THINK TANK: Developing Artist Programs

There are some trends we’re not quite sure about, like the current fascination with koji rice, virtual reality headsets and tie dyed shirts (yes, sadly, they’re back again). One trend we really like here at Frontside is that of the various developing artist programs that are popping up seemingly everywhere at Canadian radio.

The general idea isn’t new, that of a media chain co-ordinating exposure for up-&-coming acts across their various outlets and platforms; matter of fact, we had a detailed look at Bell Media’s “Emerging Artist of the Month” initiative a few years ago ( At the time of writing, our analysis of the data showed that Bell’s program could be very beneficial in generating initial airplay and industry profile, helping to give an essential boost to early singles from the likes of Alyssa Reid, JRDN and Chromeo. The downside was that, unless stations outside of the chain also chimed in with their support, the songs (and any follow-ups) tended to quickly stall, resulting in a halt to any momentum the artist may have been able to build to that point.

In the years since that old Think Tank article, a few things have happened. Bell grew substantially with the acquisition of Astral Media’s assets across the country; the old “EAotM” program morphed into two separate streams, the “Breakthrough Artist” and “Future Star” initiatives, and other chains have staked their own claims in the artist development landscape:

  • Starting in June 2015, Corus Entertainment rolled out the “Next Big Thing” program on their network of Fresh-branded transmitters, spotlighting new Canadian and International acts with a minimum of 21-spins a week on participating stations, along with on-air promos and online exposure.
  • Rogers has just launched the “One To Watch” program at their Top 40 outlets in Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Victoria & Kingston, throwing their collective support behind 19-year-old Mississauga native Kiki Rowe and her single “Trust Issues” for the month of July.
  • Meanwhile, Newcap has just announced their “Trending Track” program that they say will — once up and running — guarantee a minimum of 30-spins per month at various properties across the county.

The question that comes to mind is why is there now such a crazy rush to start promoting all these various development initiatives? We’ve got a few ideas, and for the the balance of this article, we’re going to use the acronym of DAP (developing artist program) to help speed things up a bit. Plus, we’ll use a hypothetical act, a baby band called ZUZZY, in a few explanations.

Since its earliest days, radio has always been a key source for music discovery, helping to introduce countless songs into our collective consciousness. In the face of increased competition from online listening options, the various DAP’s are a great way to highlight this benefit of radio, cementing the idea in the mind of the average listener that the station is making an extra effort to be a trusted source for exploring new music. For our hypothetical friends ZUZZY, who haven’t yet established any sort of meaningful online presence, the exposure generated by winning a DAP can be orders of magnitude beyond what they’re able to generate themselves, providing a huge platform which they can start building upon.

Smart programmers have always known that it just makes sense to help support developing talent, and there have been countless efforts across the country to showcase it at a local level over the years, such as CFOX’s “Seeds”; Peak Vancouver’s “Performance Project”; HTZ FM’s “Rocksearch” and Bounce Edmonton’s “Showdown” contest to name a few. But there was always a geographical limitation to it, as many acts found it difficult accessing airplay beyond the local or regional level afterwards – the musical skill & talent was there, the mechanism to reach the next stage was missing. With the promise of national exposure, today’s DAP’s are a natural progression from those localized programs, helping to provide that crucial next step in career advancement.

Looking at it from a different angle, the media chains could be positioning themselves for possible regulatory changes. Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly has announced that, following public consultation, we could see modifications on how the CRTC governs broadcasters. There’s been chatter for years that Canadian Content regulations should be modified to give more weight to developing artists, to create a world where one spin from ZUZZY would fulfil more of a station’s commitment than a spin from an older, well-established act. By implementing their DAP’s now, the chains would be very much ahead of the curve if the regs are indeed modified.

Still with the CRTC, the commission looks quite favourably upon efforts to create or deliver tangible benefits to the public. Implementation of the DAP’s shows the chains taking a proactive stance in talent development, something that can be an extremely valuable talking point when it comes to license renewal time.

At Frontside, we’re all about connecting music with radio, and from our perspective, any sort of airplay is good, as it presents an opportunity to make an impression and build familiarity for new artists in the early stages of their careers. We’re very happy to see radio embracing the various DAP’s, though there is one potential downside that needs to be addressed, something we briefly touched on.

As noted with an earlier example, unless airplay can be generated outside of a chain, there is a definite ceiling in regards to a song’s chart performance. While many are going to say “ugh, who cares about chart numbers these days?”, that simple ranking can be an important factor on various fronts, impacting things like funding applications and promotion budgets, to prospective licensing opportunities for international markets and even overall public perception of an act.

With each chain having their own program, there exists the possibility that things could become political, that lines could be firmly drawn in regards to providing support for songs and/or artists.

Radio has always been big on ownership – hell, the first rule of radio advertising is to tell people what you’re doing, and then tell them about it again and again and again. If you don’t own it, then you ignore it. You focus on what you control, and that’s what you hammer home to your listeners, whether it’s a contest, a concert presents or a community event. But should that philosophy also extend to music?

To a degree, that idea of music ownership already exists. If individual stations decide not to support a specific song, that’s their prerogative; the programmer needs to create and execute the best possible experience for the local listener, which is something we completely understand.

Something we’d have a bit of an issue with would be if the various chains started to purposely avoid giving any sort of support to each others DAP winners. In the cold, hard light of a corporate boardroom, this type of decree, of not wanting to back the competition’s initiative, kinda makes sense. But in the world of trying to get careers off the ground, it kinda runs counter to the overall spirit of the DAP’s themselves, that of attempting to expose new artists to the largest audience possible.

That said, there’s not an easy answer. You can’t mandate corporations to play nice with each other, especially when they’re doing you a favor in the first place, but with all (or even some) of these programs combining forces, developing artists like ZUZZY could have a chance to be exposed to some significantly large audiences over a very short period of time. For the last few decades, Canadian artists have punched well above their weight class internationally (the CanCon presence on the US radio and sales charts is quite astounding for a country with a population about the same as California!) and if executed properly, these programs could form a giant slingshot south for the next generation of artists.