During the 20th century, landing a primetime radio rotation could turn an unknown artist into a nationwide celebrity within a week. There were gatekeepers of the industry and it took having your music heard by the right person to get yourself on the radio. Now? Music can be uploaded to streaming services, and if the music is curated to the right playlist at the right time – you get a similar result.
But having your songs get airplay on the radio – whether it hits mainstream or not – that’s more promotionally lucrative for many musicians. Therefore, every artist wants airplay and that makes for quite the competitive situation. So how do you get there?
Even in this age of streaming, radio is still a very important platform for musical success. Want your music on the radio? Know the market, put in the work to gain your own fanbase, submit your music to the right people in the right way, & be willing to promote your music throughout the process.
Assuming an artist has already registered with all of the PROs necessary to ensure that they get all royalties due to them, including possible licensing programs, they also need to be sure that they are sending a professional piece of music to the directors of a station per the station guidelines or directors’ request. After all, Music Directors will only choose music that has been submitted appropriately and professionally. So let’s look at how you can accomplish getting your music on the radio and keeping it there.
Why is Radio Still Important?
According to Edison Research’s 2020 “Share of Ear” report, terrestrial radio accounts for 39% of audio consumption among those 13 and older. According to Soundcharts Blog, as of 2019, in the US, the average weekly audio consumption via radio is about 14 times greater than combined consumption across all audio streaming services.
There are three major routes to get a song played on the radio, no matter which kind of station you’re aiming for: through the artists’ label marketing, through the online buzz, or through an old-fashioned breakthrough that becomes a hit. So it’s best to put yourself and your music on one or more of those paths.
Once you’ve decided to try and get your music on radio airplay, you need to learn more about how radio station marketing works.
Learn How Radio Works
For one thing, you need to learn about the radio station markets before submitting your music. I mean, you wouldn’t want to submit a rap song to a country station. You need to know your target audience and choose your radio stations wisely.
Keep in mind, there are two different kinds of radio: commercial and non-commercial.
Commercial Radio is the one we have all come to know on our excursions through commuting and travel. FM Radio stations of various genres or of course those owned by the same damn companies (looking at you, iHEARTMEDIA, Inc). Add to that all Sirius XM Networks and you have quite a lot of commercial power that can help build you a regional audience at the least.
To many musicians, including some independent labels, commercial radio can seem daunting. But it’s not always as difficult as you may think. Sure, most radio stations are owned by just a few big companies, but that doesn’t mean that their local affiliate will turn their nose up at an offering. Especially if that music sounds similar to the music they already play and the artist is playing at a local venue and furthermore… playing their music will bring a large number of fans tuning in.
The Top Ten Owners of Radio Stations in the United States and Canada as of 2021
Non-Commercial Radio includes podcasts, non-profit radio (think NPR), or independent radio and online radio. These might include small community radio stations or college stations. They are smaller, have a more targeted audience, and have less prestige in come cases. NPR is a national non-profit radio station, so there’s a bit more reach with it.
To get airplay on a non-commercial radio station is still a good idea. Those non-commercial radio stations are an indie artist’s best bet for initial exposure. It’s a starting point that can get your music listened to by the proper people that can then take it mainstream.
No matter what kind of radio station we’re talking about, they all have playlists of songs that have been curated through various methods. And you are trying to get your music on those playlists. That’s not a simple task with so much competition.
If you aren’t touring, picking up more press, and selling an increasing amount of music, then larger stations aren’t going to want to play your song. Why? Because radio stations are businesses trying to make money. If you are not showing the potential to increase ratings and revenue for a station, your music will not be selected, no matter the quality. You have to put in the work and effort beyond the music.
Put In The Work
I happen to agree with what Soundcharts says about getting noticed:
Radio airplay doesn’t just happen (at least for most artists): it’s usually the product of months or years of work in developing an audience on other platforms, building up relationships in the industry, and growing your radio promotion network.
The point is, for an independent artist to get their music on commercial radio, there has to be a lot of work going on in the background (luck is a rare driver here).
You should first and foremost come to any business table with a high-quality product that meets the needs of the radio station. In other words, the sound quality should be well-done and the songwriting/music should create a connection to the audience. If you submit sub-par sound quality, the radio and media platforms will dismiss your music. And seriously, music that makes an emotional connection to listeners tends to make it on-air.
If you come to the table as already marketable and with a nice-sized audience, you have a better chance of getting picked up for airplay on radio or even in attracting an industry label for contract consideration. So, put in the work there to help yourself out.
With the advent of streaming services and social media, artists should do their best to have a presence on these platforms. It’s important to remember that radio rotation almost always lags behind streaming consumption. If a radio station sees your numbers on these platforms, it can give them further reason to play your music on theirs.
Having tremendous success on the non-commercial level or having your music picked up by television or film might push it into the hands of commercial radio. If you are selling out live shows in a region, it could garner attention.
Radio stations are bound to put a song and artist through station testing. Radio stations “test” new music during one of their “specialty” shows (i.e. shows that feature local music, which are typically aired on weekends or late at night — when few people are listening).
If the music gets a good response, maybe it will be played during other rotations and even can then be presented to other stations. Even if a station manager or music director isn’t sold on a song, it may get playtime. If that song then catches the ears of other radio staff and listeners, it’s bound to get more airtime.
Even in this case, an artist needs to have his professional situation together. From an article written by Siena Yates for New Zealand Herald, media brand consultant and owner of Third Wave Media, Eriks Celmins says “…hopeful artists must deliver a full package — plan for releases and marketing, a fully-fledged online following complete with analytics, the lot.”
Record labels deliver ease and numbers to back up their recommendations for each station. They regularly pitch new tracks and have all of the marketing and fan base and numbers to convince big conglomerates all the way down to local stations about the viability of playing their artists’ music.
Individual artists should be doing at least some of this if they want to be heard. The point is, you have a lot of competition… so putting in the work and getting the audience for yourself before approaching commercial radio stations is a must.
Submitting your music
This may seem very outdated, but music can be submitted to radio stations to be considered for play. At one time, this meant meeting with radio executives or radio disc jockeys or mailing the music with a cover letter to each radio station. But now, the music is usually sent electronically. Therefore, if you send in a CD with a nice cover letter, you might stand out.
A lot of stations like to highlight local talent, so if you choose the largest, most popular radio station in your area, do your research on who to contact, you might get exposure by virtue of that. Also, if you plan on releasing a physical vinyl, maybe set some aside for this.
All-in-all, you want to be as professional as you can be so that the industry will take you seriously. To that end, a good move would be to create a great first impression with an electronic press kit or EPK. The best EPKs are a kit with a compressed MP3/WAV of your Single/EP/album with links to your website, social media, biography, etc.
Find out which radio stations you want your music played at (this is especially important if they have an upcoming concert or event and want some publicity ahead of time). Then, find out who the contact person is – usually a Music Director or Program Director, or both. These individuals usually decide what songs are played week to week on and between programming & can direct you on where to submit EPKs or the traditional submissions as well.
Look at their station’s guidelines or ask for them before submitting. Also, take note of how major labels deliver music to them and emulate that. It’s professional and it’s going to be respectful. But again, each station can be different.
Putting your best foot forward is more than just a saying – it’s logical advice when choosing your EPK’s music sample is concerned. Radio station programmers/ music directors/ or managers have a lot on their plate. They may only have time to listen to the first minute or so of maybe two songs you have submitted. So make sure they can tell from that if the song will be right for their playlist and their audience.
Let’s use iHeartMedia, Inc. (aka Clear Channel) as the big example. iHeartMedia owns most of the radio stations (and therefore airtime) in the United States and Canada. They also spun off major event promotion company “Live Nation Entertainment”.
They literally have a website and page designated to give you all of the information you need for submitting music (and even podcasts) to them. Check it out – Submitting Music to iHeartRadio.
From that page, you can read – Both artists and labels can submit music to iHeartRadio through aggregators that have distribution agreements in place with us.
However, the stations they own are all local. Depending upon their contract with the parent company, they may have airtime for local artists or touring artists in their programming playlist. Check out their websites or call them to find out more about submitting locally. For non-commercial radio stations, this will almost always be the case.
Your Radio Campaign
The pre-campaign work needs to be included with your submission, whether that be your letter, your EPK, or both. Letting station managers and music directors know ahead of time about your touring schedule, your previous reviews, features, streaming stats, and airplay can go a long way in convincing them to give you time on their radio station.
Radio campaigns need to happen more than a month out from your add date (your release date is when the music actually is released in digital format, but the add date is the date on which radio stations can add your music to their playlist). You don’t stop by mailing promo CDs to program directors and music directors. You will need time to confirm that the packages were received, solicit initial feedback, and if someone didn’t get your package, send a replacement.
This puts you into direct contact with the people who make decisions about the station’s playlist. You can take that time to update them on any local shows and remind them of why your music would be a good choice for them.
Radio station managers are human, too. If we like something, we play it. It’s just simple human nature. As music directors and station managers, we’re passionate about the people who create the music we enjoy. Fandom isn’t limited to just the individuals who follow a band. Most radio station managers are serious fans of music too, and often we’re fans of artists who not only make the music that we enjoy but also who have engaged with us in some manner.D. Grant Smith / Sonicbids, 2015
To get your song to be considered by these directors, first, an artist has to get it in front of them, and one way to do that might be to advertise your new single drop, a special event, or a concert. Then, see if the music director has any space for adding the best song you have to the rotation during local/regional programming.
Yes, I’m actually talking about purchasing air time on a radio station for promoting your music. The radio stations have the audience, captured behind desks, steering wheels, and workout equipment and they’ve never heard of you. Therefore, you must be willing to bring something to the table.
I’ve seen the comparison made before between radio stations and well-known food stores. No matter how famous you are or how good your recipe – you still have to purchase shelf space in their stores. The same goes for a radio station. And depending upon the director, the artist might need to show that they already have a good online presence as well. That should have been included in your campaign materials.
You MUST be willing to market yourself and your music to get mainstream radio airtime. Also, follow through on your plans. Again, if you’re just starting, maybe look into the local non-commercial radio stations first. Maybe you can get a domino effect going, after all, people in this industry talk to one another and make recommendations all the time.
Encouraging More Airplay
Remember how I said having your own audience is a good marketing punch for getting your music some airplay? Well, using that and offering an exclusive can go a long way. Offer the radio station one of your songs that’s never been released. Let your fan base know and have them tune in for the song’s debut. They get new listeners and you get airplay to a new audience.
In rare instances (or due to the domino effect), a radio station may play an artist’s music organically. If you – as that artist – find out about this, it’s DEFINITELY time to get in touch with the radio station playing your music! They are testing the waters, seeing if your music will bring in more audience. Encourage this through your fan base by asking them to support that radio station by tuning in to hear your music or calling to request it. Hey, maybe it’s time to pull out that exclusive here?
How about following through when you DO get airplay? Communication is key here. If you, as an artist, find out that a station has played your music, show them that you value their airplay. Mention it on your social media platforms and encourage your fans in the area to support that station. This connection of appreciation could win future airtime, interviews, and more.
More than anything, be willing to keep trying. It’s a long road for most artists to be able to hear their music played on commercial radio. Billboard Charts, what keeps their audience happy, along with radio promoters who push their clients’ music play a big role in what they choose to put on playlists. There is still room for unknown artists to crash through the wall, but they have to show radio stations that there will be something in it for them. Know the market, put in the work, and be willing to promote your music in every way possible through the process of submitting it – and maybe someday people will be vibing to your music on the airwaves.
As always, if you want to share more, or feel I’ve missed something, let me know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
AND – If you are looking for more great artists to learn about and support then be sure to check out my other articles here.