Is Radio Promotion Worth It in 2024?

  • by
  • News

Man, the radio! Remember that old fossil? No? Okay, let me paint a picture for you: it’s 2005, and you’re climbing into the cloth-covered driver’s seat of your boxy SUV. You turn the key to the ignition and feel the engine roar to life beneath your nether regions, and the radio clicks on, set to the station where you left it when you last parked, in the middle of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” by Green Day. Hell yes, you think to yourself, and you stealthily pump your fist in excitement as you zoom recklessly down the driveway of your parents’ house. You crank the volume knob.

Yeah, that radio. It’s still around, sure – your car undoubtedly still receives AM and FM signals, and were you so inclined, you’d be able to navigate to the light rock, bro country, or Top 40 station of your choice – but it sure doesn’t seem to occupy the same vaunted position in pop culture as it once did. For reasons we’ll get into later, those “terrestrial” radio stations have dramatically reduced the variety of their song offerings, and most people that would identify as halfway-discerning “music fans” look instead to outlets like Spotify for their musical needs.

Any given Spotify listener is able to not only access the entire universe of music on demand (well, most of it, anyway), but also to tap into algorithmically-curated playlists catering to their individual listening habits. FM radio just can’t compete with that level of sophistication.

That’s the lay of the land as we enter 2024 AD. As an independent musician, is there still any reason to still pursue radio promotion? As usual, it depends, although in this case the answer skews pretty heavily towards “no.” Let’s take a closer look, though, to try and nail down exactly what we even mean when we talk about “the radio” today, because things just ain’t as simple as they used to be.

Terrestrial Radio

First, you’ve got your terrestrial (read: earth-bound) radio, which houses those old-school AM/FM stations summonable by spinning a knob enticingly labeled “Seek;” those stations are beamed from radio towers and tend to be hyper-local in coverage and turn slowly fuzzy if you drive too far out of range. Importantly for our analysis, and as was the case in our earlier 2005 scenario, they’re also plagued by endless commercials.

Why is the plague of commercials important? Because it’s the basis for the whole problem with terrestrial radio, and it’s the reason why you probably shouldn’t waste your time and money here: terrestrial radio stations have been financially suffering ever since streaming services and satellite radio showed up to cannibalize their audience, and they are completely reliant on advertising dollars to keep them afloat. And the easiest way to keep listeners listening, of course – to both music and ads – is to play the hits, not to try and push anything new and unfamiliar.

So, here we are: for the sake of their bottom lines, most terrestrial radio stations shoot for the lowest-common-denominator option and cycle endlessly through charting hits, or, if the station is dedicated to a particular “era” (think oldies, classic rock), the same few hundred songs they’ve already been spinning for half a century.

Should you think that particular hurdle surmountable, though (the hurdle being that your song isn’t already at the top of the charts or a fifty-year-old fan favorite), here’s another potential complication: for various reasons that mostly relate back to that same point about commercials (guaranteed listener base, money to funnel towards marketing, etc.), many terrestrial radio stations will only accept song submissions from labels. As usual, us indie musicians have a harder row to hoe than label musicians (surprise!) in even getting our songs listened to and evaluated.

Even so, many terrestrial radio stations do have publicly posted submission instructions (here’s Audacy’s, for example), and it won’t cost you anything (other than your dignity) to throw your hat in the ring; usually, the process is little more than sending in your single and an electronic press kit, although you should take the time to pinpoint which stations – or even individual DJs! – are the best fits for your music before you do so.

Still, you’re not likely to crack terrestrial radio. It’s a closed system, and it’s not much interested in new applicants. Let’s move on.

Satellite Radio

Hold on, now – what?! Radio from space?!

Yeah, bro. Radio from space. Beamed down to us earthlings from satellites.

I guess the novelty has probably worn off a little by now, but I do still think it’s pretty cool that, where once our access to particular radio stations was heavily geo-locked, today, assuming you have a subscription, the proper receiver, and a clear view of the sky, you can access the same radio stations in the deserts of western Australia as you can at the top of a mountain in Colorado, and it’s all because of space.

What’s probably more important than the underlying technology is that there are way more satellite radio stations than terrestrial radio stations, and that means significantly more musical diversity. While you can still stick with Top 40 if that’s your thing, you can also go super-niche: 90s metal, 70s dance hits, and 40s big band are all available for your listening pleasure, and that barely scratches the surface (and even the Top 40 genre contains various sub-categories).

You might think that with great diversity comes great(er) accessibility, but unfortunately that’s only partially true. Yes, as a musician you can more accurately dial in exactly which radio stations are a good fit for your songs, but there are still formidable gatekeepers in place. Satellite radio is funded by subscription fees, not ads, so there’s no corporate mandate that each station play “Sweet Child of Mine” once per hour to keep you listening through a commercial break or anything, but labels are still afforded massive amounts of priority when it comes to landing song placements.

That said, there are some stations that host regular “blog radio”-style programs driven by hosts who make it their business to discover and showcase new indie music (see, for instance, “Gorilla vs. Bear” and Phoebe Bridgers’ series “Saddest Factory Radio” on Sirius XMU), and while those programs may not be easy to crack either, they do accept submissions, and they at least hold themselves out as stalwarts of the indie scene.

College Radio

College radio really falls within the terrestrial radio category, but it operates as sort of a different beast, so we’ll cover it on its own. It’s worth separating out because it actually feels moderately approachable and worthy of your energy.

These stations exist on the same FM spectrum as those commercial stations we discussed above (you can usually track ‘em down in the high 80s and low 90s), but the crucial distinction is that they are not commercial. Because they’re funded by schools (or, more accurately, by student fees, tuition, etc.), that insidious ad-driven agenda is MIA, leaving the students that run the stations free, within certain parameters, to pretty much play whatever songs they want.

That’s all wonderful, of course, and you can and should aim your song trajectory in college radio’s direction regardless of your age (it’s just a construct, man!), but the best way to achieve success in this arena is the most obvious way: be a college student in a college band. And if you can’t be that, at the very least be a local. Easy, right?

Athens, Georgia, for instance, is at present the hometown for a multitude of phenomenal bands; so many that, were you to spend a few weeks attending shows there, you might be shocked that so much talent can remain so thoroughly under-the-radar to the country/world at large. To the students and locals, though, those bands and musicians are part of the town, and that creates a pretty powerful sense of ownership and pride. And what might students with a radio station do with music they’re proud of?

Shit, they’ll probably play it on the radio.

Don’t get too excited: the listener base for college radio is small compared to the commercial stations, and there’s a ceiling on exactly how high you can fly with only college radio support. Still, though, there’s an actual, viable entry point here, which is more than can be said for the other options.

The Money Thing

If you haven’t noticed, I’ve conspicuously avoided talking about money so far, and it’s not because it isn’t important; if anything, money is the whole point of an “is this thing worth it” question. Here, though, it almost feels beside the point. You’re not going to make substantial money based on direct payments from radio play. Any benefit that you receive from radio play is going to be due to exposure, ticket sales to your shows, increasing awareness of your music, Spotify streams, and merch sales. In other words, radio play ideally supports your other revenue streams.

For a little background, the United States (as in so many other ways) is an outlier when it comes to radio play royalties: radio stations in the US only pay royalties to the songwriter and publisher of a given song, not to the performer on the recording. If you’re an indie musician or band that plays and records your own original songs, great; this won’t impact you. The process by which royalties are actually paid out gets pretty convoluted and is beyond the topic of this article, but suffice to say the payout figures are very low (think cents, not dollars), and it would take a hell of a lot of radio play to build a reasonably impressive pile of money.

The actual numbers are better than the fractions-of-cents that streaming pays, but radio play spins are limited in a way that Spotify streams aren’t – a DJ could conceivably play your song twenty times an hour all day if they so chose (they wouldn’t so choose), but that’s the ceiling. On Spotify, a song getting good traction can generate hundreds of streams per minute there is no ceiling.

We also haven’t discussed what you, the artist, might shell out on the front end. As in most corners of the music marketing world, there are a bunch of companies that exist in this corner willing to take your money in exchange for “access” to radio stations (both terrestrial and satellite) and personalities, and while they don’t quite guarantee you actual radio play, they like to heavily imply that you don’t stand a chance without them. The fees these companies charge ranges from hundreds to thousands of dollars (if you’re willing to pay it, they’re probably willing to accept it), and results can and do vary wildly.

An incredible song might land some radio spins, but if it’s that incredible, did you really need a company pushing it on your behalf?

Maybe so, maybe not. What you should do first, though, before you pay anybody, is write that incredible song, make sure it’s well-produced and recorded up to professional standards (real studio, killer performances), get it mastered, and then pull together a compelling electronic press kit that you can submit to radio stations along with your single as part of a polished package.  Most radio stations that are willing to play songs submitted by indie musicians aren’t going to ultimately care whether it came from a marketing company or the musician directly – a marketing company is not a label and in most cases doesn’t carry equal weight to one. And, again: submitting is free.

There are caveats, of course: some of the more old-school, boutique promo shops have relationships with radio stations that might help move your song “to the top of the pile,” to use an industry cliche. Notice, though, that even those companies are really only aiming at college and public radio.

The Verdict

What’s an indie musician to do?

If you want my advice: expend your boundless energy elsewhere, or at least start with whatever free submission options you can hunt down (there are many). If money is no object and you’ve got a top-notch musical product to sell, then by all means, pay a marketing company to rep you to the radio stations and see where that takes you; you may get lucky! But with so many other threads available – threads with more predictable, established potential outcomes – you’re likely better off following those as you work on building momentum.

The post Is Radio Promotion Worth It in 2024? appeared first on Two Story Melody.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.