The Realities of Radioplay: Part IVby Mary Dawson
The Internet Writing Journal, March 2001
If you've ever seen the movie, Coal Miner's Daughter, you've probably been inspired by the story of the undiscovered young Country singer, Loretta Lynn, and her #1 fan and husband, Mooney. After Loretta's first single, I'm a Honky Tonk Girl, was recorded in 1960, the couple literally drove from radio station to radio station all across the country -- meeting DJs and convincing them to play the song. Their tenacity paid off and the song started climbing the charts -- eventually reaching #14 and taking Loretta Lynn from obscurity to instant fame.
But that was then... and this is now! Many things have changed in music since the days of Loretta and Mooney "on the road again," but one unchanging fact is that radioplay is an essential ingredient for any singer or songwriter who hopes to become a household name.
Up to this point in our series on the Realities of Radioplay, we have been concentrating on the importance of the simple, hooky radio-friendly song. Until you have written a song like that... until you can evaluate your song objectively and still know beyond the shadow of a doubt that it is a hit, you really can't go any further. But when you've written that song, and you know that it's a winner -- then what? Well, before you quit your day job and start trucking around the country like Mooney and Loretta, you need to be aware of the way radio works today.
The 1996 Telecommunications Act literally revolutionized the laws of competition and regulation throughout the communications industry. In radio, the law allowed for large corporations to purchase up to eight radio stations per market. Today, almost 66% of the 12,000 radio stations in the country are owned by radio groups. Programming is done by consultants and group programmers who distribute syndicated playlists to the individual stations, thereby controlling which songs are played nationwide.
For you as a songwriter this means that even if a local DJ loves your song and wants to play it, the chances are that he/she can't make that decision alone. Everything that is played on the station must pass through the investor-controlled programmers who may or may not have any knowledge of music at all! This doesn't mean that the DJ has no decision-making power; it simply means that he/she really has to love your song in order to usher it through all the layers of three-piece suits and bean-counters that stand between your song and the all-powerful playlist!
Another reality is that in recent years most radio "strategists" have targeted the youth market as the most lucrative. Hence, younger and younger artists are emerging with songs written to appeal to the high school and college set. If your songs appeal to an older age group -- even the 25-35 set -- the chances diminish considerably that they will be able to penetrate the controlled playlists of radio networks.
Are you depressed yet? If so, please don't be -- just keep reading!! What all this information on "corporate radio" simply means for the independent artist/songwriter is that we have to become as creative in promoting our songs as we are in writing them.
In my opinion, the path to success is marked with two fail-proof directional markers. The first road sign reads: AIM FOR EXCELLENCE. Many aspiring songwriters and artists indulge themselves by entertaining what I call the Destiny Fantasy. In other words, they equate success in music with some mystical stroke of luck. The Destiny Fantasy has two sides. On the upside of the fantasy is the belief that if I just happen to be in the right place at the right time...Destiny will somehow intervene. My talent will be discovered and I will become an instant star. Stories of "overnight successes" fuel this fantasy and cause many aspiring musicians to live in a state of unrealistic expectations. If their dreams do not come true -- if they are not suddenly and magically successful, the downside of the Destiny Fantasy kicks in, which says that some people are just unlucky and I happen to be one of them -- it is simply not my Destiny to "make it" in music.
Living in the Destiny Fantasy is about as effective as dreaming of winning the lottery. You can squander a lot of emotional and psychological energy dreaming -- when you could be investing that energy in becoming The Best in your craft. Most Destiny Dreamers dabble at their music rather than disciplining themselves to really work at it. Don't make that mistake! If you are serious about getting your songs played on the radio, I would suggest that you spend at least fourteen hours a week polishing and honing your craft. Read books on songwriting...then write some songs...go to workshops...then write more songs...join your local songwriters' association...then write still more songs.
Just like an Olympic athlete in training, keep stretching and pushing yourself. Compare your songs -- not just to the many mediocre songs that you may hear on the radio, but to the Very Best -- the Cole Porters, Billy Joels and Elton Johns of the songwriting world. Remember, mediocre songs were probably written by people who have an "inside advantage" in the music industry -- relatives and friends of record executives or songwriters who may have a staff positions that insure the placement of their songs on commercial recordings. As an independent and an outsider, your songs have to be far more remarkable and faultlessly crafted in order to compete and be recognized. As A&R Specialist, Tom Vickers says: "Songs that make it have to be bulletproof!"
Like cream that always rises to the top of the milk, excellence will eventually become evident to everyone who encounters it. Excellence transcends fads and trends in music and, sooner or later, excellence inevitably attracts listeners. And -- remember -- those listeners are the ones the stations are trying to attract. If the people begin to demand your music, the stations will accommodate them!
The second guidepost says BLOOM WHERE YOU ARE PLANTED. Start where you are with what you have. "Growing into business is always more successful than going into business." Learn your local music scene and learn it well! You have far more access to the music community in your own city or town -- and far more opportunities for exposure and success -- than you would have LA, New York or Nashville.
Become familiar with smaller local stations. (It is often much easier to get airplay on those.) Your local DJ's are still your first point of contact with the world of radio. Learn to know them -- check out the radio station's website and learn as much as you can about each personality. Use all that creativity you use in your songwriting to "make opportunities" for yourself and your music.
Kevin James, a Country artist on my record label, is a master at promoting himself. (He used to sell vacuum cleaners -- is there a connection there?) At any rate, he never lets a Holiday slip by without using the occasion to send greetings to the local radio personalities. At Valentine's Day the lady DJ's receive chocolate covered strawberries. At Christmas, he sends cute promotional gifts along with his photo, a Christmas card -- and always a friendly personal note. And he never just mails his CD's to radio! The CD is always packaged in a gift basket stuffed with creative "goodies" and yummy things to eat. Believe me -- DJ's (just like anyone else) love to receive surprises and they will remember the person who sends them! Kevin's efforts have paid him handsomely and he is receiving opportunities for airplay that are considered "unheard of" for most local artists.
As you learn to know your local radio personalities, you will also learn about the centralized programming systems that serve the various stations. Several years ago during the Gulf War, a co-writer and I wrote a song called Long Distance Christmas. We dedicated it to the thousands of families who were separated by the Mid-East Conflict during that Holiday Season. Through contact with one radio disc jockey, we discovered that Christmas is a time when radio syndicators are desperately seeking new material to send to all the local stations in their networks. We took our song to a local satellite broadcasting syndicator who -- in turn -- included it on their Christmas compilation CD that went out to over 1400 stations nationwide. In the space of just a few weeks our song was being played all over the country and was even being broadcast into the Middle East.
Whatever you do, gently but consistently promote yourself! Be professional and considerate -- yet tenacious and persistent -- in your approach. Use email. Send press releases and updates on your activities. Send complimentary tickets to your gigs. Volunteer to help with radio station community activities and charities. Put on your creative "hat" and find unique ways to woo and win local radio. Once your foot is in the door, you are half way home!
Where there is a will -- there will always be a way!!
**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is also the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 25 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. "I Write the Songs" is broadcast over the Internet. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer on songwriting. She is a regular columnist for Independent Songwriter Web Magazine. Mary's commitment to discovering and mentoring talented new songwriters has given her extensive experience in song analysis through adjudicating songwriting competitions and conducting songwriting workshops across the country and around the world. Because of her role as president of an independent music company, she is also well qualified to instruct aspiring songwriters on the various business aspects of the music industry. She is married and a mother of four. She resides in the Dallas area.