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The lowdown on radio for the working musician

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old radio on a wooden table

There’s often chatter of radio becoming obsolete in the age of streaming, where music fans can choose what they want to listen to without DJs talking in-between tracks and enduring songs they might not like. And if you pay for a premium subscription to Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer or Tidal, you get to miss the adverts too. But there’s still one big reason those #1 hits are backed by radio airplay, and lots of it.

Take Lukas Graham’s “7 Years,” for example. The song has spent five weeks at #1 in the U.K. and has had over 60k radio plays in Britain. It was released on February the 4th, hit #1 on February the 18th, and it’s no fluke that its radio play peaked the week prior. People kept hearing it on the radio, and then rushed to streaming services/iTunes to listen more, pushing it to the top of the charts. You’d think Beyonce’s recent surprise track "Formation" - her first single release since November 2014 - would have rocketed up the charts. However, not an official single, it wasn’t playlisted by many radio stations and has had just 287 radio plays in the UK to date. Needless to say, it didn’t chart. If you want a Top 10 hit, you need radio support. So how do you get it?


Radio pluggers play a big part in most music release campaigns; they’re the guys that have trusted relationships with radio broadcasters and the patience to send multiple emails and make multiple phone calls to argue the case for a track’s inclusion in a playlist. Those they’re speaking to at the radio station will then take a selection of the music they’ve been pitched into weekly meetings with the playlist decision makers, who will discuss each song and come to a joint conclusion over whether it should be played on their radio station, and if so, where. Straightforward pop songs will usually make it onto the daytime shows and the most popular radio stations, where other genres, like country, rock or classical, are more likely to be reserved for the specialist stations and shows.

However, hiring a plugger costs money, and lots of it. Talib Kweli has said that urban radio promoters in the US charge artists/labels anywhere between $15,000 to $100,000 to get a single played on radio. That won't be the same story worldwide, but cost is one of the reasons why hiring a radio plugger is something that comes after you’ve hired a manager, and they’ll be the ones to decide when you need one (if you do).

Local champions

Before all of that, find out what your local radio station does to support local talent. In the UK, the BBC is very supportive of new music and has a number of outlets dedicated to showcasing unsigned and up and coming talent, like Introducing and In New Music We Trust. It’s worth seeking out similar champions in your territory. They could be online only, like Amazing Radio, which is dedicated to playing emerging music that’s independently released (and they have excellent taste).

The BBC’s Introducing programme has an online portal that acts around Britain use to upload their music to, which then gets listened to by local DJs. The best receive airplay and if they’re really good, a variety of very valuable promotion. Jake Bugg, Catfish & The Bottlemen, Jack Garratt, Royal Blood and Little Simz are amongst those who've been championed by Introducing before making it big.

If you’re pitching to a similar outlet yourself, make sure your recording isn’t live and has been produced to the best standard it can be with the tools you have available. The music you’re sending has to be the finest you’ve ever made and true to who you are as an artist; there’s lots of competition, stand out from the crowd.

On Air/On Sale

So when are tracks taken to radio? Broadly speaking, in the U.K., Universal, Warner and Sony service tracks to radio for playlist spots on the day of release. It’s a policy that’s called On Air/On Sale. There are some exceptions; labels might take a track to radio pre-release to build up demand before official release day, therefore increasing the chance of a high chart placing in week-one of release (most tracks now take a good few weeks to reach their chart peak). It’s a strategy that works for independent dance label Ministry of Sound, that had two #1 singles in September and October last year in Sigala’s "Easy Love" and KDA’s "Turn The Music Louder". The two tracks got their first radio plays months before release, in June and April respectively.

On Air/On Sale was devised as a way to try and combat piracy; the reasoning being that if a track getting radio airplay is available to buy as soon as it’s played, people won’t pirate it, they’ll use the legal routes instead. Ultimately, it’s up to you, your manager and/or plugger to decide what radio and release strategy works for you.

The big time

The reality of getting onto the playlist of a big radio broadcaster like BBC Radio 1, Capital FM and the minefield that is radio in America (it’s huge and there’s tonnes of stations with many different tastes) is a gamble. Just because you or your radio plugger believe the track deserves airplay, there’s no guarantee the programmer will agree, and they’re also being hit with hundreds (if not thousands) of other requests at the same time. Why should they pick you? It’s why building your own presence online, touring incessantly, and spending years making yourself self sufficient without recognition from radio or record labels is vital. If the latter comes, it’s a huge stroke of luck and an added extra.

The great thing about the internet era is that musicians can reach lots of ears without having to go through the gatekeepers of radio, as long as they’re willing to put the effort in. However, if your ambition stretches beyond your own cottage industry, radio, for now, is still a vital component in the promotion of popular music.

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