November 2012: the record industry has changed enormously since I first wrote this piece in 2008 and – with the rise of Spotify, Hypem and Amazing Tunes – conventional radio is no longer the only game in town when it comes to breaking new artists. See notes at the bottom of this page for some of the changes. But posting CDs to radio stations is still a vital part of the promotional mix and most of the following still holds good.
December 2008: An artist with enough time and determination can get by these days without a record label, manager, publisher or agent. But getting your tunes played on national radio without professional help is still pretty difficult – because 95% of the music we hear on the airwaves is allocated by computer from a centralised playlist. A playlist guarantees that anyone tuning to (say) Planet Rock or Classic FM will get exactly what it says on the tin. Very few DJs get to choose the tunes they play – and most shows on commercial radio get no free choices at all. The way playlists work requires a whole other article. But trust me: if your ambition is to dominate the airwaves you’ll definitely need the services of a radio promotion expert or “plugger”.
Pluggers can be hired at a price – but you’ll still need a gobsmacking record plus plenty of luck to make the playlist of any major station. It’s a massive gamble: you can easily shell out £2-5k on promotion and end up with nothing. So serious ambition is not for the fainthearted – but all is not lost. Let’s assume that even if you don’t have a spare couple of grand to throw around you do have a great sounding track that’s ideal for radio. (And if you don’t, none of this matters anyway…) In which case the good news is that some stations do allow a few “free plays” in among the playlist tracks. These tend to be few and far between on daytime programmes – but specialist evening shows may get to choose quite a high percentage of their music.
The competition for “free play” slots is ferocious and these shows get sent hundreds of records a month from record company pluggers and aspiring artists.
Even opening the post can take half an hour – while listening to absolutely everything is impossible. John Peel never managed it and neither does Steve Lamacq. Since programme teams are usually understaffed, CDs tend to build up on desks and shelves waiting for the producer or presenter to set aside half a day to start sifting through the pile.
And when they start sifting anything that looks like it comes from a record company tends to get priority over homemade discs and packaging because the music is more likely to be of a certain standard. Artists just want to be heard – but record companies need to make money. In summary:
- There are very few shows with “free play” slots
- Those shows get sent more CDs than they can possibly listen to
- CDs from pluggers get heard first because the music’s often better
- Homemade CDs get left to last because they’re often disappointing.
- Your CD has a better chance of getting heard if looks as if it comes from a plugger
Record companies and pluggers send out advance copies of new releases 4-8 weeks ahead of the official release date. These so-called ‘white label’ discs are plain white or silver CD-Rs printed with with artist name, record title, catalogue number and some kind of logo. They’re usually sent in a clear plastic wallet – again with artist, tracklisting & record label info on a b&w paper insert – click examples to enlarge.
Notice how all of them have a STICKER on the outside of the sleeve with release date, artist info and a contact number. An A4 biog/info sheet is also usually included – but often gets lost. That’s why you MUST put a sticker on the sleeve.
The sticker should include a contact number and release date (more on this later) and in the case of an album point out the key songs (“Recommended tracks: 2, 5 and 7“) – most people won’t have time to listen to the whole thing. Don’t bother with vinyl, glossy pix, gimmicks or press cuttings. If your CD sounds right for the show it’ll get played. If if doesn’t, no amount of bumph will make any difference.
By the way, full size jewel cases take four times the space of a card wallet. So if the producer or DJ takes home a load of CDs to listen to after work, they’ll probably pick out lightweight promo copies rather than taking anything in a jewel case. Recently there’s a shift towards sending promo copies in printed card sleeves. Personally I like these a lot. They’re as slim and light as a plastic wallet, but much nicer to handle – and often printed with attractive artwork to help the record get noticed.
And how about this for a cheap, nifty compromise. Other pluggers are printing full colour artwork on the paper inserts they put inside regular plastic wallets. It looks as attractive as a card sleeve, at a fraction of the cost (see example below).
But in the end, a simple white label promo (plastic wallet, b&w insert) is still a cheap, reliable failsafe. If it’s good enough for The Chemical Brothers and Ladytron it’s good enough for any of us. The main thing is that the info sticker has to state who the artist is, what they’re currently doing, a contact number and above all a release date. For suggestions on how to word these promo stickers, see earlier article.
Whatever kind of sleeve you choose, to get heard your discs need to look as businesslike as possible. CD printers are a cheap & vital investment for any artist or manager. The Canon Pixma iP4600 for instance can print your label design directly onto white CD-Rs and currently costs £79 from Amazon (click image). Other brands of printer capable of printing onto discs are available.
“It’s all very well talking blithely about release dates” I hear you cry… “but what if I don’t have a record label and can’t afford to set up one of my own?” Fear not. There’s a fundamental shift of power underway towards independent artists. As far as radio is concerned, a digital release ‘counts’ the same as a physical one that gets pressed and shipped into record stores. You can now digitally release an album, single or EP worldwide on iTunes, Napster etc without a record company thanks to services like AWAL and Tunecore.
It costs next to nothing – for instance in April 2008 Duels told me they had used Tunecore to release their latest album The Barbarians Move In for a grand total cost of £20. Click the iTunes link above to see the result.
If you go this route then the only physical copies you’ll then need are the CD-R promos you send out to radio & press. Nonetheless you still might want to invest in a print run of card sleeves with nice artwork and print up CD-Rs to put inside them. These will look classy enough not only for promo purposes – but also to sell at gigs: a vital source of alternative income for a working artist or band. The card sleeve layout design above comes from A1CDs in Kings Lynn (click image) but many suppliers are available – ask around for the best quote.
When sending out promos to radio it’s vital to target only appropriate shows and stations – there’s no point sending jazz gospel to Kerrang Radio. Professional pluggers do have a head start. They know all the different stations – which shows are allowed free plays, what style of music they favour, plus the names, email addresses and personal tastes of everyone on the production team. After sending out a record they always follow up by phone and email to ask if it’s been listened to, then pass the response (good or bad) back to their client. They can’t make us like it but they do make sure we hear it.
There’s no reason why you too can’t put in a bit of research and do this stuff for yourself – see earlier article. Go through the station playlists, check the individual tracklistings – listen through to shows that might play music like yours, work out their different tastes and quirks. For BBC stations there’s no need to listen live – you can skim through any show at any time using the iPlayer. Make contacts, follow up, ask advice. Use a spare SIM card as your business line and put the number on your promo material. Recruit a mouthy mate to be your ‘plugger’ or pretend to be your own fictional manager. Nobody wants to tell an artist to their face that their record sucks – and if it does, you need to be told so you can do something about it.
One final point is that release dates are traditionally on a Monday and really matter. Set yours for at least two months ahead, to allow lead time for your campaign. You may want to arrange reviews in print and online for the run-up to release. That needs a whole differnt article, but I do know the reviews editors of Mojo, Q, Uncut and The Word need white label copies at least 8 weeks ahead of their publication dates. NME has a shorter lead time – as do the likes of Pitchforkmedia and Drowned In Sound…
You might arrange a launch gig or small tour around the week of release. Even if your venues are small pubs & church halls, a list of live dates will still make your release look more businesslike. Also stoke up interest and get a vibe going among your online ‘friends’ on Facebook, Bebo and MySpace. Shoot a controversial home video and cause a storm on YouTube. In short, get as much “stuff” happening as possible around the release date. Then send your promos out to radio 4-8 weeks beforehand – and follow up by email or phone a week or so later.
A CD may get airplay anytime up to and including the week of release. Once that’s passed, the record is effectively dead for the present. You can always re-release it in 6-12 months’ time but in the meantime let it go, move on and plan your next release. You can always reactivate an album a couple of months down the line by putting out another digital “single” from it. This can be the original version, a remix or both. Just make up promo white labels as usual and send them out 6-8 weeks in advance of your notional (but all-important) release date.
The good news is that nobody at radio really cares whether you’re signed or unsigned. Record companies may be good at getting people to listen to their “product” but if the track sucks nobody will want to play it. And if you’ve genuinely recorded a brilliant sounding track, the programme teams need you as much as you need them. Being the first to “free play” a great new artist makes any show sound good and puts it ahead of the competition.
So in the end, the only two things that matter are:
1) The track has to be genuinely outstanding
2) The right people on the right shows need to hear it
And if you’ve taken care of (1), the tips on this page will help make (2) more likely to happen.
UPDATE November 2012
Since I first wrote about Sending CDs To Radio in 2008, social media and Web 2.0 have substantially changed the way new music gets heard. The original piece still contains important information on how record releases work – while getting white label CDs into the hands of the right radio producers is still the dominant factor in breaking a hit record. But physical discs and traditional media are longer the whole story – and here are some of the changes since that original post was written:
A release date is still key to promoting new music, but nowadays the music industry openly acknowledges that said date is mostly chosen for promotional purposes. Many pluggers now give it the more accurate name of a “focus date”. And as Christopher from The Metaphorical Boat points out below, the traditional choice of Mondays for these dates has now shifted to Sundays.
Having a gobsmacking record in the first place is key and, if you do, then radio will be keen to play it. But everyone likes to back a winner. So if two equally outstanding artists are competing for the same “free play” slot, then online “buzz” will now be a decisive factor. Let’s suppose Artist A has 167 “likes” on Facebook, a few hundred Soundcloud plays and no Twitter account. And that Artist B has a 4,000 Twitter followers, similar amounts on Facebook and their Soundcloud is plastered with likes and comments from other users. If you had just one slot and both records were equally good, which would YOU choose?
These days YouTube is a total music ecosystem all on its own. You can have a global hit on YouTube without a single play on radio or going anywhere near the music industry – Gangnam Style is only tip of an enormous iceberg. OK, millions of bedroom artists may pick up guitars and sing into their camcorders. But the ones with killer songs and good networking skills can find their play count snowballing into the tens – or hundreds – of thousands. All you have to be is good – who needs radio? You could easily put together a modest world tour off the back of 900,000 YouTube plays.
Music blogs are increasingly a major influence on how new music gets heard. Radio producers and DJs from Zane Lowe to Lauren Laverne regularly check out who’s hot and happening on Hype Machine. Most music bloggers work unpaid and are driven by passion, not fashion. If they adore your track they’ll review it/embed it/link to it or even interview you – without caring how many friends you have on Facebook. Online word of mouth can spread quickly and easily without reference to airplay. Again, all you have to be is good.
BBC Introducing is now an established part of the UK’s emerging music scene and represents a unique effort by the BBC to provide free resources and opportunities for all emerging artists. Some people accuse Introducing of fast-tracking inexperienced artists to major sessions, festivals and daytime radio exposure long before they’re ready. Nonetheless thanks to this amazing BBC initiative, musicians don’t have to jump through all the above hoops (and deal with all the promo discs/release date nonsense) to get their first radio play. The ins and outs of how it works are dealt with elsewhere on this blog, but the BBC Introducing Uploader provides an excellent alternative to sending CDs to radio.
Founded in 2009, a year after the above piece was written, the internet-only station Amazing Radio with its stellar roster of presenters has been making huge waves in the emerging music scene. Not only do they play new artists, they play nothing but new artists. Upload your music to their sister website Amazing Tunes and your material becomes eligible for airplay on the station. Again, no CDs needed.
FRESH ON THE NET
Although we’re only one small part of the picture, let me finish with a quick plug. Early in 2012 Fresh On The Net came to an end as a radio show and migrated online. Our team of dedicated volunteers share my determination to help new talent get heard, and if you send us a track any Monday to Thursday, several of us will take a listen. If we like it, we’ll publish it on our Listening Post that weekend.
I now host a 60 minute show and download on 6 Music called the BBC Introducing Mixtape. As the name suggests, all the music comes from the BBC Introducing Uploader – and if you’ve got a gobsmacking track you want me to consider, be sure to send it there first. Then bring it to my attention by uploading it here as well – any Monday to Thursday. You’ll always find the Send Us A Track link at the top of this page – and if I like your tune, it’ll go on the mixtape.
Simple as that.