What Happens Now?

BBC Sounds display

I’ve been playing independent music artists on my BBC Introducing shows in the middle of the night on BBC Radio 6 Music since late 2007. In that time we’ve given well over 10,000 bands and artists their first national airplay. But after the excitement has died down, finally getting played on the radio can also result in a sense of anticlimax. As one singer-songwriter plaintively put it “What happens now?”

Of course we all hope that long-awaited airplay will suddenly, magically make everything different. We naturally feel that if only we can get the right manager/plugger/record company on board to keep the momentum going, then Success is bound to follow…

Here’s how one artist summed it up in a friendly Twitter message:

Hi Tom, thank you for another play last night, loved the show! I was just wondering if I could get some advice? How can I now take this a bit further? I’ve got the EP to follow the single coming out in a month and really wanna continue the push. I’m thinking more airplay/live sessions/interviews/radio 1 etc etc – I don’t suppose you could help? Thank you in advance! :-)

In case it’s helpful for anyone who’s ever been in a similar position, here’s my reply:

“Hey James – have you by any chance heard or seen this video? It may or may not be of any help, but it does pretty much sum up my best current advice about all this stuff…


To save you wading through it, it basically says that most of the traditional Music Industry goals of “more airplay / live sessions / interviews / Radio 1 etc etc” are overrated. Live sessions and radio interviews are not only eyewateringly difficult/expensive to achieve, but in many ways a distraction from other stuff that matters a lot more…

Obviously by all means do have a go at achieving those radio goals, but the competition is f*cking insane. Huge multinational giants – plus many hundreds of independent artists & labels – are all chasing the same small number of airplay and session slots every week. Some are regularly spending many thousands of pounds to try and elbow their way to the front. My BBC Introducing Mixtape may have a minuscule audience compared to Jack Saunders on Radio 1, yet even my inbox has over 4,000 unread emails from pluggers, all desperate for airplay.

Worse, those sessions and daytime radio plays – even if you manage to achieve them – won’t make as much difference to your future career as you may think. Over the years I’ve come across many brilliant acts whose music I adored – and managed to get 6 Music sessions and even slots on the Glastonbury Introducing Stage for some of them. And all those wonderful bands and charismatic artists have since pretty much disappeared without trace. But why?

BBC Introducing Stage

Well, although a sudden burst of radio plays and festival slots does provide a brief splash of visibility, that stuff tends to come… and then go. You give it your best shot, and a year later you’re pretty much back where you started. Except that instead of being This Year’s New Thing you’re now Last Year’s New Thing.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I did also give Calvin Harris and Lily Allen sessions early on in their careers. But doing a session for me wasn’t what made them successful. Their spiralling fame and record sales were down to the fact that they both had huge, fast-growing fanbases, thanks to MySpace. Playing the odd BBC Introducing radio session may have helped them on their way but Lily and Calvin were always going to make it, without any help from the likes of us.

So yes, once someone’s career is already moving, then radio is great for putting a foot on the accelerator. The bigger your momentum, the bigger the difference radio will make. But what airplay can’t do is kickstart your career from scratch. For an unknown artist, sudden media exposure makes almost no difference to the longterm size of your fanbase.

Right now you have under 700 followers on Facebook and less than 80 subscribers on YouTube. If I was your manager, my advice would be to focus your artistic energies on writing new songs – and your promotional energies on building up those numbers to nurture up a proper community of interest around you and your music. The specific numbers don’t actually matter that much since they’re easy to cheat & manipulate. But having a community growing up around your music matters very much indeed.

Genuinely achieving 1000 new subscribers on YouTube would be way more use to your career right now than a whole week of plays on Radio 1. Unlike the radio, it’s completely within your own power to achieve, and costs nothing. A year on, almost nobody will remember the airplay. But 12 months later those thousand YT followers will still be there, engaging with every new song and video you share.

I wouldn’t even be bothering to write all this if I didn’t believe you have what it takes to achieve a serious audience for your music: talent, drive and a great attitude. My best advice right now – although it’s only one man’s opinion – would be to pay more attention to your followers, figure out what is is they like about you, and do a lot more of it.

In addition, of course, to writing a lot more of those clever, memorable songs :-)

Tx”

Strat and amp

Tom Robinson

London-based broadcaster & songwriter, born 1950. His best known songs are 2-4-6-8 Motorway, Glad To Be Gay and War Baby; he has also co-written songs with Peter Gabriel, Elton John, Dan Hartman and Manu Katché. Read More...

13 Comments

  1. Damn. I guess we better get back to making music 🙂

  2. Lovely, succinct article on something so important. The best thing you can do is love what you do, be consistent & persistent with what you do, and find an audience that loves what you do. It’s a long game!

  3. Really value this article – it’s a very daunting industry to try to navigate and it often feels like you’re wading through tar trying to find the right route to recognition so this really helps to focus the mind and provide some clarity. Thank you Tom!

  4. Thank you Tom for writing this and for your words of wisdom, as ever. Two of us came to your ‘Giving Up The Day Job’ talk at BBC Intro Live 2019 and found it very valuable.

  5. A great article that pulls no punches, but is also kind & very constructive. You really, really, REALLY have to enjoy making music, be true to yourself & continue doing what you’re doing. Anything else that might happen is a bonus.

  6. Me G

    Totally honest, straightforward genuine advice from Tom in this great article…

  7. Sue

    Very wise words Tom 🙂

  8. Wisdom & honesty & important points expressed concisely and with the perfectly placed f-word to hammer home EXACTLY how SO VERY MANY are chasing SO VERY FEW slots…and with a backdrop of many well-known artists struggling for meaningful airplay currently.

    The value of Tom’s radio shows go well beyond audience figures for live or catch-up – hence: the sad reaction to the reduction of his airtime; & hence: what is a massive blow for all kinds of under-represented musicians at all stages of their careers.

    The sheer number of artists who prominently list either TR airplay or a TR quote on their CVs is testament to the value of these.

  9. Juat saw this Tom. Such good advice and an opportunity for artists to rethink their strategies to reflect how digital has changed the game. The good news is the DIY approach is as viable as it has ever been if you focus on the things that will help you in the long game.

  10. It’s great to read this very lucid and sage advice from Tom Robinson. It does reflect the flavour of some advice to music artists I read about, issued by ex-Undertones frontman-become-A&R, Feargal Sharkey. Whether you like his punk or solo career music or not, or how much can be gleaned from one industry insider, his basic gist is to stop making social media ‘noises’ and focus on writing great songs ( ho-hum! )
    This raises important issues of creative and promotional balance. What does Mr. Sharkey mean by ‘noise’ in the proverbial sense? If artists are being advised to build their fan-base ( and these days, so much of that involves social media ) then surely ‘noises’ must be made. It’s fine to hole yourself up in the studio creating immaculate masterpieces, until you realise they need to be heard somehow – against a maestrom of shouters and hollerers rockin’ the kasbah of music. And so, aside from the music itself, the noise takes many forms – personal anecdotes, topical views, lifestyle interests, and so on. At what level does the noise shallow, tedious and indistinguishable from the rest of the Instagram & Tiktok mish-mush? At what point does the music suffer because you’re too busy telling whatever fanbase you have about your favourite relish for your hot dog! What’s so bewildering to so many artists is where to put oneself. Different advice from different commentators appear to conflict, until you can only settle in the trust that whatever you are doing in music or promotion is better than doing nothing. It seems that every journey is different and the variables pretty much infinite. A fellow artist on Twitter wrote: “you can’t game your way into growing a real fanbase”. I think we have to agree. Real relationships, Genuine likes and follows for other artists’ music. Stop the numbers game madness and just enjoy creating stuff that others may get something out of. Every little accomplishment is a gem, and the rest is in the lap of the gods. That’s how I feel about it anyway.

  11. HW

    That’s a good article.

  12. Quite right Tom, getting a song on the radio doesn’t matter at all these days.
    In contrast to the 1960s, the audience has become more differentiated.
    There is no longer one band only like the Beatles in the past, and no other Band like the Stones or an artist like Bowie.
    No, today are millions of good musicians, almost as many as bad musicians.
    Also every day there are coming new ones of both kinds.
    But also YouTube, or other social-media-nonsense, doesn’t bring nothing used it on its own.
    You can have millions of clicks on YouTube, but as long as you don’t get a note in the newspaper, a message on the radio or on TV about this millions of clicks, you only stay in your network bubble.
    We all know: what’s on the Internet is only of interest to users means: as long as it doesn’t cost anything.
    So forget about it. Make your music and be happy, that you can make it without having to sell yourself in the music business.
    Remember Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison, Jimmy Hendrix etc. All the guys from the Club 27. They were all murdered by the music industry.
    And the ones who survived, the Club of 80?
    They are trapped in their golden cages of fame and can no longer dare to go out on the streets. They are only loved for their money or the prominence they exude, when you can catch them for a selfie.
    That’s the music business. Sh*t but it is ;-))

  13. Rovi

    Excellent advice Tom, as usual. Ironically we are already doing just that with an artist. With a host of BBC radio airplay under her belt on BBCR2, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cornwall, BBC Cambridgeshire (Incl: Suffolk & Norfolk) BBC Radio Kent, BBC Introducing (London & Essex) over about a 5 year journey,

    It was just last year, during the lockdowns, that she really engaged with a group of fans that had also caught her liive at various gigs in the past. They are fanatical supporters that have been locally grown and they are niche’. Its growing and growing, and whilst we do still stoke the BBC introducing fire now and again. the focus is really on growing the numbers, album production (via per-sales) and touring the album. That’s where the longevity lies and if we do manage to get some mainstream radio play-listing or sync licencing along the way with a track we plug, then that’s the cherry on the cake.

    I guess our only gripe with ‘BBC introducing’ is that it seems very Radio 1 focused. So if an artist, however young they may be, fits the BBC R2 listener mould, for instance, more than BBCR1, there doesn’t appear to be any infrastructure within BBC Introducing to showcase them on festival stages or pitch them for BBC R2 rather than R1. This fact is reinforced by said artist appearing on Brentwood Festival’s main stage a few years ago having not been invited to play the Introducing stage. How odd is that?

    We will always be grateful for the airplay and will continue to do exactly what you have stated. It’s just a shame that emerging unsigned artists with an older audience engagement seem to slip through the BBC introducing net when it comes to pitching the artist to BBC hierarchy.

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