DIY Band Hack: Marketing yourself to Left of the Dial Radio Stations
Written by Rachel Hunt
Rachel Hunt has been a programmer on WRUW-FM 91.1 Cleveland hosting the indie rock, electro-pop driven show “Guilty Pleasures” and the live music program “Live From Cleveland” for the past 6 years. She also served as the college radio station’s PR Director between 2010-2014. This is a crash-course intensive lesson on how to get your album played on the air, how to market your band, and why radio still matters for your album sales.
There’s plenty of rhetoric available on the web to convince long-term music listeners that terrestrial radio is dead. ITunes, Spotify, Bandcamp, Soundcloud: they are just a few of the preferred websites that have become replacements for Generation Y to discover new music or add free tracks to their ever-expanding digital collections.
Of course bands in 2016 are going to want to join all of these platforms, and luckily they can do it for free. However, most musicians are missing a huge segment of their audience: the ones who still follow college radio, and research has shown that there are more of those people out there than we think.
All of these websites, they’re great for sharing your music efficiently and often with instant statistics of how many people have listened to or “liked” your song. These websites do little to actually curate your music or connect you with potential fans, however, except for completing mindless algorithms based on the number of plays a track receives and what other kinds of music the same subscribers are listening to. How do you get that initial push to propel thousands of people to type your band’s name into Google’s search engine?
That’s where college radio stations come in. They are the largest, fastest, free resource to disseminate your music across a broad geographic range and a diverse demographic (depending how large their transmitter is and whether or not they have an internet presence). In the greater Cleveland area alone we have four college radio stations: Cleveland State’s WCSB 89.3, CWRU’s WRUW 91.1, Baldwin Wallace’s WBWC 88.3, and John Carroll’s WJCU 88.7 “The Heights” where listeners can organically stumble across your tune and like it enough to look it up later.
Imagine, instead of printing out a thousand flyers per show you’re playing and posting them up all around the city, you could just contact your local college radio station, send them a promo CD with the dates of performances you have coming up this month, maybe even a pair of free tickets, and let the programmers do the rest. Believe it or not, college radio stations are made up of a completely volunteer-driven staff who LOVE music. They’ll even do most of the legwork for you if you know how to get their attention.
The First Step
If you already have pre-packaged CDs with album art and a track list, you’re ahead of the game. If you have to burn a CD with your music on it, buy some cardboard CD sleeves or jewel cases. Invest in a printer, white sticker labels, and a highlighter from your local craft store and take a look at the photos below:
These are two examples of what you can do at the bare minimum to give stations a good idea of who you are, what you sound like, and what can be found on your album. Both of these examples were sent to WRUW-FM by well-reputed promotions agencies, Planetary and Terrorbird. If you have a pre-existing CD with cover art and packaging good to go, print the info below out on those white stickers like you see here and smack ‘em onto an area of the CD that obstructs as little info as possible.
As you can see, they both utilized the cardboard sleeve in this example; the second included a picture of the album artwork on the front. I would recommend including album artwork if you have it. On both you’ll find the following information:
- Focus Tracks- A.k.a. singles: the songs on your record that sound the best and are upbeat enough to be played and requested multiple times on the air before people get sick of them. Usually singles come in between 2:30-4:00 minutes long, anything longer should not be considered a single unless you plan on including a “Radio Edit” on your promo copy.
- FCC Warnings- George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words: the Federal Communications Commission regulated them in 1972 and they still need to be censored today. If a programmer has never heard your single before, but they decide to play it based on the information you’ve provided them, they’re going to need to know ahead of time if there are any bad words in the song because if they air them, they could be fined up to millions of dollars (not kidding). Most focus tracks have an edited version if they contain even one of the seven dirty words.
- Album Information– Album title, label (if you put it out yourself, that’s “Self-released”), where it was recorded, who it was engineered by, mixed by, mastered by… If you’re doing this really lo-fi you may not have a different person doing all of these things or even have it mastered at all. However, if you do, you’re going to want to put that on the album somewhere. Believe me, this information means something to the programmer spinning your record.
- Contact Info- Whom can the station contact if they want additional press? A name, phone number, or email address that you regularly check is good enough if you don’t have a publicist or booking agent.
- Adds/ Add Dates– Most college stations report their playlists to CMJ (The College Music Journal) and different genres are separated by what Add Chart they’re on (Top 200, Hip Hop, RPM). Charts are also compiled weekly, so the Add Date is what the focus week for the album or track is to make it onto the charts.
For these two albums above, WRUW-FM received a digital download via email (mp3’s files). These came from another pair of well-reputed promotion agencies, Co-sign and AAM. The mp3’s were burned onto a CD from a zip file in correct track order and the information that the album came with was carefully printed out and formatted by our head librarian, Wade, who then put it into a jewel case and stuck it on our “new” shelf (music received three months ago and newer). This method creates more work for Wade, but it’s the preferred method of sending music these days because there is less assumed cost for the artist and agency.
You’ll also notice that there is more important information contained on the back of these two CD cases. I would strongly recommend putting the following information on ALL albums that you send to radio stations, every single time:
- ONE paragraph of interesting information- DJs don’t have the time to Google every artist that they play on the air. This is your mini Wiki-page. Tell us where you’re from, what other bands members play in, is this your debut or your 5th album? If you’re local or touring, when and where is the next time people can go see you? What particularly sounds GREAT about this record?
- FOR FANS OF– What other current bands do you sound like? This is so important. You can get this very wrong or very right. Many times I only take into account this information and the lyrics before I decide to play a new single. On my radio show, I play a lot of Yeasayer, Toro Y Moi, Yacht, and Thee Oh Sees. If you list one or any of these bands, chances are I will play your album on the air before ever listening to it first. These artists you can already find on playlists for my show and they are current artists who have a very specific sound. You can go very wrong if you truly don’t know whom you sound like and you don’t listen to any current music that you can admit had an influence on you. One time I picked up an album that said “For Fans Of: Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, and The Grateful Dead” and I wondered if it was a joke. Needless to say, I did not play any songs off of that CD because to me it sounded like they were confused or unwilling to admit that they sounded like anything made in a particular genre, today.
The Next Step
Pirate! Marketing put together an amazing list of all the college radio stations in the United States and Canada that they send music to with links to easily get more information about each station. Look at all of those stations in Ohio! We’re blessed in the Mid-west to still retain a stronghold on the FM airwaves.
Here is what you need to know before you start sending your music to the DJ who will play it. You can send a single, an EP, a whole album worth of songs via email or snail mail (I wouldn’t recommend sending a download card through the mail):
- Choose stations that are either dense in listeners or proximate in location to places you’d realistically play shows. There’s no use in sending your physical CD to a station in the middle of Wyoming unless you’re supporting a tour that is going to take you through that city; you’re wasting your $3.00 in postage. Make sure you always send local stations your newest singles and releases (for Cleveland those are WRUW & WCSB). The more their programmers see your name, the more they are going to gravitate towards playing your music. There are a few “kings” of college radio out there that you should know about, as well. WFMU, KVRX, and KEXP have all been long time college radio staples with an equal amount of terrestrial, digital, and special content (blog & exclusive video) viewers. These are the types of stations you should reach out to when you go on tour because they will help get people to your shows if they like playing your music.
- Avoid internet-only stations or stations that have a limited library available for programmers. Some stations are only online and that’s okay, but you aren’t going to get the biggest bang for your buck if the station is only operating via one platform. Stations that are in control of multiple platforms, like those that I mentioned above, are going to be able to push your band further out into the stratosphere than one that’s only online. You’ve already got your music on Spotify and ReverbNation, so move on from internet-only outreach. Not all college radio stations are created equal and that’s something it sometimes takes programmers years to figure out. Where-as WRUW here in Cleveland accepts all new music sent our way, not all stations do. At WBWC for example, the Music Director has a much more vital role in deciding what albums are eligible for airplay. This can be based on genre, production-quality, or content (FCC-friendly?) but it limits the success of your album being played unless they have hand-selected it, long before individual DJs even see it.
- Address the envelope or the email legibly and specifically. If you’re going to pay the postage to send your CD or press release through the mail, you want to make sure that you have it addressed to the right person. This may seem like a no-brainer, but for those who label a package incorrectly, I guarantee it will be doomed to sit in a university’s mailroom for eternity. Make it out to the Music Director. This is the person who is in charge of making sure an album is placed on the station’s shelf or mp3’s in their virtual music library. The name of a station’s Music Director can easily be found on their website. For WRUW-FM the envelope should be addressed to:
ATTN: Music Director @ WRUW-FM 91.1 Cleveland
11220 Bellflower Rd.
Cleveland, OH 44106
All emails should be sent to the Music Director as well, for WRUW that’s firstname.lastname@example.org. If you know a programmer or follow a certain show specifically, it is OK to send the package to that program, but it should be clearly stated on the envelope/ in the email. You may want to do this if you’re sending out a release in a certain genre. For example, on WRUW we have a selection of Americana shows, but Mr. JEG would be a good person to start with to address the album to in order to make sure he sees the CD you sent specifically to his show “Laying Down Tracks”.
I’m sure a lot of this seems tricky or time consuming and that’s because it is. It’s why there are marketing agencies specifically set up for promotions that cater exclusively to college radio and left of the dial radio stations like NPR affiliates. Your promotions firm is just as important, if not more important, then your record label. Whereas record labels shop for you, with a publicist you have more control over what you buy into. The agencies still require submissions, but if they think you’re a good fit for them, they’ll accept you into their roster of represented artists where you can gain the exposure necessary to find a label that will be mutually beneficial for your project.
Publicists aren’t cheap! They range anywhere from $500-$5,000 per month depending on your campaign, but they put the time into pushing your album out there into the world in a way that a band may simply not be able to do for themselves. Here is a list of some of my favorite publicity agencies whom we receive new releases from on a regular basis:
No matter if you decide to DIY or hire some help, you now have all of the information available to get started today and hear your song on the air as soon as tomorrow.