Everything You Always Wanted to Ask About Getting Played on College Radio

Recently, I had the chance to chat with EricTheReDD, the former general manager of WJSC-FM (Johnson State College, Vermont) about his experience with college radio and everything it takes to get your music played on a college radio station. I’ve kept things in a question/answer format to make them easier to read. Enjoy!

WJSC FM Logo

Would you mind introducing yourself? What station did you work for and how long were you there?

My radio handle is EricTheReDD; former General Manager of WJSC-FM.  I started at WJSC in September 2003 as a volunteer DJ and slowly worked my way up the ranks.  I became assistant to the Production Manager after a few weeks of kissing ass.  There ended up being a mass exodus of upper-management and I rose quickly to the position of General Manager; a title I held (through an electoral process) for 4.5 consecutive years.  I took the position once more when our then-GM was forced out for violating station rules involving drugs and alcohol in the studio and I held the position in-interim until elections when I chose not to run and resumed my duties of Program Director, Music Director and DJ until I finally stepped away in May 2012.   In total, I worked at WJSC for just shy of 9 years; holding every management position at least once, overseeing two radical format changes, re-branding, building of a brand-new station and complete overhaul of our on-air booth in the process.

Since I left the station has reverted to a fully open radio format (very common for college radio) and plays everything from bluegrass to metal to show-tunes and plenty of everything else in-between.

How many packages did you receive from bands every day? How many of them actually ended up getting opened and listened to? If not 100% of them, why did some of them get tossed aside?

Very few packages came directly from the artist; they normally came from labels or promotional companies.  But a package was a package and all we cared about was getting it to the proper recipient.  A lot of labels rely heavily on the promotion and spins that college radio can provide and therefore stagger their releases to ensure a present student body.  Hence, few lesser-known bands release albums over the summer but there’s an explosion of releases in the fall.

Every package gets opened.  EVERY.  SINGLE.  PACKAGE.  And every day is different.  Some days we’d receive a postal container full of packages and sometimes we’d maybe get one or two.  It depended heavily on the labels we were affiliated with, their release calendar, and other factors like that.  Typically, we split up the mail by genre; each sub-director being responsible for their own share.  Mine was Hard Rock / Metal / Punk.  I’d open my packages, keep the PK (Press Kit insert) with its respective disc and recycle the packaging.  I would then take the stack into my office (or the production studio if it wasn’t being used) and go through the music.  I’d put a disc into the player and scan through the tracks while reading the PK notes.  Songs needed to grab me.  Long intro, I might skip in to the minute mark.  If I wasn’t dazzled in about 5 seconds per track I’d keep going through the disc.

PERSONAL RULE:  I always give the title track a chance to “wow” me.  In my experience, if you’re going to name the album after that track then it’s got to be something special.  If the title track sucks it’s going to be tough to get me to take the rest of the album seriously.

In terms of airplay or “getting tossed aside” it comes down to democracy.  The free spirit of college radio is in the DJs and we gave them free reign (within the law) over their weekly chunk of airtime.  We DID have a few requirements; playing a PSA once per hour, reading something from our underwriters (businesses that donate money in exchange for mention; it’s a non-profit thing), and the coveted “PUSH” pile.  Labels foamed at the mouth to get their albums into the “PUSH” pile.  We would require that twice an hour the DJ pick any disc from “PUSH” and play something from it.  This ensured new music was getting played and labels were getting the necessary spins to keep their executives happy.  Directors would leave little post-it notes on each disc with a brief description and one or two recommended tracks to make it easier on the DJ.  But at the end of the day there are still piles of albums that, for whatever reason, don’t garner much attention.  They’re archived alphabetically and by genre and tucked away on the shelves.  And about once every 5 years we’d go through the “vault” and clean house; selling albums that people are willing to buy and giving away the rest (typically a FREE bin outside the station was sufficient).

When you open up a mailer, what are you looking for? Anything that bothers you that isn’t included frequently enough? Anything included too frequently?

First and foremost; I need an album.  Some people only send maxi-singles (lead-off song with one or two extra tracks) and those always bummed us out; especially since we usually end up receiving the full album anyway and it just wastes space.  A close second is the PK.  I can’t count the number of times I’d receive a mailer with no PK.  EPIC records was notorious for this (along with wastefully large mailer packaging).  If you don’t include a PK I don’t know who the fuck you are and I don’t know why the fuck I should care.  Sorry, but if you’re not going to go through the trouble of including a little bit of info about yourself then I’m not going to give a shit about whatever happens to be on that disc.  I don’t have the time to go online and try to look that info up myself.  It’s just not going to happen.

One thing I loved, on the other hand, was labels that sent us more than one copy of the album.  ROADRUNNER, one of my absolute favorites to work with (for a multitude of reasons) would frequently send at least two copies of all their releases; one for the music vault and another to use as a give-a-way.

Is it possible to include too much in a mailer?

Yes and no… It’s too much when your PK is more than a page long.  It’s too much to read and the extra paper is just going to clutter up my office and get tossed.  You can also go a little overboard with extras (guitar pics, bracelets, band photo, etc) but stuff we can use for give-a-ways like that is rarely held against you.  It’s just more stuff we have to keep track of.  A couple things are nice but two dozen guitar pics are just going to make a mess.

Who should the package be addressed to? There are often program directors, music directors, and general managers at radio stations. Who is the best person to get a hold of for a shot at being played on air?

If it’s a local station or you know the specific DJs that may like your stuff, address it to them!  Otherwise, there are almost always genre-specific sub-directors.  Like I mentioned, while I was also Music Director I was also the genre-specific Hard Rock / Metal / Punk director.  Anything that fit in there would go to me.  Addressing it to the MUSIC DIRECTOR is perfectly valid as well; the MD will open the package and assign it to the proper genre director.  The PROGRAM DIRECTOR is typically in charge of the schedule and, when applicable, the automation system that runs when DJs aren’t on the air.  PD is a tedious and mind-numbing job so don’t send it to them.  Their material comes from the charts, which are determined by what the DJs are playing locally, nationally, and globally.

CHECK OUT CMJ (COLLEGE MUSIC JOURNAL) for more info about the specific genres.  It’s a great resource for getting to know how college radio works.  The subscriptions are expensive but it’s a veritable who’s who in the land outside of mainstream media.

How should bands present their CD when it’s sent in? Did you look for a UPC store ready version, or would a CD with 1 or 2 songs as a sampler work as well?

I always preferred retail-ready albums.  Most labels cut notches in the disc (or punch a hole through the UPC) just to show it’s a “demo” copy and not for retail.  Choosing to do that is up to you.  But I will take you more seriously with a professional looking album.  Yes, we read the liner notes, and yes we flip the disc over to see if it’s a pressed disc or a CD-R.  We’re always leery of burned discs because we handle the media a lot rougher than you would (just the nature of the beast) and CD-Rs typically never last more than 6 months in rotation without starting to skip.  And before you say anything; we use top-of-the-line CD Players that are cleaned once per week and deep-cleaned once per year so if your disc skips, it’s not on us.  And DJs are known to mark discs that skip and that’s basically the kiss of death.

Samplers…. Uhhhnnnnngggggg…………. I understand that a lot of independent bands can’t afford a full-length release.  I get that.  I really do.  If you HAVE to send a sampler, at least make it a pressed disc, with relevant PK and information.  They don’t have the rotation life of a whole album and take up precious real estate in our vault.  If you’re sending me three tracks on a CD-R scribbled on with a sharpie; sorry kid, I may not even play you.  I had one exception to this… when it was a comedy album and featured a song about a kid running around town trying to find a place to take a shit.  I think his name was Shinobi Pete.  Once again coming back to the music being able to stand up and speak for itself.

Lastly, PLEASE register your music with Gracenotes or include ID3 tags on each individual track.  If I go to import your music into our digital library and no track information is found; I’m not going to enter the track info.  The disc is coming out of the drive and not being digitized.  Again, there’s just not enough time in the day to be doing something you should’ve done… sorry.

Take off the shrink wrap on the CD before sending it to you, right?

NO!  FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, NO!!!!  You may be scratching your head wondering “what the hell?!” right now.  But believe me when I say that the post office is not kind to Media Mailers.  I’ve opened unwrapped discs and been greeted with a shower of shattered plastic and a disc that was scratched up beyond repair.  The CD Condom, as I refer to it, keeps your disc from opening in the package and keeps everything together.  It won’t stop ALL  the damage the post office can inflict but it certainly helps!  I really don’t mind those extra few seconds it takes to remove the plastic wrap.

Should bands followup with the station to see if their song has been listened to/considered/played on air? Is asking fans to hit up the request line too much to ask?

Request line is your best friend once your music is in the station!  Tell your fans to call up and request!  Hell, call up the DJ yourself and request your own music.  You may even be rewarded with an on-the-phone interview or even regular rotation on a specific DJ’s show!  Mailing your music in goes from the top down, but getting it played goes from the bottom up.  If the DJ can’t locate your disc, they’ll go to the management and locate it and get it played.  College DJ’s, with a few stubborn exceptions, love playing requests!

Also, feel free to friend the DJ’s on Facebook and send them links to your BandCamp or SoundCloud or YouTube channels.  A lot of stations are set up to air music streamed from the internet and I can’t count the number of times I got requests and ended up playing a YouTube video to satisfy the listener!

If a band has tour dates in the station’s town, are you more likely to play them? Do you like to get free tickets to shows?

Promoting local shows is huge!  And getting DJs in the door is a great way to get listeners in the door as well.  Include tour dates in your PK so they know if / when you’re coming to town.  And if you’re in a position to put people on the guest list, let us know that as well.  DJs will often fight over the chance to interview a band in-person so don’t even think of it as losing a ticket sale; we’re more than happy to consider it work and do an interview with you in exchange.  And yes, there is a noticeable increase in artist rotations when they’re going to be playing in town.  I used to have “OZZFEST WEEK” leading up to it back in the day and feature all the bands on the bill (especially those with whom I had interviews lined up) and it was always a blast.  Sitting behind the security gates; on a tour bus, interviewing Sam from Dragonforce while he hit mercilessly on my girlfriend (who I brought along) was quite amusing.  And while we usually prefer in-person interviews, a phone interview will more than suffice (my phone interview with Corey Taylor of Slipknot still seems like a surreal dream).

If a band should include a cover letter to the station when sending in a press kit, what do you look for in the letter?

The PK should include background info, tour dates, recommended tracks, influences, “sounds like”, contact info, website / social media and willingness to do interviews (in person or phone).  That’s pretty much all you can cram on a single sheet of paper.  It’s not like a job application or anything, but a good introduction to who you are what you do.

Any tips for bands to help boost their chances of being heard and played by a station? Obviously, quality songs are a must, but presentation wise, does anything stand out?

On top of professionalism (you have to compete with major-label releases for attention) then creativity is huge.  I had a band include their PK as a disassembled jigsaw puzzle.  While it was initially annoying to think I had to put this thing together in order to find out about the band; I put their disc in the player and I did it.  Their music didn’t end up being anything special but even now, after all these years, I remember that experience vividly.  They were a hit with the DJs because of it and earned a brief spot on our top-10 list (knocking off Modest Mouse, I believe) before the gimmick wore off and they faded to the back of the shelf.

Your PK can include images (perfectly acceptable) and to save you money it’s perfectly fine if they’re black & white as long as we can read them.  If you take the time to jot a little note in permanent marker like “Hey WJSC, Thanks for the airplay!” then it makes us feel special and we’ll pay you a little more special attention.  And as I said before about ROADRUNNER, extra discs, if you can afford it, is huge.  People love free shit and giveaways are awesome.  And if you were to sign that extra disc it would make a giveaway that much cooler for the fans and we would definitely spin your music to build some buzz for the giveaway.

One last thing… Invest in yourself.  Register your band with ASCAP and BMI; the two largest music royalty distribution agencies.  Every single radio station in the country has to pay into ASCAP and BMI once per year for royalties for music that they play.  Those funds are then distributed to the artists (or entity that represents the artists) based on a random two-week snapshot of the music a station has played.  Your music may miss that window (a lot does) but if you happen to catch a little lightning and end up on several station’s charts, you may find yourself with an honest-to-god royalty check!  It may not be much, but getting paid for doing what you love is the most indescribable feeling in the world!

If you want to reach out for airplay at WJSC-FM, then feel free to send your PK to:

WJSC-FM

337 COLLEGE HL

JOHNSON STATE COLLEGE

JOHNSON, VT 05401

Attn:  GENRE-DIRECTOR

On-Air Booth / Request Line:  802-635-1414

Conclusion

I would like to thank Eric for his time and for putting together such a comprehensive Q&A for us. Any questions you have, please post them below and I’d be happy to reach out to Eric for any further comments.

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Starting Out, Your Story Means More than the Music

Every month, small bands pour their hearts and souls into having a good record release. The buildup to the record release day looms on the calendar for weeks only to come and go without much attention. The good news is that it isn’t because your music is bad (hopefully), it’s because no one cares. “What?!” you exclaim. “No one cares about MY music?” No, they don’t. The press cares about stories that help them sell magazines and get people to pick up the newspaper off of a rack at the grocery store. You need a compelling story that will drive readership to a particular publication.

Sure, when Iron & Wine comes out with a new album, people are going to pay attention. You recorded an album with your friends in your basement? Big deal.

That’s why in the beginning you need to have a story that goes beyond the music. I know you’ve been told before that you need to have a “story,” but I can’t begin to drill it into your heads enough. The music is important, yes, but it’s your press story that will help you carry that music to a much wider audience.

What Makes You Special?

You’re going to have to get out of the mindset that your only interesting trait is that you make music and that it’s good. Let’s move beyond that. Find things that separate you as a person and your band’s personality from the music you make. You don’t have to get cheesy or over the top with the way you present yourself, you just need to draw a mental picture for readers and press writers to latch onto.

  • What happened during the recording process that made the record interesting?
  • Did you record anywhere noteworthy? Alleyways, abandoned classrooms, deserted hospitals?
  • Did you work with any well known producers?
  • Did your last tour end up in disaster?
  • Do you ascribe to any particular lifestyle traits (vegetarian?)
  • Do you balance your time between music and another passion?
  • Are any of your songs about social issues?
If you make a record with Rick Rubin, you probably don’t need help getting press.

You’ll have to dig deep, and maybe even ask some friends for their help, but try to figure out what makes your band special and what kind of interesting press story you can spin out of it. I’ve never been a big fan of pitching bands purely because they pull crazy PR stunts like Matt and Kim did in NYC when they got naked, but if that works for your ethos and you’re OK spinning your band from that angle, go for it!

Start Small

You’re not going to make it onto the cover of Billboard with your first press story. You have to start local and you have to start small. Brainstorm ideas that pertain to a local audience, such as how you’re helping XYZ coffee shop get a new mural on its walls or that your band is co-sponsoring a music festival to support a local charity. Find things that will appeal to local music writers and build from there.

Once you can convince local music press to write about you, the next time you do something noteworthy, you can pitch it to bigger and bigger publications.

Always Have New Content

When it’s time to release an album, having plenty of content to push is important. You need to have music videos, singles, lyric videos, important shows, and of course an album. All of these releases will give you multiple opportunities to reach out to press outlets without feeling like you’re forever following up.

Release a single, pitch your story, followup.

Release a video, pitch your story, followup.

etc…

The more new content you can send in with a story behind it, the better off you’re going to be when it comes time to actually try and get some press behind your album.

Followup

I briefly mentioned it in the last section, but it’s absolutely critical that you followup with the press. Just because you had Barack Obama sing backup vocals on one of your tracks doesn’t mean that your email was opened by the music editor at the local paper. You may have to send another email and shoot them a phone call to ensure that they know who you are and that they got your story.

Don’t be embarrassed when you pick up the phone! Music writers need content and if you have something worthwhile for them to write about, let them know!

Summary

Find an interesting angle to pitch your band and you’ll see much higher success rates when you approach the press with your music. It’ll take time for people to care about just your music and nothing else. Make an emotional connection with people through a story and THEN show them your music.

-Sunshine

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5 Marketing Ideas for Your Band for Under $50

I know how tough it is for an indie band to find the funds to put up flyers around town, print promotional CDs, etc. That’s why I’ve come up with 5 marketing ideas that could either be copied, expanded upon, or used to inspire more creative juices to come up with some clever marketing tactics of your own. Not saying these ideas are anywhere near perfect, but if you’ve got the balls to give them a try, let us know how they go! The point is to get creative.
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How Much Does a Publicist Cost?

You’ve got the music and you’ve got the spirit, now it’s time to take things to the next level and hire a publicist to pitch your album to big review sites and the like. Unfortunately, many new bands don’t realize that sites like Pitchfork, SPIN, Consequence of Sound, etc. require knowing the right people behind the door to even be considered for a review. That’s where a publicist comes in. Publicists have built professional, working relationships with music bloggers, magazine editors, and TV music supervisors and will pitch your music on your behalf. Now, publicity isn’t cheap, but paying people who are in the know and who can get you press around your album to lift you to a national (or international) stage is well worth it in terms of what you’ll recoup from ticket sales, record sales, and other revenue down the road.
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