Rap Coalition

A HOW-TO RESOURCE FOR RAP ARTISTS, PRODUCERS, & DJs. Since knowledge is power, here is your best defense to succeed in the urban music industry...

Saturday, April 01, 2006


There are two main reasons people put out their own records:
1) to get a deal from a larger label or distributor (proving your music will sell removes much of the risk for a bigger label, and garners you a more favorable deal as you increase your leverage),
2) to sell records and make money. Although I usually write Rapcointelpro more for the second group of independent rap record labels, this article is especially pertinent for anyone trying to catch the attention of a major label or trying to become a major label. If you are just trying to sell records and flip some loot, radio is an added bonus but not necessary to sell records as we’ve all seen from the myriad of labels who’ve come before. However, at the majors, the attitude is "radio rules!" Major labels sink millions of dollars into having a strong radio staff, and into doing what is necessary to get radio play. They usually sign artists and labels who can deliver radio records. This article is for those of you going in that direction so you will understand how the game is played.

Radio has always been interesting. In the mid-1980s, there was a Federal investigation into the music industry regarding payola at radio, which is illegal (payola is openly handing someone at a radio station money in exchange for playing a song). For the most part, it was an incredible waste of time and taxpayer’s money because it failed to change anything in the long run. I won’t bore anyone with the details here, but will mention Frederic Dannen’s book Hit Men, which accurately chronicles these dark days in music business history. The way some enterprising young men (and it has always been men) got over in the 1990s, was to create a buffer between the record label and the radio station, called an independent promoter. This removed even the hint of payola, thereby rendering anything that resembled pay for play out of the hands of record labels. The way the FCC law regarding payola is written, any song that is paid to air must disclaim to the listening audience that it was paid to air. Radio stations, nor record labels, like the idea of a disclaimer, so out of necessity came an alternative solution. The birth of the "indie."

The job of an independent promoter (often called "indie") is to act as a consultant of sorts for the radio Program Director. He finds out what songs would be ideal for the station to play, and then recommends them to the Program Director (often called the "PD") for addition into rotation. He is then paid, not by the radio station, but by the record label for his consulting services. His source of research to find out what songs would be ideal to play on the radio station, just happen to be the record labels. Sometimes some of that consulting fee reaches the personal pocket of the programmer, and sometimes the indie pays an annual promotional fee (of, say, $100,000 a year) to the radio station. In the latter case, it means that his deal is exclusive, and all record labels must go through him to recommend a song to be added to rotation at that station. He is then, legally, allowed to accept a consulting fee from the record label to "cheerlead" the song to the radio station (which of course he controls due to the promotional payment). All quite legal and above board. Or is it?

Opponents of this "pay for play" system claim that indies are controlling the airwaves and that the deepest pockets often gain heaviest rotation. The deepest pockets are always major record labels leaving little space for independent labels or local artists to reach their market through radio play. Another cry of "foul" can be heard from opponents of the Telecom Act that President Clinton signed into existence in 1996. This allows radio stations to own as many stations as they want. Prior to the Telecom Act, each company could only own a maximum of 28 stations, with no more than 2 per market. With these restrictions lifted, two major conglomerates have bought up a bulk of the radio dial throughout the US. Clear Channel, being the biggest, owns almost 1,200 stations giving it a presence in 247 of the Top 250 markets. This also means that they control 10% of all radio stations, which is a whopping 60% of all rock radio stations in the country. Aside from dominating Top 40 radio stations, they also own the behemoth concert promotion company, SFX, giving them a stranglehold, not just on radio, but on concert tickets and live shows. The other large conglomerate that is buying up a record amount of radio stations is Infinity Broadcasting, owned by Viacom, which also owns CBS and video outlets M-TV and VH1. These two companies, Clear Channel and Infinity, together control one third of all radio advertising revenue, and collect 90% of the ad dollars in some individual markets (according to Eric Boehlert’s insightful series at www.salon.com). What this means to all record labels is that before, if one of their songs got dropped from a radio station it was only one station in one market. Now if there’s a problem, it is reflected across many stations in many markets. This can substantially affect record sales if the radio conglomerates are not pacified in whatever manner they choose, by the artists and by the record labels.

Radio is a very important component in rap record sales for a major label or distributor. It can mean the difference between being an underground artist hoping to sell units, or an international superstar able to transcend into film, television, and lucrative commercial endorsements and touring opportunities. It is the sole criteria for gaining spins on M-TV and their newly acquired BET (Black Entertainment Television, now owned by white corporate America). Radio play is also scrutinized by record retail chain stores that sell the bulk of urban and pop music. The importance of radio for a rap act that wants to achieve superstar status, can no longer be downplayed. Records can be sold without it, but with the amount of work it takes to do so, it’s far more sensible for the major label to keep the artist in the studio until a radio hit emerges. After the artist creates a radio hit (as if it’s that easy), it’s up to the label to promote it properly. For a major label, a crossover Pop hit can cost upwards of $500,000.

It is important for a small independent label to align itself with a trustworthy, well-connected, seasoned radio pro if it has a radio song. BE EXTREMELY CAREFUL HERE! Unfortunately, this is the most treacherous, shark infested area in promotion. Many of the promo people are unable to deliver what they promise because they lack the necessary relationships to advance anyone’s record, yet will take credit for records for which they were not solely responsible. And many will take money to promote a record even if the record does not meet the standards of radio airplay. It is VERY, VERY important to do research here and to get as many opinions, from as many legitimate people, as possible. An independent label should find out if the single has the potential before spending the money, and know with whom you are dealing to bring your record to radio. No one indie has credibility and relationships at all radio stations. It is important to check references here, both with other labels and with radio personnel. Not to worry, the legitimate people know how difficult it is to recognize them from the outside, and will not be offended at your investigation. Remember to build your single slowly, so that you are able to respond to its success, and to replace the people not producing the results you need or that they’ve promised. If you look at it logically, a radio station plays about 40 records an hour. People tune in to hear music. If they didn’t want to hear the same 40 songs over and over again, they wouldn’t listen to the radio. In that rotation, there are records that increase in play, and some that become old and are reduced. This leaves very few slots for new songs. Labels compete heavily for those few slots.

Now that I’ve gotten the warning out of the way and explained why independent labels need to be aware, here’s how a small independent label can effectively work a record. I will use Power Houze Records in Dallas, TX as an example. Their artists submitted a record to a local radio station in Dallas (one of two urban stations) for their "Battle Of The Beats" show. It won six weeks straight and got added into rotation because Marie Kelly (the PD) liked it and saw the listeners responding to it. We used this single as the preliminary promotional single to introduce Dallas to the artists and to the new label. Then we started at mixshow and college radio with a new single that was produced for Power Houze by Lil Jon (which comes after blitzing the streets and working the clubs with the single). We decided to hire a mixshow radio consultant (one that already works for a major label and has the connections needed to gain spins–again, do the research, not every one employed at a label is good at what they do) instead of doing it in-house. We expected to pay anywhere from $3,000 to $15,000 for the life of the single and are only targeting the south and then eventually the Midwest. The mixshow consultant will be the quarterback and work the single at radio, hiring additional independent promoters to get it added into rotation, if feasible.

Some smaller labels can’t afford to hire a radio consultant and choose to call radio themselves. Most hard (street) rap records can get about 7 spins a week at the mix show level just for being a very good record. Many stations only play non-commercial rap records after 6 PM, and usually there are only 2 shows devoted to rap exclusively, which are Friday and Saturday nights (mixshows). Many stations won’t play rap after 11 PM because they offer a "quiet storm" for a couple of hours. So unless you are Jay-Z, Puffy, or a major label with the deep pockets to pay for a spin an hour, 7 spins a week is the most a small, under-financed independent label can hope to get without independent promoters and someone with experience working the record. With limited connections, no favors to call in, and pockets that don’t run as deep as Universal, Def Jam, or Interscope, it will take some work to compete. But the added plus that national artists don’t have, except in one market, is the "local artist makes good" angle. The "home team" position. Work it regionally! Many stations are under fire right now for not playing more "local" music. And many markets, such as St Louis and Houston, are proud to play local music. Learn which markets can be penetrated at radio, and in which ones to save your money.

The next step up from mixshow is urban radio rotation. After the single gets play at mixshow and begins to grow in popularity, it hopefully grows into urban rotation (we are already assuming that you made a song that fits the current urban radio format). Major labels usually set a date for this called the "add date." Most smaller labels go for rotation when the timing is right for the record, not for the label. For an urban radio consultant to work the single regionally (big region, like Midwest and South) beyond the mix show level is a minimum of around $25,000 to $40,000 for indie promotion to see if listeners respond. On a national level, it’s ideal to get about 200 to 300 BDS spins weekly to start going for urban radio adds, so figure out where the single should be regionally in terms of BDS spins before moving into urban rotation. (BDS is Broadcast Data Systems, the company that tracks radio play at each of the 83 reporting stations–it’s free to add your record to BDS for tracking, but you have to pay to access the results unless your radio promoter has access, and the good ones do. There is a link at www.rapcointelpro.com for the address to add your record for tracking). Your radio consultant will advise when to start going for adds, if advisable. If your single is a hit, you’re looking at another $200,000 to make your song happen properly at urban radio on a national basis, so regionally is a fraction of that. Once it starts to take off, the mixshow DJs will back off as it starts to get regular spins in rotation on the station. Without a good single, the consultant’s hands are tied. Although part of me believes that with deep enough pockets, a record could get into rotation with my Grandmother farting to a fat beat. It is important to have your album in stores when you begin to get radio play so listeners can go buy it.

The number one excuse indies use when a record gets bumped after only a small amount of spins (any indie can get a few spins just from relationships) is that the record didn’t test well or "research" well. I believe that if it’s a good record and you pay to get it spun, it will get spun. It makes me sad that some PDs will make excuses and say a record sounds old, or the quality isn’t right for radio, blah, blah, blah. The bottom line is that if the single had Nelly’s radio budget, it would be multi-platinum too. Study this industry first, before jumping in with both feet. Learning the hard way is VERY expensive and tremendously time consuming and energy draining. Make sure that when going after radio, it is a radio record. Get feedback from as many people at radio and retail as possible to confirm that it is a radio song before spending any money. Then when spending money, spend slowly to make sure what is paid for, is delivered. It is impossible to compete at radio and be cheap, but it is important to be smart at radio to compete. Make sure the streets embrace the single first. The song must be built on a solid foundation and fan base, or it will be seen as not authentic: commercial exploitation of the rap genre. Remember Hammer, Vanilla Ice, or Skeelo?

To be involved with any radio station sponsored shows, the single needs to be on the playlist. The way it works is that the label gives the group to perform for free, in exchange for increased spins at radio. The station usually pays for the hotel, and the label pays for the transportation for artists coming from out of town. It is a promotional show. Often, a larger label will give up one of their well known artists for free, to secure the spot for a newer artist. Stations almost always agree to this because it makes them look good to have shows with all sorts of famous artists, not to mention the additional financial income from ticket sales. Those artists are rarely compensated with money, but do receive increased radio spins as well. Without a famous artist to use as leverage it’s important to be as supportive to the station as possible. Reminding them that eventually when this artist is famous, they will not forget the support they received along the way from individual people as well as radio stations. If you give your word, make sure you honor it. Giving a new artist 8 minutes to perform two songs really doesn’t cost the station anything, but it goes a long way in good will and they know this, whether it’s a big show or a local nightclub performance that the radio station sponsors. They will work with small regional or local labels who are professional, sincere, handle their business properly, and appear as if they will be around for awhile.

The politics at radio are insane. For example, a Top 10 city had 2 competing urban radio stations and it was a key market for Twista when I consulted him in 1996. He was signed to Atlantic at the time, and we had to keep Twista out of this major city, one of his key markets, during the promotion of Adreneline Rush, because if we brought him or the single to one station before the other we’d be banned from whomever got it last. It was better to let both radio stations discover the record on their own and maybe play it and then pay whomever played it. Stupid, huh? But very real. Had I not been told this by Atlantic radio staff, I would have marched right into that city with Twista and fucked up radio, not just for him, but for Brandy, Aaliyah, Lil Kim, and the Braxtons, all of whom had radio records out from Atlantic at that same time. Radio is very sensitive and when they get pissed off, the whole label suffers because they pull all the songs. And with the huge conglomerates in radio now, it’s even scarier: you might piss off a Clear Channel station in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and your record gets pulled from 247 of the Top 250 markets around the country where they own radio stations. Radio is so sensitive, that in respect to Twista’s career I did not mention the city or the radio stations from 6 years ago for fear they would retaliate and not play his new record. Another example: I heard recently from an independent label in the Midwest that station personnel were banned from a local artist’s show because he performed at a club on a night sponsored by a competing radio station. The single was pulled from their radio station and the staff was told they could not attend the show. Welcome to the world of radio promo. The worst part is that the radio station most likely thought this small label understood the game (and they should have before stepping onto the playing field) and had gone to the competition purposely. The reality was they were just happy to perform in front of any crowd, no matter who sponsored the night.

Payola is illegal, and very much the hot topic for radio these days. This is why no one is unable to say "pay Johnny Smith $2,000 a spin for each spin you want and we’ll play your record in rotation, in the middle of the evening drive when our ratings are the highest." Obviously, they can’t tell you that. And the only way to learn how it really works is by being down with a major label with a strong radio department going through it. This is difficult to do from outside of New York or Los Angeles. There are people in the music business, myself included, who consult labels to help keep them from making expensive mistakes in marketing, radio, retail, label operations, contracts, distribution, etc. This is not cheap, but in the long run, I guess the money saved more than pays for the consulting. A label consultant takes around 3 months to properly train staff and set up a release and they get anywhere from $50,000 to $80,000 (plus travel expenses) for this help.


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