It’s not an uncommon conception that radio is a medium in decline, and holds little relevance in the music industry today. I’m going to make some points to why that’s not accurate (contrary to this belief), and why radio still holds vital functions within the industry. The music industry is a constantly evolving landscape, and the roles that radio plays as an apparatus and purveyor of content have become adaptively different than they were in the past.
It is true that the radio industry is not the behemoth it once was, but as production technology, streaming, and other outlets for distribution and exposure have emerged and impacted the way people consume music, they have also produced an exorbitant amount of competition for burgeoning artists. It’s easier than ever for anyone to produce and share their music, content, and branding; and along with that steep influx in accessibility comes a massive level of contention, as artists are all vying for the same opportunities and fighting for the attention of potential fans. The music industry is undeniably more saturated than ever, which makes the platforms and accolades associated with radio a prominent way to be heard, noticed, and stand out from the crowd.
1. Potential for Discovery and Exposure
Believe it or not, recent research still points to radio as the #1 source for the discovery of new music in the U.S.; more than blogs, word of mouth, social media, streaming sites, or other ways that people encounter new artists and content. In a 2015 study via Nielsen, 61% of respondents reported that AM/FM or satellite radio is the main way they find out about new music. Streaming has been strongly trending as the preferred method for consumption, but radio is still the prevailing medium for discovery, which is an important distinction to make.
Discovery can be a fairly vague term; it can be anything from someone initially hearing the latest hit song by a well-known artist on a commercial Top 40 station, all the way down to someone hearing a new local singer/songwriter on a small-watt college station. Still, the fact that radio is cited as the #1 source should provide substantial clout for it as a validated medium for exposure in the modern music landscape. A big benefit of the medium, which likely contributes to it being cited as the prominent source for music discovery, is that it offers the ease and convenience of a terrestrial medium that other formats don’t. We live in an age where convenience and instant gratification are highly valued and glorified, even amongst the most prolific and adventurous of crate diggers and music enthusiasts.
Not everyone feels like “playing DJ” every time they’re driving to work, running errands, or doing something else where consuming music isn’t necessarily their primary focus; this presents new artists and content with a unique opportunity to get in front of them. There are plenty of circumstances like this where people will tune in to a familiar station and listen to what’s being featured, providing a context for them to be exposed to something new because it’s convenient. Likewise, specialty programming can often resonate with people especially well, and holds avid potential to work itself into listener’s routines. Someone might follow and habitually tune in to a station’s weekly Hip Hop show as they drive home from work on Tuesday evenings, an Electronic show as they get ready to go out to a bar or club on Saturday nights, or a Jazz/Blues show on Sunday afternoons as they clean the house. Particular gatekeepers have the ability to build rapport with their listeners over a period of time, establish a following, and become trusted sources of breaking music to a distinct audience with specific interests. This is the magic of freeform radio.
The music industry today is overwhelmingly saturated, and it’s becoming more and more challenging for artists to even have their music heard! Simply put, there is too much music in the world today, and the supply far outweighs the demand. This is why it’s so important to pursue platforms that both serve as acolytes within the industry, and help you stand out from all the other artists competing for the attention of potential fans. Stations act as filters to find the best music out there and serve it up to their audiences, and can also act as a co-sign or endorsement to say that you’re worth checking out. Streaming outlets like Spotify, Soundcloud and YouTube do little more than act as a utility, making your music available to existing fans who already know who you are and will go out of their way to look you up. These sites are open source mediums accessible to ANYONE who wants to make their music available; radio is not. To get radio airplay, an artist must go through a series of gatekeepers and be specifically programmed to reach a relevant audience. This is a discernible, subjective process that is selectively done by knowledgeable arbiters who are tuned-in to current music trends; not by an algorithm or a program. It’s not an open door, meaning only high caliber artists who are appropriate for the station’s audience will be featured, thus ensuring quality content and sustainable listenership.
3. Tastemaker Support
Unlike the majority of mainstream stations, most non-commercial stations offer far more than the utility of a terrestrial frequency to broadcast content. They act as interactive hubs whose constituents are extremely passionate about burgeoning music and about sharing it with others. Unlike commercial radio, which is quite centric to consumption, non-commercial radio is far more focused on exposure, community involvement, and attracting like-minded individuals. Indie radio stations also have the ability to produce original content such as in-studio performances and exclusive interviews, generating unique experiences and elaborating on certain perspectives which would not likely be portrayed elsewhere.
A good station will be well connected to the music scene and its local community, and will be on the forefront of breaking music, news, and other content pertinent to its audience. The programmers and staff who operate the stations often have their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening in the music scene both locally and nationally, and are often looked up to as trusted resources within their own communities and social circles. They are likely to be avid music followers who host radio shows, have amateur blogs, frequently attend concerts, are active on social media, and are deeply invested in their local music scene and in independent music at large. They are usually cognizant of important things happening in the industry, and are definitely the type of people whose radar you want to be on. An endorsement from them is unequivocally more valuable than that of an “average” fan, and they are going to be much more inclined to share your music with others of similar tastes. This can sometimes apply to the station’s audience as well. Certain music supervisors, talent buyers, journalists, and gatekeepers for other mediums have cited radio as a resource for discovering new music and relaying tangible buzz. Radio stations act as breeding grounds that host and attract these types of trendsetters, and they can serve as vital catalysts to building buzz, which is essential to success in the industry.
Here’s a recent article via Pigeons and Planes where a couple of music supervisors cite radio as a resource for discovering music and building accolades:
Jackie Shuman (Good Ears Music Supervision): “We find music in so many different ways at GEMS, but we are hunters by nature. I love reading through my favorite music blogs to find cool new tunes, and I’ve found some great things on non-commercial radio too.”
Aaron Mercer (Wool & Tusk): “We’ve certainly worked with artists at every stage of their careers, from completely off the grid to legendary. But since advertising syncs usually pay a premium, the brands generally want the band to have some existing presence. Doesn’t have to be huge, but it should be real. Even good local press or college radio helps, and an active social media presence.”
Radio is a linear, real-time medium; it puts the music right up in the listener’s ear, which gives it a highly perceivable and tactile experience. Unlike social media, blogs, and other ways to potentially get in front of someone, radio can’t be interrupted or intervened the same way. Sure, someone can change the station if they don’t like the song, but they have to dislike the song enough that they go OUT OF THEIR WAY to do so. Comparatively, on social media for example, someone has to go out of their way to ACTUALLY FOLLOW THE LINK and listen to the music. It’s easier for someone to neglect you online, where it’s actually less work for them to stay tuned-in on the radio. Likewise, songs on the radio are often kept in rotation for weeks or months at a time and are given ample opportunity for consistent exposure, where blogs will often have numerous new posts a day and rarely feature the same piece more than once. Some freeform DJs and programmers at radio who really like a particular album may keep it in their music library for an extensive period of time, and occasionally play it well after it’s fallen out of everyone’s immediate focus. I’ve seen some specialty DJs play an album on the radio over 4 years after it was initially promoted, implying that it’s worked its way into being one of the staple albums in their programming, and holds long term potential for repeat exposure. Likewise, when a CD is added to a station’s music library, it usually remains available for airplay indefinitely; taking up physical shelf space for years to come, and providing extended potential for discovery among future generations of DJs and programmers.
From radio, press, TV, videos, social media, performances/live settings, and more, there are various ways to get in front of people and receive coverage and exposure. They all play different roles, have different applications, and can produce varying levels of success based on the style, goals, and current stature of the artists who pursue them. Radio is just one piece of the overall puzzle, and may or may not be the right format for you based on your sound, strategy, and resources. Still, as an independent artist in an extremely competitive industry, the number of outlets available for you to market your music is finite, and radio is still an important platform to have your music discovered by a new audience and receive recognition. The role of radio in the overall realm of the music industry has certainly pivoted since its inception many decades ago, but it’s far from antiquated and still holds pertinent value in the scope of current media. There’s certainly more than one way to grow a fanbase in the industry today, but don’t discount radio as a viable means to have your music heard!