How Radio Promotion Works

How Radio Promotion Works

Drew Murray is Vice President of Adult Formats at C05, a full service radio promotion company regionally based throughout the country. With almost 40 years experience in radio, he got his start in the music industry working at his college radio station, then moved onto work at a commercial radio station in Atlanta, GA, which led to a job working at Casablanca Records, a label responsible for putting out many albums by artists such as KISS, Donna Summer, The Village People and Parliament. Drew stayed at the label after it was absorbed by PolyGram Records in the early 1980s and worked in radio promotion there until 1998.  Since the early 2000s, he has been working with a variety of indie labels and was a part of the full-service artist management firm Sanctuary for seven years. His focus at C05 is on the Triple A, Top 40 and Hot AC formats.

 

 

I got the chance to sit down with Drew and talk about his experience working in radio and how he has seen the Digital Age affect radio stations and artists of every size and type trying to get their songs out there.

 

Musician Coaching:

How did you first get into the music industry?

 

DM:

I started back in the 70s at college radio, just because I was a fan of rock music. And then I got a job at a commercial station in Atlanta for about four or five years. After that I got offered a job at the legendary Casablanca Records in the late 70s, towards the end of their “hey day.” It was one of those things where they wanted someone with “rock radio credibility” to work on KISS records, because everything else was all “disco, disco, disco.” Interestingly enough, the first real KISS record I worked was their disco record, I Was Made for Loving You.

 

I was there when they did the solo records too. To some people in the industry,  that was the beginning of the end of Casablanca anyway. Eventually I just went along for the ride, and Casablanca ended up getting eaten up by PolyGram. I worked for PolyGram as a radio promotion guy; I went from Atlanta, to Houston, to L.A., to New York on their behalf. And that’s when it morphed from four labels into one, and in the mid-late 80s it split off into Mercury, Polydor, Island, and they bought A&M and brought them in, etc. I was there until they merged Mercury and Def Island Jam in 1998. I was part of the furniture for about 20 years.

 

After Polygram, I worked at a couple small indie labels. But since then, the largest amount of time I spent somewhere was about seven years at a company called Sanctuary, which had a records division and a radio promo team for that. But the main thing that drove that bus was the management division.

 

Musician Coaching:

And Sanctuary was early in having the Azoff model, where everything was under one roof.

 

DM:

Right. Sanctuary was early on having everything under one roof – the label, the management company, the merch company, etc. The Sanctuary business’ claim to fame was that they were Iron Maiden’s management company all those years. That’s how they built the empire. For a couple years, the company was big. And then they brought in other managers and their artists. For a few years, you’re right, it was the Azoff model or what Azoff has now become.

 

Musician Coaching:

They were right. They were just a little early.

 

DM:

Exactly. But, I was glad to be there and felt lucky. It was a fun experience.

 

Musician Coaching:

So, these days you’re doing a lot of multi-format?

 

DM:

Yes. I work for a company called C05. They’ve been around since 2004. The people that founded the company came up with the concept because they knew there were a lot of people getting out of the major label system. And whether they were going to the marketplace themselves or to a small indie label that had no staff, they saw that the business was starting to grow and evolve. And to compete in the marketplace that is radio, you need a dedicated team. One of the things that the major labels pitch, vs. doing it yourself or having an indie label, is having the manpower to work radio across the country, because they have dedicated regional reps that cover markets in different parts of the country.

 

Musician Coaching:

And your story is a fairly common one for either an MD, PD or independent promotion person. Wherever that next station or job opening was, you ended up pulling roots and moving quite a bit.

 

DM:

Yes. In pitching it to a client that wants to take a song to radio, you can put together a hodgepodge of people in different markets. If you’re an artist doing it yourself and hiring various independents, they’re probably working a bunch of different records, working whatever else they can get their hands on. What C05 brings to the table is a dedicated promotions staff. It’s like hiring a major label promotions staff that is working specifically for you. And everyone we have in the field is a veteran of the major label system. We only take on one or two projects per format at a time. I’m the VP of adult formats. I do Triple A, Top 40 and Hot AC. Someone else does alternative rock and active rock. We have a total of eight people:  five regionals in the field and three national people.

 

Musician Coaching:

That’s great. It’s a good company.

 

I often talk to people about how they have seen the Digital Age influence what they have witnessed happen in the music industry. I’m a believer that there are a lot of alternatives to radio and a lot of ways to get noticed in ways other than on radio these days. But at a certain point, it seems if you are looking to sell celebrity-level amounts of records, you need radio. Are you finding that’s the case?

 

DM:

At Sanctuary – and Sanctuary thought of itself as a management company first and a label second – that was the mantra that was definitely drilled into us:  radio is the icing on the cake, but not the cake itself. Even at the beginning of the Digital Age – because it was 2001 when I went to go work for them – that mantra was still the basis. They used Iron Maiden as the example:  “Iron Maiden can sell out stadiums and arenas across the planet without a song on the radio.” If they do get a song on the radio, they’re that much better. And again, they were huge with touring and merchandising. The idea of not needing to have a song on the radio to be successful was drilled into my head every day for the seven years I worked at Sanctuary.

 

Musician Coaching:

The distinction between “executive” and “musician” is blurred now because all these DIY artists have had to grow up really quickly and manage their own careers if they want to get anywhere. You of all people know that “artists and repertoire” has now become “mergers and acquisitions.” The question I get a lot is, “How do I get my song on the radio?” When I was doing A&R I was doing research-oriented A&R, and we would see the occasional local artist who would make good on the local show and then wind up in what is essentially a major playlist on the local station. With the conglomeration of all these major radio chains, is that harder to do these days?

 

DM:

Very much so. If you want to take the Digital Age paradigm one step further and talk about how it affects radio, radio used to be ranked. Their bread and butter was a very antiquated ratings system where people filled out diaries once a week where they would talk about what they listened to. Now most of the major markets in the country and also some of the secondary markets as well  have digital monitoring devices to track people listening to radio in real time. What’s happened with that is that it comes down to the lowest common denominator, especially with corporate stations. The mantra has become, “Be as familiar and as safe as possible.” Because on general principle, people will tune out something they don’t like or something they don’t know.

 

Musician Coaching:

That being the case, are there still local radio shows that mean anything?

 

DM:

There are. I think a lot of this is still evolving, because some of that technology has only been around for about four or five years. It only became national about two years ago. So, radio stations are still figuring out how to read the raw data. I’ll give you a prime example of an argument I had with a Hot AC station, which targets to adult women. Your typical listener might be in her car, driving to the mall. The number one single on your station this week might be P!nk’s “Perfect,” and as radio station, you are playing that song because you know it is doing great for you. But this listener gets to the mall while this song is on and turns off her car radio. The first store she goes into to buy something for her daughter is Hot Topic. So, according to this tracking technology, if it is the be all, end all for you as a radio station, you’re going to drop this particular playlist and add Metallica, because it’s getting played in Hot Topic, and therefore it’s what she’s listening to now. The main point is, you have to be able to interpret the data and what is really going on. This is what radio people will complain about, and it’s always been a problem with the technology when you break it down:  The sample size is still tiny. I don’t know the exact number, but I think that for the New York metropolitan area, which has 15 million people, there are maybe 500 people with people meters. One person could have an effect on over a million listeners.

 

Musician Coaching:

It reminds me of the Arbitron-weighted Sound Scan scores you used to be able to manipulate.

 

DM:

Exactly. But again, for the programmers, this technology is their bread and butter and their report card, so being in that chair and trying to protect your job and be as safe as possible doesn’t seem like that bad of an idea.

 

Musician Coaching:

I hear that a lot from people at the bigger companies. A lot of these decisions are governed by fear. It’s a shame it’s industry wide.

 

DM:

Also, I remember a story from the musician’s point of view, to go back to your question about whether local shows still mean anything. When I was at Sanctuary, I was having a conversation with an artist who was doing really well locally in L.A. His song was getting played on KROQ and on Indie 103 back when it was still on the air. Sanctuary had that record overseas, but this artist didn’t have a record deal in the U.S. Because of what was going on in L.A., all of a sudden there was a bidding war, and a bunch of different labels were going after this guy. And Sanctuary put in a bid because we already had him overseas.

 

Musician Coaching:

I remember that time. Whenever KROQ would add something, the manager’s phone – even if it was just some kid in a college dorm – would be inundated with calls from label presidents.

 

DM:

Yeah, exactly. So Universal Republic, Epic and a few other labels were all in the running for this particular artist. And it was funny, because there was a friend of mine on the West Coast that knew this guy personally as well. When it finally was decided he was going to sign to a major label, we thought, “No hard feelings. We understand.” But we wanted to know why he had made that decision, all things considered. And he was smart enough to say, “Look, I’ve been a struggling singer/songwriter my entire career. A year from now, I may be a struggling singer/songwriter again, but with a really nice house and a really nice car.”

 

Musician Coaching:

That’s exactly the right attitude. And get as many “please woo me” lobster dinners along the way. That was always my advice.

 

Do you still see influential stations adding music from smaller artists like that, or is it more infrequent now?

 

DM:

It’s more infrequent, unfortunately. Those kinds of stories are fewer and farther between sadly these days. I still do think there are situations and, as you said before, some people, like Monte and Avery at Universal still seek those things out. I think they might be looking in different areas vs. local airplay now.

 

Musician Coaching:

Sure. They comb TuneCore and every other digital means out there. I’m sure they have deals in place with all kinds of people that have that data.

 

DM:

Exactly. If they see something selling that’s not signed to someone, they chase it.

 

Musician Coaching:

Honestly, I have yet to see an example in which someone that was not on a major hired out different formats and independent radio companies without a major and then got a project to the echelons of the Top 10 on radio for any length of time or got any real celebrity status. At some point, the people that have achieved those levels had a major label step in. Can you cite some examples of people that have done well? I feel like I remember 10-15 years ago you could point to people like Ani Difranco that had succeeded in that way. You can point to a handful of people now that do well on their own, but it isn’t necessarily a radio story or someone who has built something and said, “OK, it’s time for radio. I’ll do it myself.”

 

DM:

It depends. There are success stories, but mostly in the rock formats these days. It’s mostly alternative or active rock or Triple A with singer/songwriters. Those formats are definitely more open to independent music than Top 40 and Hot AC. Those two and also country are very tough if you’re not signed to a major label.

 

Musician Coaching:

I can’t speak to country, but is it true that both Hot AC and Top 40 tend to be formats that cull the bests of other formats?

 

DM:

Not so much anymore. It used to be that way. Now there’s so much product out there that they’ve become pretty formulaic, sadly. I just had this same conversation earlier today about a record and said, “We don’t play the #1 country record either, because it doesn’t fit what we do.” There is the occasional odd case – like Adele on Columbia, who has a record that doesn’t really fit to any particular formula. Of course, she’s on a major label, but the point is, her album doesn’t sound like the modern-day female pop records. She doesn’t do those  rhythmic-leaning pop tunes you hear from most of the other pop females. And her songs don’t have a hip hop verse laid down in the middle of them. Adele is more old-school soul than anything else. But she’s been able to break through. And again, she’s one of the very few artists that you would see on the Top 40, Hot AC, the alternative and the Triple A charts. Those artists are very few and far between these days. I give total credit to the team at Columbia, because it didn’t sound like everything else on the radio. I know it wasn’t an easy thing to get done, and they’ve done a tremendous job with it.

 

Musician Coaching:

I very much believe in what Ahmet Ertegun told me:  “A hit will find a way.” I am aware that songs to songs are not apples to apples; they are very much apples to oranges. And doors just seem to open for songs or artists that things are going to happen for. Which kind of ammunition do you use as an independent hired by an artist when you approach programmers, other than just “Listen to it. It’s great”? What are the key performance indicators that music directors and program directors are looking for these days?

 

DM:

It’s a different question depending on the format. I think when it comes to pop artists and the pop formats in particular, program directors and music directors really want to see something else going on that pertains to the audience and will be familiar to the audience. Trying to start something from scratch is obviously very tough. But it’s a number of things: what the online presence is; whether there are digital sales; whether there’s been a crowd response; all of those other elements that lead into it.

 

Musician Coaching:

So, it’s about the normal factors:  the number of Facebook and Twitter followers; whether your comment page is active; etc.

 

DM:

Exactly. And on the rock, Triple A, alternative side, they like to see all that stuff, but at the same time there is more of an openness. If it’s a really good song, there are people that will give it a shot. And if there is a reaction, even better. There’s a song we’ve been working at alternative for the last six months now by a band called AWOL Nation. Red Bull hired us to start this thing last November. It was one of these “lightning in a bottle” songs you see once or twice a year. It was a case where the song went on the radio and the phone request lines went crazy immediately. The station called and said, “Let’s bring the band to town and do a show,” etc. After three weeks or airplay, they sold out 500-1,000 tickets. You can’t write a formula for something like that. Either it’s real or it’s not. It was one of those magic songs that people heard and went crazy for, and then wanted to see the band live.

 

Musician Coaching:

I had no idea that song was doing so well.

 

DM:

It’s about to go Top 10 at Alternative. It’s taken us six months to get there, but we’re there. And the sales have been incredible too. When it first hit, you could see the sales in the marketplace double, triple, quadruple within a week of airplay. It was crazy.

 

Musician Coaching:

Are you and programmers relying on BigChampagne at all to track the efficacy of these things?

 

DM:

Not so much anymore. When it first came out, BigChampagne definitely was a brand new toy that a lot of people looked at and played with. I don’t hear the numbers bandied about as much anymore. It’s part of the overall pitch.  And when we have that type of information, we try to use it. I don’t think there’s a programmer out there that says, “Because of the BigChampagne numbers, I’m going to do something.” It comes back to what we do for a living:  Someone always has to be first. There is something else out there that is used within radio called Mscore. It relates to those people meters. They can actually physically look at what song was playing when the listeners tuned in or tuned out. That gives you an Mscore at the end of the day. I know there was one record being used last year that was on an indie label. At the time they talked about it,  it was the first independent release, not to go to #1 at Alternative, but to have the most weeks at #1 on the Alternative chart. It was a band called The Dirty Heads. It was in the early days of those Mscores when radio people were still trying to interpret what they meant. But it was one of those situations you could use when talking to a programmer. You could say, “In Washington, D.C., the Mscore was 100%, meaning nobody tuned out when that song was on.” That’s now the newest crutch, or the newest bane, depending on how you look at it. Because there are legitimately other hit records out there that for whatever reason early on in their lifetime get bad Mscores, and the record companies have to fight that. I hear about Mscores now a lot more than I used to hear about the BigChampagne numbers a couple years ago.

 

Musician Coaching:

Do you have any general advice for musicians that want to get their music out there and on the radio?

 

DM:

Always go into it with the thought process that radio really is the icing on the cake. Without all the other things that you’ve been able to build for yourself – a viable online fan base, touring, etc., depending on what kind of artist you are – you don’t have a lot. Radio is a very fickle medium, and if you can’t depend on it 100%. Today’s superstar could be yesterday’s news. You can see it when you look at VH-1 specialty shows, which has made a living off one-hit wonders. If you’ve been able to build up a fan base that will stick with you, whether you have a song on the radio or not, you’re that much better off. I think it also comes back to the question, “What are you in it for?” Are you in it because you love music, and music is your life, or are you in it because you want to be seen falling down drunk on TMZ?

 

To learn more about Drew Murray and his work in radio, please visit the C05 website.