for May 20, 2004

Additive Mechanics
by Mike Taylor

[Editor's note: To the average listener, radio seems simple; you turn on the radio, tune to a station, and listen to the music that someone else plays for you. What could be simpler? Of course, the reality is much more involved. License money changes hands in a number of ways, and the desire of a station to keep its users involved with the best new music doesn't necessarily jibe with the record companies' marketing aims. Some of this works to the detriment of Internet-only players. Mike Taylor, Program Director of WOXY, Cincinnati's 97X, took a moment on the message boards to set the record straight; he's given permission to relay his thoughts...]
By and large, royalty payments go the label first, and to the songwriter / performer second. Individually, song by song and per station it isn't a lot, but add 'em all up and it does just that: add up. The RIAA basically has a wink-wink agreement with terrestrial radio not to bust their chops for royalty payments while lowering the boom on internet radio, demanding a much higher royalty structure under the guise of 'protecting the work of musicians & performers'.
Hogwash. It's the RIAA & Big Media working in tandem to make the costs of competition (streaming radio) prohibitive for anyone who dares encroach on their turf.
Record companies are a funny sort. Most major labels solicited 97X airplay on certain individual tracks solely so the number of times we 'spun' (played) it would help them in the charts. We were reporters to the Billboard Modern Rock panel, monitored by Broadcast Data Systems (BDS). Label reps worked us to play a designated track, preferably at a designated time, as much as possible. And you wonder why most radio sounds the same? The labels want it that way.
As a listener, it should come as no surprise that 97X didn't "play ball" nearly as much as a label would like. We'd do such ghastly things as playing a designated track prior to its "add date" (the designated date set by the labels to have radio stations report that they were 'adding' the track to their playlist) or choosing to play another song, or more than just one, from a given release.
Example: "Float On" by Modest Mouse (all dates below are guesstimates).
Epic Records sends the single to the "panel" of stations contributing airplay spins to the chart, well in advance of not only its add date but the CD's release date. Let's say we receive it in late February. 97X, being the progressive, Modest Mouse friendly station that we are, immediately adds the song to our heaviest rotation, about 25 times a week.
Meanwhile, Epic hadn't set an add date for the song yet. Epic would view this as spins 'wasted' because their goal is to get the maximum number of stations to play the song concurrently. They'd assume that two months down the line, say May 1 or about 8 or 9 weeks after we received it, as most stations are slowing beginning to play "Float On", 97X would likely be decreasing airplay. We'd have the full disc and be going deeper into it.
For the label to push the song up the chart, they want have the maximum number of stations spin, and increase the frequency of spins, from one week to the next. To most stations in the format, MM is a completely unknown commodity, so if a station likes, or is enticed to add the song to their playlist, they'll adhere to the labels wishes and wait to add the record until the add date, which let's say is April 7. This way, the label can trumpet the fact they got 'XX' number of stations to add the song, hoping the number will WOW other stations into doing the same. It's kind of like first-weekend box-office numbers, as a comparison.
So in their marketing plan / strategy, "Float On" gets serviced to radio in late February, an add date is set for early April, and is radio asked to hold airplay until then? You betcha. Do labels care if stations play other or even more tracks from a disc? Absolutely, because most would view a spin for an album track as one spin less for the single. Or as a rep told me once, "if you're not playing the single, you might as well not be playing the record at all".
For the most part, being a record rep is a pure sales gig. Some really like the music, many only know that their job is to solicit airplay for a certain song from stations in a certain format. Most reps have to work several different formats, meaning have to work a multitude of stations with divergent philosophies and needs.
Back on point: a lot of major labels didn't bother with us too much because they knew we were going to do what we wanted under any circumstance. One could make the case that we couldn't be swayed, one could make the case we couldn't be bought. 97X played by its own rules and to many, it wasn't worth their effort preferring to travel the path of least resistance. You're right, in most cases radio airplay is the lynchpin to sales but for a lot of labels, the comparatively small audience for 97X vs. other stations meant that we weren't a huge priority for them ... unless they needed something from us.
By contrast, most indie labels don't have the resources to have a dedicated radio promotions person or persons to push a song or record to radio. Virtually all indies, save the well-financed wanna-be majors like V2 and Wind-Up and successful stand-alones like Sub Pop rely on e-mail marketing, ads in magazines, etc. to get the word out. It doesn't matter the size of a label, some of the better ones are very appreciative while some offered no more than a half-hearted "thanks" and that's it. We never playlisted a record based upon how well a record company would think of us - no matter how big or small the label - but if we felt it would fit 97X. The large majority of indie labels put out records without any hope of radio airplay, save the odd college radio station.
[And with that, Mike turned his efforts to more pressing matters. He remains an active participant on the message boards that continue to represent the 97X community, and we'll be happy to relay his opinions here at whenever he pauses to commit them to ones and zeros.]

©2004 Mike Taylor