In mid-March, Macleans magazine published an article entitled “Why indie acts are everywhere, except on the radio.” I read it, digested it and while author Ian Gormely does make a few good points (or more to the point, quotes a few broadcasters who make good points), the article as a whole, from my perspective, is simply false, certainly in context of its eye-grabbing headline. For example, this week’s Canadian Top 15 chart at Alternative radio contains exactly 40% indie material, effectively disproving the article and the headline.

Before we go down the rabbit hole on it, you should probably read it (linked below). The article is about 1,400 words, so give yourself a couple of minutes to check it out.

Ok, now that we’re all on the same page, let’s discuss.

First off, let’s all remember that Radio’s number one goal is to sell washing machines. And cars, and beer, and, and and. That’s the first mistake a lot of people make about the broadcast industry. They think that it’s actually just an extended branch of the music business. It’s not. While 80% of stations are playing music 80% of the time (the rest doing some sort of talk format), it’s the other 20% of air-time that Radio really cares about. That’s where the commercials go. I can speak to this first-hand; before I got into the music industry I spent the first 10 years of my career hustling my way up the ladder in various radio stations across Canada. So it’s with certainty I can assure you that only one person (maybe two) is fully dedicated to the music that gets played on a radio station in a given week. One person, out of a staff of 20 to 40 people. The remaining folks are there to ensure that airtime gets sold and that commercials are created, aired, accounted for and collected upon.

Putting that in context allows you to fully understand the weight of Dave Farough’s statement “most bands these days don’t want to put the work in. They record a song and then expect radio to play it. I owe you nothing, just because you recorded a song.” His job (and the job of his team) is to get as many ears on the station as possible, followed by keeping them there. It’s a proven fact that if you play a song your audience doesn’t like they’ll change the station, so for that reason alone programmers are risk averse.

Moving past that and onto the actual bands themselves. Yes, YouTube exists and people watch things on it all the time. Does that mean it should instantly grant the keys to every radio playlist in the country? Of course not. Not only would it be impossible, it would be horrible. Radio stations are aggregators. They weed through music to find the songs that will most appeal to their targeted demographic. The Macleans article chose to focus on the Alternative playlist so we will as well, though afterwards we’ll speak to the other formats.

Several conflicting views are presented, which is good for dialogue. Farough says the average Edge listener is about 30-years-old, and the ’90s are still dear to their hearts. “They grew up on ‘90s music, and they still want to hear it, so that’s what we give them.” While Alan Cross points out “A lot of people under the age of 25 don’t listen to radio anymore … If I’m 17, 18-years-old, I don’t give a crap about something that happened 20 years ago.” Therein lies the difficulty of programming a radio station. You can’t please everyone, but for the sake of trying to build a big audience, you’ve got to try to find some middle ground. Appeasing both your core audience and building a new one (pulling people in from younger demo’s, non-radio listeners, and competing stations). So how do you decide which songs and artists will make the cut?

Well, obviously, songs need to be of a professional enough degree of production to hold up against the big artists (seems dumb to have to say that, but believe me, we have to tell artists on a weekly basis that their material is not up to snuff on this basis alone). Then they’ve got to sonically fit with what the station is doing ‘right now’. Radio tends to favour songs that generally sound like the ones they’re already playing. It makes the station sound more cohesive and helps to decrease tune out. This point brings up lots of dialogue about what a station “used to play” or what they “should be playing” but the fact is that if you want to be played, you’ve got to cater to the station’s needs, not vice versa.

Once you’ve nailed those two points, the real work begins. You’ve got to have a plan in place that’s not only going to get the attention of radio programmers, but also their audiences. Traditionally that centers around having a new record coming out. Not that it’s actually essential to have a ‘new’ album coming out any more, it’s just that traditionally that was the centerpiece of a marketing plan and an easy way for radio to identify which songs where going to have the biggest ‘push’ behind them, in terms of ancillary efforts happening in the market (touring, press, sales promo, etc).

That ‘attention getting plan’ is still needed today. Granted, the actual ‘releasing an album’ aspect is not as crucial, but radio still wants to know that there are going to be lots of other things happening to support a single, like touring for example. “Vancouver indie rockers Said The Whale saw the benefits almost immediately after their song Camilo (the Magician) started trickling onto to modern rock radio playlists.” The band goes on to say “We saw attendance at our shows skyrocket and ticket sales went up and record sales went up.” The band was already on tour and marketing a record in other ways, so when radio came on board it added the much needed ‘gasoline’ to the already existing fire. And that, fundamentally, is the role radio — certainly Alternative radio — in Canada prefers to play. They’re willing to take a chance, but it’s got to be a ‘safe bet’ or something that’s already happening on a few other fronts.

Which brings me to the fundamental refuting of the article’s overall hypothesis and headline “Why indie acts are everywhere, except on the radio”. Looking at this week’s Mediabase Alternative chart, 40% of the Top 15 on the chart are bonafide ‘indie’ acts.

#1 Metric “Youth Without Youth”
#6 City And Colour “Grand Optimist”
#8 I Mother Earth “We Got The Love”
#12 Monster Truck “Seven Seas Blues”
#13 USS “Damani”
#15 Yukon Blonde “Stairway”

It’s actually a point of pride, and perhaps one of the core reasons I felt the need to write this rebuttal piece, that four of the six artists noted above are represented at radio by Frontside’s promotion team.

Looking at the above examples, there is a very simple, common thread to all of them. Aside from being great songs, each artist has a ton of ancillary elements in place that appeal to radio programmers. These bands are constantly on tour, constantly building online audiences and, most importantly, never sitting around waiting for anything to just ‘happen’. They’re driving their own careers forward through sheer will and a whole lot of hustle.

Metric, City and Colour and USS are obviously artists with a strong history, but are still out there on the road as much as they can and are constantly putting together unique fan experiences that not only benefit them, but also the radio stations that support them (and the stations’ audiences).

Monster Truck is made up of veteran musicians who’ve been kicked around by the system enough to know that if they wanted to see success they’d need to put the work in. Which is why, before even approaching radio, they made sure to have a killer live show, a dedicated and experienced team and a roadmap that began with a coast-to-coast tour opening for The Sheepdogs. That tour, which finished months before they went to radio with what would become their first Top 10 single, was a key element in building the fan base who demanded to hear Monster Truck on the radio .

Yukon Blonde have been grinding away, developing their fanbase for several years, constantly touring and marketing themselves, but never saw any real radio airplay before now. This is the record that really connected. It took time to get there, to lay the groundwork and put in the hours, but they did it.

Which brings us to I Mother Earth. Yes, we all know that this is a massive band that was born and raised in the major label system. They stopped almost ten years ago and this is a reunion-esqe situation. But it’s completely indie this time around. Trust me, not every band that ‘gets back together’ ends up with a Top 10 single at two formats in four weeks. I Mother Earth did, however, because they put some thought, and work, into it. They played two incredible shows at CMW. They wrote a great song, they assembled a team and they took a shot. The key in their case though is that radio was the fuel for the fire, not the kindling. Too many bands in their situation would just email over a song and expect that radio would jump to attention. But it doesn’t work that way.

It was the article’s attack on Alternative radio (and bands) that got me all hot and bothered, but the theory also applies to the CHR, Hot A/C and even Country formats, though perhaps to a lesser extent in terms of chart positions. Let’s face it, CHR is based on the US Top 40 format which is designed to play the same 40 songs over and over again up to 100-times-a-week. This is a format that has a smaller amount of indies on it for a reason — it’s all about the ‘monster track’ which is usually created by having a ‘monster budget’, something that’s outside the scope of most indies. That doesn’t mean it’s a format without indie representation. But it does take on a different form. What’s more likely to happen is that an indie artist will gain some attention at the format in early recordings, which will be a catalyst in being signed by a major and given the tools, both in the studio and on the marketing front, to take it to the next level. There are lots of examples of this. It’s a bit more of a stretch, sure, but it’s still an indicator that independent artists can have a voice at the format if they really want it and put the right team in place to make it happen.

At Hot A/C there are programs like the Bell Media Artist Of The Month (which I touched on in a previous essay) and, while I’m admittedly not as versed in the Country format, I know that the charts are littered with indie artists and labels. Hell, the format’s current princess Taylor Swift built her career while technically an ‘indie’.

If anything, the number of ‘indie’ acts that will be on the radio can only increase as time goes on. With the paradigm shift that’s happened in the music industry, more and more artists are deciding to take control of their own careers. The numbers of those who are able to carve out successful careers, at least partially outside of the major label infrastructure, will continue to grow.

As a managing partner at Frontside Promotions, having spent more than a decade helping independent artists build their careers at Canadian radio, I can safely say that indie acts are everywhere, especially at radio.

If you have any questions or comments please feel free to email or call me.

Gary McDonald
(212) 869-0835