to campus, but generally the programming is either provided by the students, or by contributors within the community where the station is based.
The primary benefit to college radio is the connection to the people running it. College radio still mostly runs like ‘old school’ stations, in that music is curated by DJs or music supervisors in house. Because their operation is not dependent on advertising dollars like commercial radio is, those curating the music are much more open to more independent music, and in fact, actively solicit artists for new material regularly.
College radio is much more of a cauldron of different ideas and programming, very much a reflection of the campus body - you might hear a political discourse for an hour, then banging hip-hop the next hour, followed by a klezmer express, and darkest-of-dark post-punk sounds after that, and so on... They also tend to be more friendly to ‘albums’ over singles - college radio likes to really curate music themselves, and receiving albums lets them pick the tracks they like.
DJs who run programs on college radio stations are reasonably open to solicitation from artists looking to get play provided the music fits their style. And because they tend to be ‘on the ground’ in the community where the station broadcasts, they are usually open to artist interviews and helping artists with promoting or finding shows in their area.
So, college radio can be more than just airplay: you can set up a relationship with a music community outside of where you are. And this network is imperative when planning things like album releases and tours.
While it’s much easier to get a foot in the door with college radio, because these stations are almost always ‘listener’ funded or community supported, the arrangement with performance rights organizations is different from commercial. The amounts stations pay are often calculated based on the total attending students for that college, and not on station revenues. So, royalties paid through a college radio broadcast can be smaller than through the commercial model.
The station’s broadcast range is usually much smaller, too - some don’t even exceed the property lines of the campus, so the listenership and reach is not as wide as corporate radio.
That said, there are almost 700 college stations in both Canada and the US. This means that if you’re an indie artist with the goal of getting some play in markets where you wouldn’t normally be heard, you can pretty much DIY a College radio campaign with just your time and a bit of elbow grease .
Public radio is publicly funded, usually via government directly, through grants, public donation, or an amalgamation of some or all of the above. Think of them as a radio utility instead of a business. Chances are you’ve heard of NPR, BBC, American Public Media, CBC in Canada, etc. - these are all public radio and broadcasting services.
Because they’re publicly funded entities, like college radio they tend to be very supportive of independent music, particularly from the region or country that funds them. However, unlike college radio they have radio outlets across a wide region with a massive broadcast range.
In fact, most public radio can reach places that other radio can’t, like to remote or rural communities that don’t otherwise have commercial or college radio access.
The target audience for most public radio stations tends to be those who actually spend money on what they love and value, and this often includes music.
For musicians, public radio in many ways can be the best of both worlds: they’re mandated to play regional content and music, they have a lot of listeners in a lot of places, and those listeners tend to be very engaged with that content, often using their pocket books to buy music. Oh, and public radio also pays PRO royalties!
Engaging with radio
One of the biggest mistakes artists make with radio is the easiest one to avoid: not listening to the stations or programs you’re thinking of sending your music to.
Listening may require an investment of time, but you save much more time and frustration later on by narrowing down your potential submissions to shows you know would love and play your tunes, instead of sending them to radio shows that don't fit your style.
Listening can also give you vital information like the name of a certain radio show, a DJ, music director, program director, or station manager. You’re going to need to email or call them; remember you’re looking to start a relationship if you can, it’s not just about airplay.
So be sure to spend a few days checking out stations online or in the car, make notes, and have a detailed list of shows, producers, and DJs who you know will love your music. Then reach out to them.
Getting contact information for radio is relatively easy. Most stations have submissions and contact details on their websites, and Google searches provide ways to find this also, like Indie on the Move's listing of radio stations and media contacts for bands and musicians: indieonthemove.com/radio
In Canada, you should also check out Earshot’s digital distribution system: earshot-distro.ca
Not only is it a great way to get your music to every College and online radio station in the country for a very small fee, they’ll let you know if a station downloaded it, and they provide lots of up-to-date resources on which certain stations look for, and who to contact.
When it’s time to submit, avoid sending a generic/bulk message to your radio list. When building a network for radio play, it’s about building connections with the individuals who you want playing your music. Even radio promoters avoid bulk email; they have trusted and established relationships with radio producers and hosts - that’s what you pay them for.
Don’t think of radio contacts as a ‘one off’ opportunity that will only play your new single; you want them to play all your future singles, tell their listeners when you’re coming to play their town, interview or record you live on air for better engagement when you release an album, and bring people to your shows to buy your music.
A generic bulk message will not get this result, so don’t treat your correspondence with them lightly. Radio stations get hundreds–often thousands!–of solicitations from artists every day. They’ll only pay attention to the ones that are engaging and seem genuine, so show them you really value your future connection.
The time has come - submit your music!
Almost every radio station now will want a way to easily download the file to your song or music. With that said, DO NOT email an attachment to any radio station unless they implicitly ask for it - most stations now will delete emails with large attachments, so doing this is almost a surefire way to not get radio play.
If they don’t already outline on their website how they would like to receive music submissions, offer them a choice of a link to your track or album from your EPK, or a physical CD mailed to them (or both!).
Some stations even have options to submit music on their websites, or specific email addresses for different DJs or managers, with instructions on who to submit music to them, and which format(s) they prefer. Always follow these instructions to the letter.
When you send your submissions, emails to radio stations should always have:
- A friendly greeting, preferably with the name of the station / program manager / DJ you’re emailing.
It’s not always possible, so if you don’t have a name, then an ‘attention station manager / radio show name’ could be substituted. Don’t forget to introduce yourself and your artist / band name.
- A short sentence that connects you to the station. It doesn’t have to be intimately personal, but something that ties you to that person or radio in some way.
If you did your research, this could be something like “I was listening to your program the other day and loved that you played ‘x’ band”, or “I’ve been an avid listener of WKRP for decades.” Even “my bandmate so-and-so went to college in your town a few years ago and loved your programming while she was there” can go a long way to opening the ‘personal’ doorway.
An ‘elevator pitch’ of your music. Trust me, you need one! This is not a 12-page bio; it should be a very short summary. You really need to imagine you’re on an elevator and only have a few seconds to make your case about why your music should get played.
In fact, along with descriptive words like genre and instrumentation, this is one of the few times you may want to make some artist comparisons, like “We’re a rap, rock, and soul trio that musically sounds like if Dr. Dre and Johnny Marr had a lyrical lovechild named Lizzo.”
Perhaps a bit of a silly example, but you get the idea. It puts into a few short words that you understand what their radio station is about, what they play, and why you’d be a great fit. The recipient knows what to expect so they can click the link to your …
- …website press page / radio EPK where they can listen to your music, view your videos, and read your full bio at length if they want to!
- It may seem obvious, but a ‘thank you.’ You’re making a personal-but-also-professional connection, so include how much you appreciate their consideration, thanks for their time, and that you hope to hear your track played on their awesome radio station soon, with a sign-off over your name and / or band name. This is a professional courtesy you should always extend.
In a nutshell, keep your email to radio as lean as you can. Here’s a super short template you can use:
“Hi there radio person,
I’m so and so from such a band in such and such a place, and we love your station because you’re great. I've listened to show x since forever, and would love to hear our music there as well.
We sound like this short elevator pitch, and if this interests you go here to this link for all the delicious goodies our music offers. Happy to send you a CD if you like that as well.
We appreciate your time, thanks for listening!
So and so from such and such a band.”
Obviously fill in the gaps to my short summary here, but you get the idea - engage them and be personable without unnecessary details. If they want more, you’ve provided the website for them to go and get it.
Hello radio? Is anyone listening?
That’s it, you’ve sent out all your emails to radio and the excitement is palpable. What now? Well, expect to wait a little! Remember, radio stations are regularly bombarded with requests for play by artists daily. It may take them a bit of time to sift through to your request, so if a week or two go by, that’s not unusual.
If a station decides to play your music, fist-bump your band mates, chalk that up as a win, then follow up. Even a quick ‘thank you’ for the radio play and taking the time to listen is important. Remember, again, that stations can get hundreds of solicitations from artists a day; they picked you, which means they definitely listened, and that’s worth a kind word of thanks.
If you don’t hear back from your first email, don’t panic - you can send a short follow up email a couple of weeks after the first message you sent, politely asking if they’ve had a chance to listen to your music, if there’s anything else they’d like from you, or even to ask what they think of your track or album.
If a follow up doesn’t get a result, brush it off, and move on. Don’t take it personally. The station in question knows their audience, and if they don’t think your track is the right fit, then it’s not a right fit at this time. It doesn’t mean they won’t consider tracks you release in future. Remember the relationship factor - sometimes getting radio play can be a long game.
Do it yourself vs. hiring a radio promoter
If you’re new to the idea of promoting on radio I recommend you try it out yourself first. As mentioned, with a bit of research and organization you can definitely have a successful campaign on radio with very little financial output.
Just be sure to give yourself a realistic amount of time to make that happen - even a few months is not a long time to get a release to the airwaves.
College and public radio are fairly easy avenues for play and promotion - and if you plan on being a long-term artist, both are great avenues for forging long-term relationships with lovers of music in specific areas where you’ll be playing.
If time is a crunch, or you’re keen to do a more robust radio campaign with a particular focus on commercial radio, you may want to consider hiring a radio promoter / publicist / tracker.
Like most commercial radio stations, promoters often have a ‘genre of preference’ - there are trackers for pop, country, rock, hip-hop, EDM, etc. Do your research and find a promoter that fits your style best, because hiring them will cost money, scaled to the reach you want out of your release.
These promoters often are coming from radio backgrounds themselves, and already have relationships with individuals in the radio business that may not be accessible to the general public. They know what particular stations or producers want, who to talk to, and often have direct lines in place to help you get through the door.
Additionally, radio promoters / publicists / trackers are overall much quicker with their results than DIY campaigns, and they are great as well for feedback: iif a station chooses not to play you, the tracker can often outline the specific reasons why they decided against your music, and you can use that information going forward to better target future releases.
These radio professionals organize the promotion campaigns and track the results as well - so you don’t need to wait for your performance rights organization (PRO) to inform you of the plays you received. Your promoter will give you regular reports outlining where your tracks were played and when, right down to the time of day, so you can see how effective your radio campaign has been.
Whether you decide to DIY to start, or hire a tracker, radio can still be an effective way to practice promotion for your music, reach more listeners, and create more fans.
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