Getting on mainstream commercial radio’s rotation can cost over $100,000, but there are clever ways independent music can get played.
As long as there’s been rock n’ roll, there’s been the dream of getting one’s music played on the radio. Today, most commercial radio is programmed at the top of the house, with major label artists dominating the rotation. But, even as an independent artist, you can get played, even if you don’t have the bankroll the majors do.
This is the first post in a new series focused on “how to get heard and seen.” In it, you’ll learn how you can get your music played everywhere — on radio, podcasts, streaming, and more — so you can get it into the ears of potential new fans. You’ll not only find out new ways to get your music heard, you’ll find out how to make money from it along the way.
Plan A for getting onto a commercial radio station’s rotation takes money, but that isn’t the only option. There are some free and accessible alternative paths to get your music played over commercial airwaves. The key is to recognize the limited commercial radio opportunities available and how to approach them. In general, there are four types of commercial radio opportunities you can strive for.
1. Commercial radio rotation
Songs on commercial radio rotation are repeated heavily and often become popular as a result of the repetition. That said, it usually costs $100,000, minimum, to get into regular rotation at these commercial stations. The short explanation for this has to do with how radio station promoters act as gatekeepers for the music that gets played on a station. (If you want more of the backstory, check out the “Get Heard & Seen” chapter in our book Making Money With Music.)
2. Commercial syndicated shows
Syndicated shows appear on commercial radio stations across the country, but are independent and have their own music directors. Some of these directors are friendly to independent musicians and include shows like Little Steven’s Underground Garage and the Dr. Demento Show, but there are many others. Each of these have submission methods which are available to you.
3. Local radio shows
Local radio shows that feature specific genres of music in your region, city, or town often like to highlight local artists and are opportunities to get airplay. For example, in our own hometown of Chicago, there are stations like CHIRP Radio.
4. Local talk shows
Many cities, towns, and regions have their own local radio shows focused on news, sports, entertainment, and other newsworthy items around their area. Some like highlighting local artists and will sometimes play them or have them perform in studio, especially if you make music that fits their show.
Follow these directions to get your music on streaming music stations. Before you begin, you’ll want the following at-the-ready:
MP3s and WAVs
You’ll need high-quality, mastered, high-bitrate, release-ready MP3s and WAVs of your music ready to send to these outlets. Note that some stations might have specific format requirements, so be prepared to create these if necessary.
Bio and picture
Have a short bio, picture, and background ready to go, as some of the places you’ll be submitting it will ask for a description of your background and music.
Simple tracking system (spreadsheet)
You’ll need to keep track of who, where, and when you sent your music and any supporting material (press/media materials such as a fact sheet or your bio). A simple spreadsheet works fine, using programs like Google Sheets (which is free).
How to make money from commercial radio
You make money from commercial radio via royalties, specifically via your composition PRO for the songwriter and publisher as well as via SoundExchange if the commercial station is also streamed online (and not just broadcasted over the air). If you haven’t signed up for these, get this done first so you can get paid. In fact, before you start any promotion of your music, make sure the music you submit is registered for all royalties available to you. (For more detailed info about how royalties work and the 14 registrations you should do to protect your music and ensure you get all the money that’s owed you, see the Licensing and Royalties chapter of our book, Making Money With Music.)
How to get played on commercial radio
Once you have royalties set up and have your music and bio ready to go, here’s how you can get played on each of these types of commercial radio outlets.
Determine what to target, research submission processes, and update your spreadsheet.
Trying to get commercial radio rotation is difficult given the cost. It’s primarily reserved for major labels who can afford it. As a result, you should probably use one of the other methods available for independent musicians, including the ones below. However, if you wish to go down this path, you’ll want to get in touch with an independent promoter for your radio station’s market. These promoters are music insiders and relationship players and don’t tend to advertise their service broadly. Be skeptical of any that will work with any musician who talks with them, because if they don’t carefully curate their music, they are likely a scam (which, unfortunately, some musicians fall prey to).
That said, if you happen to be in a country which promotes local artists through legislation, such as Canada, which mandates a certain percentage of airtime be reserved for Canadian artists, then organizations like CRTC can help.
Commercial syndicated shows
Start by finding shows that match your style and genre. You can use Little Steven’s Underground Garage and the Dr. Demento Show to get an idea of what to look for since these shows outline submissions. Once you research and find a syndicated show that fits your music, follow their application guidelines on their websites. Note that shows like this are usually flooded with submissions, so while it’s worth the time to submit, the chances aren’t exactly in your favor.
Local radio shows
Local radio shows are probably the best opportunity for independents, since many of these shows go out of their way to support and promote local artists. When in doubt, always go local and smaller to make it more likely to get played and help build momentum and snowball your exposure. Go to their websites and follow their submission guidelines. They are more likely to play you when they know that local venues are already staking their income on you because you’re an active artist. Check out CHIRP Radio in Chicago, as an example, but seek out ones in your region.
Local talk shows
Become familiar with the local talk shows in your region to see if any local talk shows discuss topics related to the songs you record. Our own band had great luck with this at different times because we’ve had songs that matched what they happened to be talking about. The path to getting played for these goes through the producer of the show who makes decisions about the content and can send your music to the talk show host.
Submit your music to your targeted list
Once you’ve done your research, completed your target list, and updated your spreadsheet, it’s time to start submitting (and adding the dates of when you submitted to your spreadsheet). Be sure to follow their instructions since bypassing their process or not providing something could get you ignored.
Keep tabs of the submissions
After submitting, keep track of the responses in your spreadsheet. Many are automated, but if a person gets back to you, be sure to use good PR techniques, like being politely persistent, to increase the likelihood of being played. Follow-ups can get you air time!
After being played, featured, or added to rotation, send a “thank you” message and track the plays
You may never know when you were played because being featured on a show or added to the rotation doesn’t mean anyone will reach out to tell you. In fact, it’s more likely you won’t know if your music was played unless you listen to each station or they keep a log at their website. That’s one of the reasons we recommend creating search alerts with your artist name and the name of the songs you’re submitting. You can do this with services like Google Alerts.
When you notice you’ve been played, do the following:
Share on social media
Don’t forget to share the news with your fans on social media. This ends up cross-promoting the station or show, which they appreciate.
Send thank-yous and update your spreadsheet to include these contacts going-forward
Send a thank-you to the radio station or show host/producer as well. Keep that station and the connections you made there on a contact list because they are the most likely places to play you again. They’ll love getting sneak-peeks before your next release and often want to be part of your “insiders” that gets your next track before the public hears it. Also, don’t forget to add them to the guest list of any shows you play in their area.
Ladder up and out
Finally, when you get played, be sure to publicize it and use your success as a reason to reach out to those stations and shows that haven’t responded back or played you yet. It’s proof people like and play your music. Also, use it as a trigger to reach out to new stations you haven’t sent your music to along with a link to proof of coverage. Each play you get builds momentum and can be enough to convince others to give your music a spin, which grows your audience and your name recognition.
Authors of the critically-acclaimed modern classic, The Indie Band Survival Guide, Billboard Magazine called Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan “the ideal mentors for aspiring indie musicians who want to navigate an ever-changing music industry.” Their latest book, Making Money With Music (Macmillan) and free Making Money With Music Newsletter, help all musicians — from startups to pros — build a sustainable music business so you can make money in today’s tech-driven music environment.
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