An Independent Music Conversation: Focus on New Music Radio
Part Five of Emerging from the Mist dealt with the challenges and lessons from operating in the independent music sector. Part Six touches on how a joined up approach involving all the key stakeholders involved in independent music could be of considerable collective value… if we can ever get it off the ground. But mainly its focus is on the genuinely independent (non-commercial) radio shows and stations out there supporting new music; also how valuable they could become to new music artists if we could help them reach bigger audiences.
A Few Problems and Challenges for Independents
Selling and making meaningful money from music within the DIY culture of independent activity is hard. Really hard. Although the digital revolution has made international distribution to all the leading platforms much cheaper and easier, you have to shift a colossal number of streams to make a little cash. The competition is way tougher now too because, whilst it is great that we can all make recordings of release and radio quality at home on our laptops, that is a benefit which is available to thousands of others too. So if you want to generate sales you need either to be playing sufficient regular gigs to decent size crowds to be able to sell CD/Vinyl copies of your albums or you need airplay and media coverage. Then again airplay and media coverage is also important for attracting people to your live shows. So just as it was before downloads or streaming, you still need to be heard on radio and, if possible, written about in blogs and other media. Since airplay will be the principal subject of this article I will return to it shortly.
Of course Social Media offers important avenues too and it is possible to build substantial followings on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram if you learn how to utilise tools, hashtags, images etc. But you have to be realistic too. My label account for Demerara Records has over 16K followers on Twitter and nearly 3K on Facebook. Yet the numbers of those ‘followers’ who actually engage regularly with my posts are way smaller. Others may disagree and point to examples that support their views, but I believe it is rare for social media alone to support a substantial music career or music business venture.
Exposure is key. So we need to know where to find it. As I mentioned in Part Five, BBC Introducing is a great resource that enables a continuous stream of new and emerging artists to get their tracks listened to and, in many cases, played both by regional Introducing shows and by genre specialist ones on national radio. However airplay of this kind comes with a health warning.
Of course it is great to have your track played on the BBC Introducing Mixtape, Tom Robinson’s Saturday Night Show, Freak Zone, Late Junction, Huw Stephens, Regional BBC Introducing etc. It is good for getting heard by new audiences and it is useful for your subsequent PR activity. But it is highly unlikely to lead, on its own, to notable record sales or substantial new followers. For that you would need your track (and ideally a video too) to be on rotation on suitable channels for a sustained period of time (i.e. a month or longer). And unless you are already well established, have a single out on a major label that is pushing the boat out to promote it or you manage to gather serious momentum through some other avenue (such as a club hit that tears up dancefloors in Ibiza over the preceding summer or a song that acquires cult status and goes viral through the sharing of links), you are not going to achieve that; no matter how good your track is.
This issue does not exist in isolation either. Even to gain the kind of reputation that will enable you to sell tickets for gigs across enough locations to justify a tour you still need to be getting played regularly on the likes of BBC Radio 6 Music. So as special as an individual spot play might be, it will not help you achieve wider recognition in isolation. So with sustained airplay so hard to find no matter how good you are and gigs being important for selling your merchandise (see Part 5), what else can artists do to maximise exposure?
The Independent Music Conversation
I recently wrote an article calling for an Independent Music Conversation involving a wide spectrum of stakeholders in supporting one another to help all involved in the sector to raise their profiles and benefit from wider exposure. It was well-received especially by some of the genuinely independent radio stations. One even replicated the article (with my permission) on its website.
That article made a relatively simple point. Namely that if truly independent radio stations, labels, managements, live promoters, small venues, merchandise makers (i.e. manufacturers of T-Shirts & other branded items, CD & Vinyl pressing plants etc), record stores and online platforms, bloggers and other media were to participate in a real and ongoing conversation about working together more effectively, we could all benefit. I also proposed a conference at which such a conversation could be kick-started in the form of presentations, panel discussions and keynote speeches.
One important way in which independent music artists could benefit would be from airplay on less well known, non-mainstream radio stations. That benefit could be further enhanced by the artists and others in their support structures (labels, managers, PR people, fans) helping to publicise these radio stations and particular shows that support new music. In simple terms, the shows commit to playing new music and giving the best tracks more exposure and in return the artists and those supporting them play their part in publicising details of the shows. Ultimately we could establish an informal network of radio shows that are willing to receive new tracks by less established artists and will be playing them to bigger audiences than before. This in turn could help promoters, including local ones, to be confident in booking new and emerging artists for live shows. One of the ways independent booking agents can help is by putting bands and artists on as support acts to popular local acts in different locations so that they have the chance to win new fans outside their own localities. As my favourite hashtag says #NewMusicNewThinking.
Focus on Radio Stations and Shows
The expansion of internet and community radio has given birth to a host of stations that exist outside the market-driven, commercial media and are run and presented by real music enthusiasts. Some of you who are reading this article will know of others so please do reply to this article with details of shows and stations you think are also worth knowing about.
I am assuming for the purposes of this article that most readers are aware of BBC Radio 6 Music, 1Xtra etc. as well as established independents and specialists who support new music like Resonance FM, Resonance Extra, Reprezent, Mi-Soul and others all of whom can be listened to on DAB Radio. So the following selected stations and shows are among those I have had recent experience with and who I believe are deserving of bigger audiences. And if we play a part in helping them achieve those bigger audiences, it means more people being exposed to music by new and emerging bands and artists on a regular basis.
Exile FM: The Monday Night Ride-Out
Regular visitors to the Fresh on the Net Listening Post may recall a fantastic track by Project Blackbird called Elevation which sailed into the Fresh Faves. Two members of the band – Ming Nagel and Jon Read – set up the online radio station Exile FM from their base in Melton Mowbray (Leicestershire) in 2017. The station has a number of unique shows all of which are worth checking out but I am focusing here on Ming and Jon’s own show The Monday Night Ride-Out which goes out live from 9pm to 11pm every Monday evening.
Now when I say ‘live’, I mean it is not a pre-recorded podcast. The show is broadcast live and listeners can have fun interacting with Ming (aka DJ Minx) and Jon on social media throughout the two hours. The playlist is eclectic and represents a great mix of old and new including a good chunk of music by new and emerging artists including tracks they have come across through Fresh on the Net.
The show is subsequently available by podcast for anyone who misses the live broadcast. Regular features include the Speed Triple where listeners have to try to work out the connection between three tracks, the Transatlantic Tingler with a UK/US connection and Billy Brown’s Choon of the Week which may be best understood by listening to the show! The pair have a great chemistry. Ming is laid back, has a soothing accent and dry humour. Jon is the cheekier one and attempts to wind her up resulting in her usually amusing put-downs in response but it is all good-humoured and what comes across is their genuine love and wide knowledge of music.
Radio Dacorum: Friday Night Show with Gatsby
Radio Dacorum is the community station for my original hometown of Hemel Hempstead (near Watford). Station boss Matt Hatton is an old friend (who I once played on stage with at a semi-legendary impromptu performance in 1986!) and presents his own eclectic show but I am focusing here on the Friday Night Show with Gatsby (aka Marc Ainscough), broadcast from 7pm to 10pm.
Marc has spent several years presenting the Friday afternoon show and, having built up a following for his unique mix of genres from across the eras including a good representation of new music, he has been rewarded with the flagship Friday evening show. And having been a guest on the show on more than one occasion, I can confirm there is no show like it in the world. Marc’s knowledge of music is stunning and the way he is prepared to keep digging out great tracks based on spontaneous conversation about music is fantastic.
Marc is also prepared to stick his neck out and feature tracks that are leftfield and pushing the envelope as well as keeping up to date with interesting developments in new music generally. All in all it’s a thoroughly enjoyable show that can also be an education in music across a diverse range with nothing off limits.
Conquest Hospital Radio: Paradise by the Sea
I made my radio debut on Hospital Radio back in the eighties at a time when no-one took such stations seriously. After all if anyone was actually listening there was a good chance they would be sick and possibly geriatric. Hardly cutting edge in an era that was all about youth, slickness and glamour. Wind the clock on thirty years and we have an increasing number of hospital radio stations who broadcast online and have listeners all over the UK or even the world.
One such station is the excellent Conquest Hospital Radio in Hastings, East Sussex and here I am focusing on the unique Paradise by the Sea (2pm – 4pm, Tuesday afternoons) presented my long-time friend and former workmate Graham Belchanber. Graham and I worked together in an entirely different sector, as fellow national trade union negotiators, but one of the reasons we hit it off immediately was because we both loved music so much.
So it is a joy to hear Graham presenting his own show and having the freedom to set his own playlists which include a lot of historic and classic music but also a fair amount of new music too including artists who are only just emerging or who sit well outside the Pop mainstream. Features include a Guess The Band T-Shirt competition in which listeners try to guess the band on the T-Shirt Graham is actually wearing during the show, the first one to get it right receiving a ‘Pint in the Post’. Also there is always plenty of Pop Trivia plus ongoing banter with listeners via social media. Unfortunately Conquest does not currently provide podcasts so there is no facility to listen back to a show. Maybe that will come. But if you are able to tune in on a Tuesday afternoon it is a joyous experience and Graham’s commitment to supporting new music is admirable.
So is the station’s attitude. Indeed it was Conquest who replicated my article about an independent music conversation on their website. More power to them and all their excellent and freely curated shows.
The Source FM: Tunes to Help You Breathe More Easily
I have only recently been introduced to The Source FM in deepest Cornwall and the superb Tunes To Help You Breathe More Easily presented by Barry Gribble (5pm – 6pm, Fridays).
Another highly knowledgeable music historian and presenter Barry plays an eclectic mix of genres and eras and is happy to play new and emerging artists including those from niche and specialist music scenes. As the show’s blurb says he is on a quest to play ‘… great music from Robert Johnson to The Aphex Twin, from Bob Dylan to Can, from Los Angeles to Liverpool’.
Radio North Angus: Various
I can’t actually remember exactly how I came across Arbroath’s Radio North Angus or RNA as they are known by listeners but they have proved to be an open-minded and supportive source of airplay for new music helped by the refreshing attitude of their Head of Music Malcolm J B Finlayson.
RNA, another hospital-based station, have no specific music policy. They simply pass the tracks to presenters and allow them to decide what they want to play. Experience suggests they are open to supporting a lot of new music and new artists so send them your new tracks and albums because unlike the major commercial stations they will listen to them and may well play them too.
Radio Wigwam: Bandwagon
Internet stations are more important than ever for new music artists and one of the UK’s most established ones is Radio Wigwam. The Welsh station is run by the energetic Christian John and he presents their flagship show Bandwagon which is broadcast repeatedly at different times throughout every week. Radio Wigwam also publish every single track played on Twitter so you can follow what they are broadcasting at all times of day.
Bandwagon is a specifically new music show and offers an eclectic mix of lesser known and emerging artists. They say they are predominantly a Rock station but my experience is that they are far more eclectic than that claim suggests and basically will play any new music provided it is of a good standard. They are generous too in the numbers of plays they provide if they like a track. Christian is positive about the idea of an independent music conversation and has indicated that he would be potentially prepared to be a keynote speaker at our Conference if it is ever organised.
RKC (Radio Kaos Caribou): Various
RKC is a French internet station but it broadcasts in English and is a stalwart supporter of new music across a very eclectic range that includes contemporary classical as well as all things Pop, Rock, Urban, Dance, Jazz and a lot else besides. They never publish their schedule so it can be difficult to pinpoint when specific shows are on but their Twitter account is continuously updated and they publish details of the tracks they play.
XTended Radio: Various
Dutch internet station XTended Radio is run by the highly likeable Bert Koning. Another stalwart supporter of new bands and artists across a diverse range, Bert is generous in the airplay he affords new music and all played track details are published on Twitter. The station did go off air for a time but is back in earnest these days and well worth making the effort to submit your tracks to.
Lonely Oak Radio: New Music Show
California’s Lonely Oak Radio is another great supporter of new music. If you are successful in getting your submitted track onto the New Music Show it is broadcast at least twice (12 hours apart) and sometimes more if it becomes a Three Oaks track. Like the other leading internet stations they publish all tracks played on Twitter.
Lonely Oak Radio, like most of the above stations, depend upon donations to keep them going and they offer deals where you can pay a modest amount for a guarantee of multiple plays over a period of weeks. So you are able to enjoy your track receiving a large volume of sustained plays whilst knowing your money is helping to support a new music-orientated station. I should add that all these online stations welcome donations so check them out if you are minded to make a contribution to any of them.
I must end this section of the article by also mentioning the excellent NTS Live in London and Manchester, Glasgow’s Sub-City Radio, Lochbroom FM in North West Scotland, Dublin’s Near FM, Oxford’s Union Jack Radio and the St Albans-based Radio Verulam all of whom have shown great support for new music artists in recent times. As I said earlier in this article, please do reply and tell us about other stations and shows we should know about because they are genuinely supportive of new music and of new and emerging artists. Let’s give them all as much publicity as we can.
As I stated earlier, radio is by no means the only avenue bands and artists should be focusing on as a means of building new followings. That is why my call for an independent music conversation covers bloggers and other online media, music press, small venues, independent live promoters, indie labels, managers, booking agents, merchandise manufacturers, record stores and everyone else who has a stake in this wide-ranging sector.
If an artist or band, its label or its manager can reach the point of having avenues for regular radio play (and interviews etc.), a booking agent getting gigs in a variety of locations, a group of live events that can periodically offer repeat bookings (which might include their own regular live events), low cost deals on decent merchandise from clothes and other items to CD and Vinyl pressing plus a user-friendly website and proactive social media accounts on all key platforms, then that is going to give them the best possible chance of achieving some sustained and meaningful success, whether that means regular paid work or significant record sales (or both if you are really fortunate). Independent Radio has the potential to play an important role at the heart of such activity.
We need to do more to support one another and raise the profiles of all stakeholders. So look out for more information and articles on this subject. We have let the genie out of the bottle and the issue is not going to go away. At least not if I have anything to do with it! To end with a well-worn cliché but a truism nonetheless – united we stand, divided we fall.