Artists, Scholars & Radio Professionals Weigh in on Radio Politics
FAAN Mail is interviewing independent hip hop artists, radio industry professionals and media scholars about radio play. These testimonies will inform a list of recommendations that we will share with our community, local radio stations and execs from Clear Channel and Radio One, two companies that own the majority of urban radio stations in the United States. This effort is part of a larger strategy to provoke community dialogue about the roles and responsibilities of media corporations, artists and audiences.
1. What is your experience around trying to get your music on mainstream radio?
Jasiri X: Difficult of course. The times I have been on major radio it took a big cosign first like Michael Baisden playing the song or it was a DJ or radio personality I knew personally that appreciated my music.
B. Steady: I haven’t tried. From my understanding, there’s a bit of a monopoly in mainstream radio. I’ve had some of my songs on public radio programs, but only locally. I would love as much exposure as I can get, but I don’t see being on the radio as my only mark of success.
Aquil: My experience gaining spins on mainstream radio have been unsuccessful. I have sent music to major radio stations in Philadelphia, PA but after learning about payola and politics I stopped looking for radio play. Learning about radio djs wanting thousands of dollars to play your record one time on underground late night radio shows caused me to look for other options for being heard.
Chachi: My experience has changed over the years. Early in my career when radio stations were starting to use hip hop as a means to engage a younger audience and stronger following, there were mixshows. For these mixshows, djs were allowed to play what they wanted. Many djs would reach out for freestyles or intros for their radio shows. Ive had a few successful radio intros that have helped launch me as a staple in the providence music scene. As time passed, radio stations removed power from the djs and they now have to stick to strict playlists. Thats the reason why you hear the same rotation of the smae 10 songs on every radio station across the country. It’s monkey see, monkey do.
Manchilde: As lead vocalist of Canadian Hip Hop group, the Butta Babees, I was once signed to a major distribution deal through Universal records. Even as an independent thereafter I have had relative success with garnering commercial radio play in Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver. Getting commercial radio play required a lot of artist management and promotional work. A lot of liasing with the bureacracy of the commercial stations. Having had the good fortune of knowing many of the ‘star’ djs on major stations the band was able to get a measure of airtime through dj-specific shows; usually evenings and weekends. We received our greatest rotation while signed to Universal, however, which was when our music was packaged with major US releases by our label and sent as promotional pieces to radio stations. We charted best during these times.
Ethel Cee: I have never actively tried to get radio play. My way of thinking with music has always been whatever happens, happens.
Isis Tha Savior: I have had little success in getting my music on mainstream radio. Since I am an artist that does not fit within the trend of “Popular Music” it is a constant up hill battle…. Commercialized music is a big problem that has to be factored in because instead of focusing on the art & craft it has become about selling products & reinforcing cancerous lifestyles…. [If] you pay close attention your getting the same song over & over. Sex, Drugs & Materialism! This pattern rarely deviates… Many [corporations] have teamed with Record Companies to enhance profits by endorsing these same artist to help sell products & strengthen this toxic marriage. The financial incentive is overwhelming! So artists like myself become a direct contradiction to the structure and are often ignored & swept under the rug by mainstream outlets.
Hezekiah: The Radio is ran by Clear Channel if [you’re] not in the corporate loop you’re wasting your time. Luckily there are many ways to get your music to the people these days besides Mainstream radio.
DNas: One of the main obstacles for independent artists is promotion, who in the streets is talking about you? Why should someone with no major promotion $$ behind them have a chance taken on them with stations who receive major money from record compamies, big budget commercials etc. In order to even be considered for radio play you need to be requested (call in to the radio stations and have your song requested) no less than 3x more than the lowest tiered (signed big money) artist.
Intelligenz: My experience is that it can be intimidating. You don’t have a lot of opportunities for Indie Artists to be heard today. So much has changed. It seems either you paying to play or you MUST know someone. Don’t get me wrong… perhaps both will always be a part of the industry but I can remember growing up in Chicago and WGCI would always have opportunities for local Artists to get heard weekly. There were talent shows, community events with local performers and real opportunities out there to grab being presented by the station. It gave a sense of community and chance for those pursuing music. Here in Vegas, while I don’t know of any routine weekly opportunities like that, KCEP Power 88.1 has shown me and other Indie Artists grinding a lot of love. They’ve opened doors for me to be interviewed and perform. I think we can always do more as a city to give that dedicated Artist on the grind a possible weekly opportunity to mainstream radio.
2. What are the challenges/obstacles for independent artists trying to get [local] radio play?
Jasiri X: Most record labels are owned by corporations that set the playlist for the radio stations so if you’re not part of that machine you don’t get played. Payola, the practice of paying DJs for spins, is still in effect in many cases and most independent artists don’t have a big enough budget to compete.
Hezekiah: $ Payola, it’s all about cash. It sucks but [hey] it’s a business and that’s the game. [On whether the practice of payola currently occurs here in Philly, Hez responded, “yeah, it’s no secret.”]
Ethel Cee: A little over a year ago Power 99 FM [owned by Clear Channel] was doing a series on their website in which they were selecting underground artists to highlight. Selected artists would perform and that performance would be put on their website for the public to view. I was misunderstood in thinking that the performance would also be played live on the radio as it was happening…but that was not the case. Many of friends and fans immediately took to Twitter and let Power 99 to ask what had happened. I went on Twitter to explain the misunderstanding. But it sparked a lively conversation about an opportunity that a major radio station missed to give a local artist some play.
Ethel Cee later added, “It was nice to know that enough people cared to cause a mini uproar. But after that was all said and done it was like Wait a second…why NOT put us on the radio? Why keep us confined to a link on the website? It would have been a perfect opportunity to play ONE measly song from an artist on air.”
Aquil: The main challenge to indie artist gaining radio play is payola! Unless you have thousands of dollars to pay for spins, or a major label that has a middle man paying thousands of dollars for radio spins your record no matter how good it is will get any play. As hard as it is to be heard local radio could break a lot of artist if their music was actually heard. The second major challenge is politics, where as Djs used to break records on the regular, today radio djs either have to be familiar with you and your clique for your record to see any radio play.
April King: Airplay is an emotional subject for a lot of musicians! When I was in France, I got airplay without thinking about it, and once back in the US it seemed like the focus of my entire career was supposed to be sounding radio-friendly, getting airplay and the pressure cooker feeling of needing to produce a hit to be valid as an artist. This interview is a bit of a reality check for me as I know I have been focused on producing something that could “break” here. I have been told it take 200-300 million dollars to ensure a number one hit these days. So as an unsigned artist I am expected to produce a song that DEFINITELY sounds like what is already selling because music industry execs are absolutely terrified to take a chance on a song or an artist. What happened to developing an artist and letting the public decide what they want to listen to? It’s time for change…
Isis Tha Savior: It is very difficult to achieve radio play on mainstream radio. Most of the music being played there falls under the “Pay 4 Play” umbrella. DJ’s are not really into breaking records anymore & it’s all about who cuts the biggest check. It you pay attention its usually the same 20 records in rotation nationwide… Record companies are a huge machine that can afford to spend millions in promo to dominate the airwaves & essentially dictate what gets played & what doesn’t. Underground/indie artist face many difficulties behind this dynamic…. They literally cant afford to compete!
Jared Ball: “Local” is largely a mythical term at this point. Most commercial stations are part of huge constellations that have only nominal ties to the communities that house them. The play lists are determined so as to be national and if 10 songs (all owned by Sony or Universal) are played every one on the hour there is literally no room or time for others to be heard. And most emerging artists do not have the budgets to afford the payola needed to get aired in heavy rotation.
Chachi: One of the biggest challenges are the protocols set in place for indy artists to even submit music for consideration on commercial radio stations. In my city, the music has to have been released and pressed as an original single. Which means it cannot be submitted as a song on a complete album. It needs to be submitted as a physical copy of a single. This presents a major financial burden for artists because it costs the exact same thing to press one song up as it does to press up a collection of 15 songs. They create these loopholes in order to make it nearly impossible for an indy artist to even have a shot of getting some airtime.
Courtney Omega: Local stations are not going to play what they don’t think is popular-popping or profitable. They don’t want to trend set or be progressive in a whole. They want to follow the ‘blueprint’ and the people with the money are promoting acts like Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna. The thinking is limited and they have no monetary incentive to do otherwise. The progressive or revolutionary artists don’t necessarily have the money to present the image of success, therefore stations and personnel do not see anything worth ‘buying’ into.
Intelligenz: One of THE hardest obstacles for an Independent Artist to get radio play is support and resources… I think society has shifted to a “show me the money or your celebrity” state of mind in order for some to listen to you. No one really talks about new talent too much until they are mainstream! If I can’t get through to the listener and gain their support, how will I ever reach the radio station? Most stations give you a chance based on your grind and your following; they aren’t talent scouts so without your city, it’s very hard. But if music has become about money, fame and “only” success, how do you reach that listener? The challenge I find is to try and connect to the consumer, getting them to step away from the repetitious songs that are played back to back today to be open minded enough to receive my music. But if we integrated more Indie Music, more consumers would open the door as well. The two work together. Also, not all radio stations provide info on how to send your music for review; so we while you may have networked in your city, it’s a struggle to cross over to the next city’s radio station.
Manchilde: Developing a legitimate profile with station managers, program directors, star djs and on-air personalities [is a challenge]. Indie artists without the backing of one of the above stake-holders at the stations struggle to get noticed and receive almost no air play. Artists who get themselves involved in the promotional events that radio stations mount, (talent searches, community outreach programs etc.) can use these opportunities to get to know the staff both administrative and talent at stations and can work their way into whatever programs these stations designate for breaking or exposing local talent. Signed artists benefit from the business/advertising relationships their labels have with radio stations and thus will always receive better treatment and more air time on radio stations. Most radio stations belong to much larger media conglomerates whose programming is done by regional directors. Those directors serve those record labels with the largest advertising expenditures at the stations.
3. What are the relationships between the music industry (i.e. Record Labels) and radio programmers?
Al Butler: For the most part play lists are sent out from corporate. PDs have far less say than they once had.. The relationship between PDs and the industry is (typically) as good as the relationship the label has with Radio One or Clear Channel et al.
Jared Ball: Radio programmers play the songs specifically selected and “bought” from music companies by station owners. It is an intimate relationship, an incestuous one. Sony and Universal own 80-95% of all songs played on R&B, hip-hop and Top 40 radio stations each week. They pay roughly $1000 per song, per station to assure that we hear their songs and only their songs 30 and 40 and 50,000 times a month. This is why most commercial stations sounds exactly the same and why we hear so little of what is produced and none of what is produced that would inspire radical, revolutionary political activity.
Courtney Omega: The practice of payola/pay for play didn’t come into existence because of greed and power, initially. This started as a necessity out of an attempt to equal the playing field, balance the content. Radio programmers were not willing to play certain songs from certain artists of the music industry for a myriad of reasons but overwhelmingly because of RACE. Some of the greatest DJs in American Music History might have been on the receiving end of pay for play in order to ensure the out reach and promotion of some of the greatest musical acts of American Music History. With that being said, this relationship between the two entities have evolved into something else in its entirety. The REVERSE has happened, radio programmers are now pushing and promoting songs they would have ONLY considered playing years ago if they were being paid. Now the music that SHOULD be being promoted is fighting for notoriety and being cracked down upon. Radio programmers are doing a job and the music industry is dictating what that job is.
DJ Lefty: Most labels have their reps that supply certain DJs with bonus incentives not easily seen by the public eye. ie… a label will give most DJs records and interviews in a fashionable way, but the hi-profile DJ (a funkmaster flex per se) would get the music before ANY DJ IN AMERICA and ‘payola’ because the labels know the financial gain that comes from a person of his stature.
David Crider: The relationship has changed since the days when I was a program director. The industry only needs to get the biggest PDs in the biggest markets on their songs and they’ll have a hit because the smaller market PDs are consolidated or don’t want to take chances and risk pissing off management or the consultant for whom they paid top-dollar. Money or expensive goods don’t change hands anymore (or maybe they do, but these things always have a way of getting brought to light)… but there always has been a quid pro quo. Play my breaking artist, I’ll give you giveaway tickets to the concert my big-name artist is playing, and so on. Stations that put on music festivals have to put up with playing low-rent songs by low-rent artists they had to sign to open the show, all so that they could book the big name acts.
4. What needs to change to help independent artists get radio play? Who is responsible for this change?
Chachi: There are a few things that need to change immediately. First, artists need to be advocates for themselves. Major corporations are slick. By law, there is a certain amount of airtime that needs to be allotted for independent music/programming. Most radio stations compromise for the time by giving free commercial slots to local businesses (usually for the clubs that the radio stations’ djs work at). They account for the indy time slots in radio ads. Its crazy. Indy artists need to speak up, lawyer up, and demand that the process changes. The protocols for artist submissions must also change.
Jared Ball: It is more than a change for artists that is needed. Cultural expression is political. If people want new forms of music or different artists to be heard there must first me a radical political shift in the national consciousness and political leadership. This means that only revolution in the broader society can bring change to the country’s airwaves.
Jasiri X: Fans either have to request it the music in a strong enough way or we need to start our own independent radio stations. The responsibility is ours ultimately.
Ethel Cee: I hear a lot of people complain about the lack of diversity on the radio and in turn it’s the artists that get ragged on. But in reality it’s not their fault. Most artists are no that powerful and have no control of how many times any particular songs gets played. It’s people that run places like Clear Channel who are responsible and need to increase what the masses hear.
Al Butler: Corporate radio stations have killed indie artists’ airplay.. relaxed regulation allows for single entities to own stations, music venues & advertising points.. They play the artists that they make money from and they have reason to do otherwise.
Manchilde: Local radio stations must be proactive in designating time slots for breaking independent artists; they must empower emerging dj personalities with the freedom to play the material they feel supports emerging and worthy talent. Not all inde artists have ‘hot’ or polished material.
DNas: One of the major changes that I’d suggest for independent artists to receive radio play is to push beyond their region. In my experience a lot of artists receive success by crossing and successfully staying in a rotation differing from their local “Big Station.” Music Directors, Program Directors have to see that focusing on local artists can in turn also still get them a healthy dose of revenue without out having to spend too much.
Intelligenz: Ultimately, as an Artist, I think the responsibility falls on me. But without help from the radio station and the community you miss out on the chance of having great music. Everyone complains about music sounding the same today yet we only let in what sounds familiar. And why?? Because once again, we’ve become accustomed to repetition and so many desire validation of a an Artist first, even if they love the music presented. Without the radio creating opportunities for Artists, we will continue to see a decline in creative and diverse music from making it to mainstream. Not that there isn’t creativity out there but it’s almost like those in the industry with creative sounds are becoming the leaders of the underground movement. So I think the responsibility falls on all of us and that responsibility is to be open minded, fair and encourage Artists to continue creating.
David Crider: Programmers need to become more open-minded. The major labels do not run everything. It wasn’t that long ago that indie artists were getting through, but eventually a major label will get distribution of that artist so they’re not really “indie” anymore. And I don’t consider a major act that forms their own record label to be “indie” either. Either PDs need to deputize someone as Music Director and trust their judgment to go in search of indie artists that they can at least try out on their listeners (um, whatever happened to “Pump It or Dump It”/”Smash or Trash”/etc?) or they need to be given more freedom to do it themselves.
Isis Tha Savior: Whats needs to change is our self image…. If we continue to only embrace consumerism & constantly look towards products for our self worth & esteem then there can not be a change. We have to decide whats more important, tackling the economic and social restraints of poverty or killing each other over the latest designer label or gadget. The people are responsible for this change but the mainstream media still plays a dominant role because of its power to inform & program so we need to hold them accountable! What disturbs me the most about their lack of responsibility is when these same radio stations have “Stop The Violence Campaigns” yet promote violence/crime through the music of the artist that they play daily. Its the worse Oxymoron! If the artist didnt have an impact on persuading/influencing peoples behavior why would corporations pay them to endorse products?…. Is there a connection between artist glorifying crime & inncer city violence, who knows?…. But if mainstream media itself has an incentive to help sustain this poisonous culture, it is still up to the people to develop their own independent sources & create healthy lifestyles & communities!
5. How can consumers help independent artists get radio play?
Chachi: I think the best thing to do is support the artist you love. If there is an artist in your area that you like, reach out to the radio stations and speak on their behalf. Request their songs, attend their shows and purchase their music. It is easy for an indy artist to get frustrated and stop, especially when there is no profit received from their hard work and talent. Support local music.
Intelligenz: Last year, after three years of grinding non-stop, I was blessed to be in rotation with Power 88.1 here in Vegas for my single “If You Ever Doubted” and that blessing came from a fan that submitted my music. Basically, she supported me enough to take her time to share my work. That’s the biggest and greatest thing a fan, a consumer or listener can do to help us reach radio play… “word-of- mouth”. Share our music, talk about it, call the radio stations and request it. Show the radio station we have a solid following and that as a listener we have a song they really want to hear. When it comes from the listener, I think it’s ten times better and has more of an impact than it coming from me as an Artist. What Artist doesn’t think they are talented enough to be on the radio lol! But when a fan requests your music it’s like validating your talent to the radio station. While the station follows the industry and mainstream to keep up, it’s the community that let’s them know what’s poppin on the Indie scene.
DNas: When your community sees you’re supporting them it makes them want to do more with you, support more, aka spend more. This is a business and if an artist has a buzz that major stations can capitalize, it’s a must.
Aquil: Consumers have to become more knowledgeable of the music they say they are fans of and stop buying into brands more so than the quality of the music. The only thing the industry has more so than money, marketing and status is the confidence that their taste and authority holds more weight than the people who actually make music and listeners. I watch people change their entire view of different artist with identical music because one is supported by a major label while the other one is indie. Its hilarious in fact the concept of indie is looked down upon as if not good enough to be major and the condescending term “unsigned” is used. The people have always created the standard.
6. Do you think radio stations have a responsibility to keep harmful messages off the air?
Paul Porter: I wish that was the case. Corporate responsibility these days seems only to be responsible to stock holders rather than listeners. The FCC, say differently, but unfortunately enforcement and public knowledge, woefully lack way behind.
DJ Lefty: A radio station’s main mission is to provide the hottest trending music for the demographic in which it represents. Whether it be hip-hop top 40 rock or country, the radio survives off the money received by the labels for playing their ‘hot’ records and the advertisers that support. In my opinion, there is no such thing as ‘moral responsibility’ on a program or music director at any radio station. They only care about the ‘product’ making money because radio is promised so much in return with incentives.
Al Butler: Yes and no. Stations have a responsibility to be responsible but we also have to avoid censorship..and if you regulate “harmful” messages – who is deciding? Its important to take what goes over our air seriously but that has to be handled with care.
Courtney Omega: I believe that radio station personnel [have] a MORAL responsibility to keep harmful messages off the air, absolutely. The problem lies with a RADIO STATION’S legal responsibility. When the business is making money, legally speaking, responsibilities become a loose term and often get removed from the discussion all together.
Jared Ball: I only struggle with this question in so far as the function of radio must first be agreed upon. As I understand radio and popular media in general they function to perform what Fanon once said of Radio Alger, to make normal and legitimate colonial/settler/White/corporate/male domination. So in this context, no they have no such responsibility, quite the opposite. Their responsibility is to absolutely disseminate harmful, disuniting, dislocating, anti-Black messages so as to protect and assure the maintenance of control over a subordinated population.
7. Which successful independent/emerging local artists are overlooked by local hip hop/r&b radio?
Aquil: There are so many artist overlooked especially in Philadelphia, but a few local artist I know of are Writtenhouse, Fat nice, Emperess, Yahzilla, and myself are a few. Several other artists could be named.
Isis: Aquil Heru, Chief Kamachi, Chill Moody, Dosage, Jay Chrome & Colossus right off the top.
Intelligenz: Reality, DaKillaKC, Karlos Farrar, Jewelezz Patrick, Ryan Nicole, Phia La’mour. Please know that you got some really dope Femcee’s out here looking to be valued as “Emcees” in the same lane as the big boys… we knocking nicely…but we are finally starting to come together and start demanding the industry hear us. Too many great females in the game not to.
Manchilde: Dannie Phantom, Carter Woodz, Mic Stewart, Aime and Illustrate….