Tuning Out: Why Radio Sucks!
Ok, the headline is a bit crude but how else can you describe the shape of mainstream rock radio these days? This article has been a long time coming and several readers have been asking when a rant would be forthcoming about the ills of the radio industry. I’m happy to report it is here!
A lot of research went into this article and as one layer of the onion was unpeeled another appeared that just called out to be investigated. A couple of insiders also offered some illuminating information about the radical changes that are occurring in radio at the moment. Let me tell you, it’s not pretty.
There are no easy answers to the problems with radio and things are getting harder as the landscape is shifting from one problem to a worst one… I’ll get into that in the next rant.
Due to the complicated nature of the problem and the two main causes of the downfall of modern commercial radio, I have split this rant into two parts. The first part gives a little history of independent radio promotion; the system the major labels have used to basically cut out access to the airwaves for smaller labels but at the same time created a monster that has them reeling at the high cost of landing a radio hit. The second part will deal with a company that is doing their part to put independent radio promoters out of business, not to mention concert promoters and even record labels. In the long run this company may turn out to be far worst than the system they are trying to replace and they have the industry and even members of Congress frightened at their growing power over the industry. Yes, I’m talking about Clear Channel Communications. The Goliath that is slowing beating the David of indie promotion.
To understand the whole picture we must look at the history of commercial radio and it’s relation to indie promotion and then the growth of Clear Channel. Instead of going all the way back to the beginning of rock radio and how payola played a role, I decided to start our look at a mid point – 1980 – when the independent radio promoters were starting to really show their power.
Hitting The Brick Wall.
Fredrick Dannon’s book “Hitmen” opens with the tale of “Dick’s War”. Dick Asher at CBS had grown concerned over the large amount of money his company was spending on “independent promoters”. Indies were contracted by the record companies to get radio stations to play their songs. The thinking goes that it would be easier for one person to deal with radio programmers than to have the radio programmer have to deal with various people at the all of the record companies.
Dick Asher wanted to run an experiment to see just how pervasive the indies were. He looked for a song and a market that would allow him to see if a popular song from a popular group would end up on the radio without CBS paying indie promoters to have it added.
He found the perfect song for his experiment when Pink Floyd embarked on their tour to support “The Wall”. The tour was a monumental undertaking, so large that it could only be staged in a few select cities. Los Angeles was one of them and Pink Floyd became the hottest ticket in town.
The single from the album, “Another Brick In The Wall Part II” was enjoying heavy airplay across the country. Dick decided that he would not pay the indies to have the song added to play lists in Los Angeles during the time leading up to Pink Floyd’s sold out engagements in the City of Angles.
The results of his experiment freighted Asher. Not one of the 4 leading Top 40 stations in Los Angeles played the song. It didn’t matter that Los Angles had caught “Pink Floyd Fever” and the song was number one on stations across the country. “Another Brick in the Wall” hit a brick wall in Los Angeles when it came to airplay that was bought and paid for.
Pink Floyd’s management were curious when they didn’t hear the song on the radio while they were in Los Angeles and they approached CBS to find out why. Long story short they found out that indies weren’t put on the record in LA and they pressured CBS to do so. Literally within hours that indies were put on the song it was added to 3 of the 4 major stations in LA and soon climbed to top of their playlists.
A couple of years later the major record companies were distraught that the price of the indies had gone through the roof. They reluctantly decided to put a ban on the use of indie promotion. Although the ban didn’t last long, they soon discovered that the power of the indies was so pervasive that they could in fact not only get songs on the air but could get songs knocked off of the air as Asher discovered when one of the group’s he had a keen interest in, Loverboy, watched their single fall off the charts as the ban went into effect.
The artist and their manager began to smell a rat and went to the labels to find out why their songs weren’t on the air. When confronted with the truth the artists were upset that they were being used as guinea pigs in the crusade against the indies. Soon labels were funneling money to the indies once again except now the money was going in the books as “tour support” and became a recoupable expense that went against artist royalties. So the record companies not only failed to bring down the indies but they also effectively passed the buck on to the artists, with the rising cost of Indie promotion coming out of the artists pockets.
They paid how much to get that horrible song on the radio?
The old payola joke went like this. A radio programmer holds a 45 record with a $20 bill folded into the sleeve up to his ear, shakes it and says, “this sounds good, real good!”
Payola is a nasty word in music and radio circles and the image of a DJ taking a few bucks to play a song on the air still lingers but some say that the business of indie promotion is just institutionalized payola.
The basic question that has to be asked is this; is money changing hands to insure radio airplay? There is a really easy answer and that is yes! We’re not talking $20 stuck in a CD case either. We are talking real money.
If you are living in an area serviced by a midrange or large radio market then chances are you have a few Top 40 stations to choose from. If you have noticed that these types of stations tend to only play a select few songs and often in heavy rotation, as much as once every couple of hours, then you see one of the major results of indie promotion. Rock radio may be a little more varied but airplay on most of those stations come with a price tag as well.
Those are the two formats we will concentrate on here for the sake of simplicity. By now you may be curious how much it cost the record label to put that annoying overplayed song on the air. This is actually a sticky area since the indie promoters I spoke with have said that recently the cost has gone down as record companies battle red ink and the indies battle Clear Channel over contracts with stations but for a ballpark idea of the cost we will look at the numbers used in an article published by Salon.com last June.
According to Salon.com’s Eric Boehlert, it cost the record companies $800 per song in a mid-size market and $1000 or more in larger markets. The price can escalate to $5000 per song at the largest stations in major markets. Boehlert wrote that most radio stations add between 150 and 200 songs to their playlists each year.
For you average rock single the record companies have to shell out around $250,000 to get access to airplay on rock radio and if the song crosses over to Top-40 radio then we are looking at over $1 million dollars in indie promotion costs.
That is one of the reasons why CD’s come with such a high price tag despite the fact that they are cheap to manufacture. When you add in the cost of indie promotion and regular marketing you can see why most releases actually lose money.