Welcome to a very depressing world.. You’re the next big thing, or so your mum has told you, you just need someone to give you a big break. You’ve played a few gigs to anything between 20-150 people down your local hostelry or venue but you want to expose your music to a broader audience – expand the brand to the masses whilst obviously not selling out and retaining your credibility. Welcome to a very depressing world where the chances of you getting your song played on the radio is as likely as a Labour government at the end of 2010…
Here's the reality - UK radio is currently like Tesco's, McDonald's, Starbucks and other such mainstream franchises. Due to changing OfCom legislation in the past 2 or so years, ownership of radio stations has become much easier where in the past it was much harder to own multiple radio stations in specific markets (or TSA's - Total Survey Area's as radio types will call it). Now it's almost a free reign with, in most major cities, most if not all of the commercial stations are owned by either Global Radio, Bauer (formerly EMap) or Guardian Media Group (GMG). Legislation also passed in early 2008 that the amount of "local programming" ie output that is broadcast from the studios of the local station be reduced to anywhere near as low as 7 or 8 hours every weekday and only 4 hours at weekends. So what you think you're hearing from your local vehicle for "Today's Best Mix" or "Music Variety" might actually be coming from anywhere from Bristol, London, Manchester or some technobabbling 'network hub'.
Yes, yes, yes - you want your song on the radio... Well the previous preamble was just to show that the forces of darkness are very much against you. Where once upon a time local radio stations, or Independent Local Radio as it was erroneously known, used to have the luxury of some "cool" shows at weekends where the resident muso DJ, would aspire to be John Peel by playing the latest thing from the newest unknown, you'd be hard pressed to find any slot that would do such a thing on your "dial" in this day and age. The simple fact is that the old Radio Authority's remit of broadening listener choice has disintegrated into a homogenised sludge of radio stations justifying their current existence by virtue of the fact that they aren't making as much money as they once were and listeners didn't really want to listen to random unknown music anyway... They did their research and began to be run by bean counters rather than programmers.
So now that I've depressed you a little... let me try and paint a picture of what you will need to do if you want to at least try and be successful in getting your songs played on radio of some sort.
Firstly, do your research. It's a much maligned industry legend that most Programme Managers don't like or don't listen to new music. In a lot of cases that's true. You have to understand that PM's get a lot of unsolicited DJ demo's that get filed in a drawer because these days most of them don't actually have a say in who they hire. So imagine when it comes to new music... No presenter and very few PM's actually schedule their own music these days. It comes from those network hubs I was telling you about earlier. My point... don't bother sending your demo to stations that won't actually be able to do anything about it. Target the people that might actually be able to do something with it and spend your time 'working' these people.
How to go about this ? Compile a list of shows, firstly in your area, secondly in your part of the country, and finally around the country that you believe have at least some free plays in their shows. Hint - these will be the ones that aren't playing wall to wall X Factor artistes, Michael Buble and Beyonce. In this day and age e-mail is a great start - Facebook is also where you need to investigate. Appeal to the egos of DJ's - a small and short courtesy e-mail to your targeted presenter with the usual pleasantries about how much you enjoy their show, will go a long way to getting at least some recognition, even if it only ends up being an e-mail back. Realise, that in an hour some presenters will only get through maybe 10-12 songs (particularly if it's commercial radio). Some of these might have to be 'familiar' tracks so again the chances of you getting airplay with the usual bulging inbox of mp3's (CD's are so 20th Century...) is still statistically small. If it's a 2 or 3 hour show you do the maths...
Know your target. Any new music DJ will be seen at gigs and where the cool kids go to hang out. They might be the socially awkward one standing at the back (or in the VIP) or they might be the one being mobbed by other hopefuls with CD's, press packs etc. Choose your moment - it's like making a move on a potential partner in a bar... Be familiar but don't be over familiar, offer to buy them a drink, chat for 10 mins, and then walk away... You're not looking to sleep with them on the first date ! If you're really lucky this is the start of a beautiful relationship that will flourish as they can claim that they played you first and you can thank him in front of 20,000 people at your first hometown stadium gig. Follow up a week later with another e-mail and get some constructive feedback - although any DJ worth their salt will get back in touch with you if you've left contact details, possibly to tell you what they think or maybe to tell you you'll hear it on the next show. And don't forget the producer... call your local BBC and find out who they are - they are obliged to communicate with you at the very least because of good customer service, but you also pay their wages (on the proviso that you do actually pay for a licence fee). But, the producer is actually your greatest ally in convincing the DJ to play your song. They are also the most likely to come and see you live because the DJ will be most likely be doing some swanky paid appearanceinstead.
Be realistic - think you'll get your first demo played on Zane Lowe ? Good luck with that... It's not impossible, but you'll probably have had a considerable amount of hype behind you and you'll have had a gig in London at the very least. Identify some industry tastemakers like Jim Gellatly at BBC Radio Scotland for example - if you live in the sticks who's your "go to guy" ? Be creative but not stalkerish... Whilst sending a Kit Kat and a teabag in the post with your demo CD might seem a little naff, fair play for at least making an effort and thinking about your audience. Get the name right - attention to detail folks. John Peel was easy to get right, Steve Lamack (sic) probably doesn't care anymore but you might wish you had cared a little more... And make it stand out, have a sense of humour.... show your personality... I'll give you an example. As a PM once upon a time myself, I've seen my fair share of CD's in plastic cases, with neat CV's, that fall into the trap of just being... well ordinary. Even at this early stage being the first envelope or e-mail that's opened puts you ahead of everyone else. Do something spontaneous don't necessarily start with your song first - maybe do a bit of a chat, tell me something I really need to know about you, make me laugh - develop that relationship from the outset and create something memorable. Also if you have made it sound like the CD is specifically for me I'll give you bonus points for effort !
Obvious stuff - is what you're sending broadcast quality ? If it's a 192kbps audio or less forget about it - for me anything less than 320kbps sounds shit and if you've spent all that money on studio time, and worked hard to pay for that studio time you'd want the moment that you're exposed to the masses to sound as great as it possibly could be. And don't expect a DJ/producer to come and see your show if it's booked when they are actually on air... Pre-recording shows is not uncommon but is extremely unlikely if said DJ is coming to see you.
Keep track of everything - If you've been played by a couple of tastemakers you'll want to shout about it. Quotes for your next press release or when you're trying to get your next gig. A nice big quote for your facebook page or your website mayhaps ?
One thing's for sure - you're going to get a lot of rejection - maybe because you aren't as good as your mum says - but mainly because unfortunately this wonderful radio industry is much changed from what it was even 5 years ago. Sadly, radio is increasingly becoming less and less instrumental in breaking new acts, with considerably less opportunity to hear new music except in the case of Independently owned stations (not many of them left), student radio (of which you should seriously consider and by no means overlook) and the small amount of non profit community radio stations. The BBC in my opinion is still your best bet to get exposed via radio but radio should only be a small cog in your well oiled world domination machine.
Good luck !
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About Richard Wilkinson
Richard Wilkinson is currently a radio consultant for Republic Communications and has worked for BBC Radio 1, Beat 106, Radio Forth, Ocean FM as well as consulting for radio stations in Ireland, Malaysia, Thailand, Israel and South Africa.