Getting Airplay

Powering KEXP
03/24/2018
John Richards

When I wrote the first version of “How To Get Airplay” (in 2011, see here) the landscape was much different than it is today. The follow-up was just three or four years ago, and things have changed so much even that is outdated now, but the fundamental idea and question are still valid: how DOES one get airplay on stations like KEXP? First off, you have to remember that KEXP is a one-of-a-kind station. The way we do things is different from most of the other stations out there, but as far as we’re concerned, our way of doing things has gotten us to a place where we’re considered the premier music station -- a station where DJs actually program the music on their shows, and if our model works, we hope other stations do the same. We here at KEXP listen to and give every artist a chance. That doesn’t mean we’ll play you just to play you; that doesn’t benefit anyone. There is a bar and if at least one of our 44 DJs thinks you’ve risen above it, you’ll be heard at this station. Our hope is others will play you as well. You’ve worked hard on your music and the world should have the chance to hear it.

HELLO? IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE?

I thought by the time I updated this article radio would be one of two things: dead or much better. It’s still neither. While there have been some great strides in lower power stations, the commercial stations continue their slow march to generic death. I can’t give you advice on these stations other than to avoid them. They answer to their corporate overlords and while there are some great people at those stations on the air, their hands are tied to what the suits decide is what the public needs to hear. More on that later… While KEXP is a non-profit, non-commercial, and (since we last talked) INDEPENDENT radio station -- meaning we own our licence and answer to the public (thank you, University of Washington!), -- there are a number of different types of stations that may not be independent but are non-commercial and, in many cases, are licensed to a university. They are your best bet for airplay along with the new lower power FM stations popping up. Seattle’s KPLU (now KNKX) was able to part ways with their college license holders to become self-sustaining for the low, low price of 6 or 7 million dollars (again, thank you, University of Washington!) so while not cheap at times, it’s a GREAT trend. Here are the different types of stations:

  • 1. Non-Commercial Stations, like KEXP: “Non-Comms” is what we’re called and we like that. We sound like cool robots, yet ironically we’re not programmed by them. We don’t have commercials -- so guess what? We don’t have to answer to commercial interests. Why does this matter? It matters because we answer to listeners. Why does THAT matter? For me, it matters because it’s the listeners who listen for the love of music, while commercial sponsors are interested in dumbing down the music in order to sell their products. KEXP is not alone. There are some other excellent public stations out there doing amazing work and you want to make sure that they get your music. More than anyone else they are the ones who want to get your music into the ears of their listeners. There a handful of these stations including KCRW, The Current, WXPN, and WFMU. There are others for sure, but these are some of the primary stations that hold a non-commercial license that aren’t run by students. Student-run stations are great, great, great (listen and support them), but a big part of their mission is on-air training so you won’t necessarily get consistent programming, but in a lot of cases you will and it’ll be the best radio you’ve ever heard!
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  • 2. Non-Commercial Stations, like Student-Run Stations: More and more of these stations are online and a great place to get your music to (usually the wattage is pretty low). For instance, at the University of Washington you have KUOW (news and information) but for the students, you have the online-only Rainy Dawg Radio, which is a fantastic student-run station. Other excellent student-run stations include Radio K in Minneapolis, and KALX, WXYC, WRAS, and KJHK. These stations need your music and in a lot of cases will be the nicest people you’ll deal with in this area. Just remember they are understaffed, under-appreciated, and have no budget in most cases. Should you just discard these stations and not submit your music? NO! You must send them your music! For their sake, for your sake, do it. The first time Nirvana was played it was on a college station at the time (this station). Red Hot Chili Peppers were once college radio faves, and the list goes on. Plus being added to ANY station’s rotation is a feather in your promotional cap!
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  • 3. Commercial Stations: Don’t bother sending your music to commercial stations blindly. They probably don’t want to listen to your music, let alone play the music on their station. To be honest, it really wouldn’t matter much anymore if they did, unless you’ve somehow made it into their tiny list of added music which means you’ll be played like 50 times a week but that’s why it’s hard to listen to commercial stations… they play the same song 50 TIMES A WEEK. BUT there are pockets of good DJs and shows out there in the commercial radio wasteland. Usually, they put these shows on Sunday nights so check the listings on each station to find out what’s going on that night. Why Sunday night? For commercial radio, that’s one of the least listened to nights. Awesome, right? Well, no, but I hosted a local show on one of our commercial stations for a few years on Sunday nights and it was GREAT to expose kids to music they wouldn’t otherwise hear on the station. This can sometimes lead to regular airplay as well! You usually have the kid at the station who really DOES care about new and indie music hosting these shows and they are your best bets to champion your music and JUST like the college DJ’s they are underappreciated and understaffed. There are great programmers out there doing their best at these times to get good music on the air. There will usually be two different shows: a local show and a new music show. Find out which show is which and send to the appropriate one. Some also have specialty shows like singer-songwriter, metal, hip-hop etc. If you fall into one of their categories, by all means, give it a shot. This may be your only entry to the stations -- find the host, make friends, and submit your music. Change comes from the inside!

STREAMING SERVICES 

This isn’t the place for info on that (maybe that will be our next article), but I can comment on those stations with humans selecting music. While many saw streaming services as the death of human-programmed music, stations like KEXP have gained more listeners and respect over the years. Why? Well, it turns out people like humans, crazy! No matter if it’s on the dial or online, if there is an actual person on the other side, they may want to listen and may want to play you, so figure out who and where that is and by all means, get them the music.

WHY SEND YOUR MUSIC? 

The big question has to be asked: Why send your music to radio? Do you just want to hear your band on the air? Do you want to know someone heard your band on the air? Are you going to make a tour stop in the cities that are playing your band? Is this “just what you do” when you release music? These are all good questions to ask yourself. Clearly, you should have a mission statement and goals as a band or artist so these questions always have an answer. It will make things a little more clear and a little easier. I had an indie label for years and every time I’d ask the question, “Why are we sending this to 500 stations when I’ve only heard about 10 of them?” I’m going to be honest, if you are seeking airplay to significantly increase sales, it won’t. To be honest about making money as an artist, you probably won’t. Not in music sales anyway. You may increase sales if you submit to stations AND back it up with touring. If you are already a well-known band, it WILL increase sales to submit to stations, but it’s hard to translate how connecting with a station relates to sales. Think of it as a promotion for your brand and your tours and if you feel it will help both, then do it. Remember you will only make money three ways:

  • 1. Touring
  • 2. Merchandise
  • 3. Music Placement

There may be others. Maybe 4 is “vinyl”? If you can press vinyl, do. It’s saving the indie-music world! Plus you get to hold your own record in your hands -- put that down in your mission statement: “I will hold my own record in my hands." Getting back to submitting music, KEXP is a different beast, as are the other main non-comms I mentioned. KEXP does impact sales, one only needs to look at Easy Street Records, Light in the Attic Records, and Sonic Boom Records’ top ten lists to see that, but how much you will make is debatable. So again, make sure the non-comms get your release. If you don’t plan to tour, be sure that your hometown stations get your release. If you’re a band/artist that can play shows in your own and surrounding areas, then make sure that the different areas that you tour have the record. For example, a lot of Seattle bands are able to tour along the west coast, so they want to make tour stops in Seattle, Portland, Eugene, San Francisco, L.A., etc. and as well provide those areas with their music.

WHAT TO SEND AND WHO TO SEND IT TO

Media formats have been constantly evolving. I get music files and streams on a daily basis. I still get CDs and plenty of vinyl. Keep in mind we get A LOT of music sent to us in our inboxes and our mailboxes. For instance, a while back I got the new M83 single sent to me and it hadn’t been on the radio yet. Did I go right to the file and listen? Hell yes -- I know M83 is a great band. Was I rewarded by doing this? Hell yes -- it sounded great. Now imagine all the other emails I’m getting as well, which are a lot. That’s the nature of the job but you have to remember both to be patient and to find ways to stand out in case you aren’t M83. You aren’t M83, right? What most stations have is an “MD”, which isn’t a doctor of airplay but a “Music Director”. If you’re a small band, new band, whatever, it’s going to be hard to get their attention. Stations also have specialty shows and usually a core group of programmers mixing music. All of them should get music sent, but in the end, the MD is the decider for many stations. At KEXP ours determines rotation, but we pick which bands to play from that list including songs AND that makes up just 50% or of our show. We can all decide to start playing something whenever we want.

WHAT AM I SENDING

Stream or Download?

BOTH! This is ideal and follows the goal of making this the easiest process possible for the person (me, for instance) getting 100 things a day. You send a link to the stream, a download, and a link to any video you may have. So what I do is check the stream and if I like it, then go to the download to grab it. If we’re considering having you in and on video, it’s good to check any visuals you may have as it would help inform the live show and thus may help you get a session on video. I constantly get downloads sent to me and to be honest, I don’t want to download anything I haven’t checked out first.

The CD or Record:

Is it alright to send a demo or something with no artwork, etc.? If the station knows who you are and knows your music and you are trying to get them the music really early, then yes. If they don’t know you from jack then you might want to think about cleaning it up a bit. If you ask our DJs, they’ll tell you that they can tell in most cases just by looking at a record what it will sound like and whether it will be any good. Is this a scientific way of figuring out music? Not really, you just do this long enough and you know. CDs are dead, dude, does it matter? Not much anymore. You can get away now with not wasting the time, money, or postage. I won’t lie to you, I like getting them as it’s easy to pop something on the CD player while I work, but those days are numbered and more and more I don’t need 'em. Whatever you’re sending, note any songs where there is swearing. PLEASE! We can’t play those, so please make it easier for us to play you and not be mad when we get fined from a swear word that slipped by.

The One Sheet:

This is must have and is exactly what it sounds like -- a ONE SHEET. This is a quick outline of what you’re sending and why you’re sending it. Think of it as your job resume. Would you get the job with a crappy resume? Avoid TWO sheets. I never get to the second sheet. Here’s what it needs:

  • - A song list.
  • – Make sure to list songs that are not FCC-friendly, as in any songs with cursing. We can’t play them during the day.
  • – List “Go To” tracks (pick your best two or three songs)
  • – Any quotes you have. Chicken and the egg here, how do you get quotes if no one has heard it! Get it to any friends, bookers, managers, anyone in the industry who can give you a good (and honest) quote.
  • – Signposts. Who might you sound like? Most people say “Radiohead” or “The Beatles”. Don’t aim so high; go for cooler indie bands in your genre that have a similar sound. You could also include genre in there as well.
  • – Avoid too much clutter; get to the point and keep it clean and focused

The address for any mail for KEXP is:

KEXP 90.3FM

472 1st Ave N

Seattle, WA 98109

Our MD is Don Yates. Send one to him and to any of our on-air staff you think will dig it. You WILL need to find their email addresses. I get emails asking me to supply people with email addresses that are easily found on the site, you seriously don’t want to have people do your work for you, you won’t make it out there.

Other Promotional Items:

You look awesome in your photo. AWESOME! Radio doesn’t care though really. It’s not terrible if you send one BUT we used to have a wall of bad photos at the station. You don’t want to end up there. Use your best judgment here. If you have a cool promo item, then that’s great. If you send too much you end up looking desperate and trying to show how unique you are instead of letting the music do the talking. Now if the station is playing you, by all means, follow up with stuff that could be given away to listeners, etc. But don’t try to buy the DJ with trinkets. I’m not sure if trinkets are payola or not but the last 500 keychains I’ve been sent have equaled zero airplay. Don’t try and convince someone to play you. Make the best music possible and make sure that does the talking.

Follow Up:

DO NOT assume that just because you’ve sent your package that your CD is being played. Wait at least two weeks after you’ve sent it before you follow up with a phone call or e-mail. DO NOT WRITE THE DJ ON THE AIR TO ASK ABOUT IT! I get two or three of these a show and they are being sent to the DJ email while I’m on the air. This assumes that I’m getting no other emails, am not busy, and will open up the DJ email later and track down these emails. That just isn’t going to happen and it’s on the band to follow up correctly, not the DJ to do the work for you. It’s just a numbers game... and a time game. We have no time and we’re outnumbered. Simply follow up with the MD and/or email the DJ when they are not on the air. Music Directors have music hours. You can usually find these hours listed on a station’s website, or you can call them to find out when they are. They are usually one or two days a week and just a few hours a day so give it a shot during that time. DJs usually don’t have call hours, so email them.

The contact number for KEXP’s Music Director, Don Yates: 206-520-5833

Patience and politeness:

Keep trying and once you get through remain polite and to the point. Ask the following questions. If any of the answers are “No,” stop asking and politely tell them to have a nice day.

  • 1. Did you receive so-and-so CD on so-and-so records?
  • 2. Were you able to review so-and-so?
  • 3. Are you going to add so-and-so to your rotation?
  • 4. Where are you going to add so-and-so to your rotation?
  • 5. Is there anything else you need?

Most stations have a “Heavy,” “Medium,” and “Light” rotation system. If you’re put into any of these categories of rotation, then it’s good news because you’re getting airplay. At this point, thank the Music Director and let them know you’ll be calling back later to see how the record is being received and where it is charting. Continue to follow-up for 6-8 weeks, the life of a new release in rotation. Or, if you like, keep an eye on the station website’s playlist.

Requests:

Inform your supporters which stations are playing your CD. However, make sure that they don’t overload the station with requests or turn bitter towards the station because your music is not being aired enough. DJs can tell when a band’s supporters are overloading them with requests and this will not win you more airplay. KEXP will play music based on merit and not on requests. I must really hammer this point home. Do not overdo it. But still, do it a little. There is a balance there. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s there. I’ve been told by bands that, “You hate local music! You don’t support local music!” if we don’t play their band… while knowing we play more local music than any station in our market and probably in any city. It’s incorrect and childish to go negative. You need to look at your band as a business, and screaming and crying at stations because they don’t play you isn’t the way to run it.

NATIONAL PROMOTION

Does all this seem like a lot of work? It is. You should think about hiring someone to help you. There are several top-notch radio promotion companies that specialize in helping musicians get radio airplay around the country. They generally service 300 to 750 stations for a fee that ranges from $500 to thousands of dollars. Promotional mailings to radio stations will cost you money for both postage and lost CDs. Usually, you handle the mailings while they track your release by calling the Music Director each week and finding out where in rotation it is and how many plays it is getting per week. They used to have you send bulk CDs but those days (thank the postage gods) are over! I think postage caused me to hate having a label -- it was awful and expensive work to just get a few stations to play you in places our bands probably wouldn’t tour. You should work with the promo company to find out what form the music is being sent, all of their policies around the length of campaign, how many OTHER bands they are working along with yours, and make sure they actually like your music. The other thing is, follow up with their work. I get emails sent to me that can’t even get my first name right and I feel bad for the bands. Find the best fit for you at the end of the day. Here are a few we like and deal with:

CLOSING

Radio as a medium has been getting its ass kicked for some time by the bigger commercial interests that own our airwaves. It’s a shame. It should be a place where art and creativity, as well as both local and national communities, can come together and enjoy great music and ideas. I’m biased, of course, but this is only happening on the left end of the dial. The idea is taking off though. A few commercial stations are turning to a listener-supported model -- mostly classical stations -- and by doing this, in theory, the quality should improve (less talk, less selling of the airwaves, more music, and they must connect with their listeners), so all hope is not dead. There are more and more online stations that you can reach out to with your music and not even worry about the cost of a hard copy. There are more and more sites and places to be heard so don’t give up.

Being in a band or being an artist is such an incredible and frustrating thing. You have a very small window in your life to make this happen and I wish more of our media outlets would support you in this effort. The last thing you need is to beg people to play your songs. So hopefully these tips will help you and you can always reach out to me at john@kexp.org for any advice or suggestions. I want you to keep making music, even if I’m not playing it but hopefully I am… and I want to thank you for trying. You may never hear that in the entire length of your creative output but thank you for trying and for being creative and putting something together that no one else has. It’s important for this world that you do and no matter how crappy it gets out there, keep your chin up, plenty of us out there appreciate you. Now more than ever the world needs art and creativity. It needs people like you taking chances, it needs the next Clash, the next Nina Simone, the next Public Enemy, the next Steve Earle or Johnny Cash... the list goes on and that list got their airplay somewhere at sometime for the very FIRST time. We pride ourselves in being that station and I hope one day I get to play you on the air. Good luck out there!

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