Urban Creative Indulgence
August 23, 2011
Ours Is Still A Very Connected Business
One of the biggest day-to-day challenges Urban programmers and music directors face today is being able to connect with label executives who are only too willing to assist in the station's endeavors to offer compelling content on their airwaves and/or to make their artists available for station events. New media innovations now entail longer time frames and smaller budgets -- all this at a time when staffs are spread thin and budgets are cut to the bone.
In today's environment much of the innovation is technological. New media innovations are particularly challenging because technology is expensive; thus, adding new technologies can consume a great deal of both time and money. Every time a minute or a dollar is committed, there is less to be deployed elsewhere. We live in a time and age where we're constantly having to grapple with the implications of an Internet age in which music from all over the world has the capability of being downloaded from anywhere.
Despite the frustration for those who want to make the music happen, this can still be an exciting, challenging and rewarding time to do business in a marketplace where the interests of artists, labels and broadcasters collide.
A Clash Of Cultures
We spoke to several top record executives and program directors about the challenges and what they see as a solution both sides can agree on. The first is that when an industry declines, budget cuts are necessary. That means both sides have to do more with less.
For radio programmers, it may mean stocking the prize closet and/or blowing up balloons at remotes, in addition to programming, scheduling music and doing an air shift. We're clearly in a situation where we have declining revenues and corresponding adjustments in people and expenses. We can dance around the issue as long as we like, but eventually we have to confess our lack of investment in programming. Great programming still drives the market and great programming is a function of creative talent, time and money.
Naturally, for label executives it can mean they now have to be sensitive to what's going on with programmers and all of the hats they're wearing. In a survey of the top 10 Urban record executives, they all said the #1 challenge is getting a returned phone call. One said he thinks a lot of PDs like to hide. "Now, it's not so much the fear of hearing the word, 'No,' as it is not being able to connect."
The second toughest challenge is breaking down the old lines of communication. Programmers, on the other hand, are tired of hearing from three different promotion people who are all saying the same thing. Plus, there just aren't as many open slots these days for new music, especially on Urban AC stations. In the end it's about label executives doing their job, but also respecting the job programmers have and understanding that music is just a small fraction of their daily work load.
Urban radio's support of artists, as opposed to merely songs, has always set it apart from other major formats. Recent comebacks with artists such as Charlie Wilson combined with continued collaborations and output from other veterans, have provided Urban programmers with a wealth of name-brand releases from which to choose
In addition to making smart music decisions, today's programmers' budgets have to be recalibrated with realistic financial goals matched to product goals. The problem is we wind up on both sides with fear-based thinking. When fear drives decisions, nobody spends anything and when nobody spends anything, you have declining revenues. That said, neither radio nor the music industry should stop investing in their future based on fear.
If stations trust their local management team to include the programmers, and compensate them accordingly, there should be a realistic expectation of results and they should be held responsible. Now this means our industries must put the emphasis back on creative people development in sales, marketing and programming. We have to find, train and hire the most innovative, versatile, competitive, smart people we can find. If companies continue to work down to a price, rather than up to a standard, they will continue to get what they pay for.
Smaller is better only if your station or management team is incapable of a larger portfolio. If you're going to be smaller, you still have to act bigger and think bigger because the competition is a lot more complex today.
We are in a very provincial business. Everybody knows everybody. It seems there are only a few hundred people in this business and sometimes the business gets too scripted and predictable. Assuming they've hired the right people, today's radio management is forcing them to spend too much time in meetings. They need to be down on the front line where the war is going on.
Time constraints placed on today's programmers have reduced the amount of time they're available to speak with label execs. On the other hand, station sponsored shows and festivals aren't vanishing. On the contrary, many stations are now knee-deep in planning for their fall and winter events ... events that contribute heavily to the non-traditional-revenue bottom line items in the station's profit margin.
Several top record executives said that one of big problems they have with Urban radio today is restrictive playlists. Breaking an artist's first hit is becoming next to impossible. A well-known major market programmer shared this experience with us. "I've had artists that have dropped out of committed concert dates which really caused us problems. I was tempted to drop all their songs from our playlist to show my dissatisfaction with their decision, but then I realized that didn't solve anything."
Promotion must be done differently in 2011. Part of the reason is due to budget constraints. The other part is because we have so much more information available to us. We can hit a few key strokes and see how many times a station played a record and what time it was played. In addition, in the past many labels leaned more toward A&R than promotion. While A&R is important, you can have the greatest jams ever produced, but if the right programmers don't hear them, it doesn't matter. Here's another reality: There are lots of strong songs out there. Radio has to distinguish between one great record and another company's great record. What's the best way to do that? It depends on who you ask.
As difficult as it is for some A&R people and artists to believe, promotion is still the engine that pulls the train. A lot of great records have died in the studio or on the desks or hard drives of programmers who never heard them. Promotion is persuasion or motivation ... helping radio to make its decisions. If you're going to be effective at promotion to radio today, you've got to be heard before your music is heard. You're going to have to learn some new terms and language and keep up.
You can no longer be effective by just begging radio to give you a break, to do you a favor. Favors, if they even get played, often only get played overnight and then get dropped at the end of three weeks. Some favors never get played at all. As a promotion person you didn't know any other way to get some airplay or a report on add day. When asked to defend their play decision, radio often said. The record didn't call out. (If in fact, there was even a call-out procedure in place.)
Despite the excuses, callout and Mscore challenges, there are methods that are still welcome and can make a difference. The difference is not just in getting a record added. As a label executive, what you ultimately want to do is develop a long-lasting association or relationship.
My philosophy is that radio people respond to excitement, facts and action ideas. If you speak to them on their level, use the words that they use and discuss their interests, they will not only absorb the important ideas you have to suggest, they'll be more inclined to put them into action. Learn about ratings, rotations, effective contests, Time Spent Listening, building and research. Remember, music research is, for the most part, objective in nature - yet research results are subjective, depending on the size of the sample and a myriad of other factors.
Ask radio how callout research works at their station. Are the respondents local or does the company use national research to provide data to the station? Is the research done online? Find out the specifics of why your record is performing poorly so you can study to show another result. Is it testing poorly because it's unfamiliar? In 90% of cases, Urban stations have not given the song sufficient spins for it to be become familiar enough to test well on a standard callout test.
Remember there are very few songs or artists that speak for themselves. In today's marketplace a record can't just "speak." It's got to "scream" over the research.
Learn to speak the language of the programmers. Not only will you be more effective, you'll be harder to fool. You'll get to the truth faster.
Have fun. If you're having fun, it'll be more fun for them. People still add records because they like you. It happens all the time. Occasionally in your pitch, just stop and say something about the PD or MD. We all suffer from recognition hunger. It's like an itch you can't scratch. So we all occasionally need someone to recognize an idea, a promo, a ratings surge or a big event that came off well. Talk that about one. That will help to bond you. It will also let radio know that you have really listened to their station ... that you're not just listening for your records.
PDs and MDs will be more inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt and when you do have good records, you will have a much better chance of getting them added, reported and played.
I believe that sometimes record guys make their jobs too complicated. An idea is not of any value unless you use it. You can get so many ideas that sometimes you can't remember which one to use when you finally come face-to-face with the PD or MD.
I submit to you that promotion is not an easy business. Shrinking playlists, consultants, callout research, ignorance and tone-deaf programmers have made what was always a tough job now almost impossible. I believe it requires as much knowledge as any profession and I believe it requires more courage and creativity to succeed on today's constantly changing environment than ever. I don't want to surprise or shock anyone, but when you go out to promote your artists at radio, these PDs and MDs (when you can get in to see them) don't always say "yes."
Sometimes they say "no." Now if you get enough of these "no" answers in a row, you gradually turn that rejection away from your artists and onto yourself. You may begin to think there must be something wrong with you. Now some label executives very cleverly figured out a way to avoid this problem, this rejection. Sometimes they don't call on radio. They don't show up on record day. You why they have movie theaters open in the daytimes? That's for these promotion people. They leave their cell phones in the car and escape to movie matinees.
Seriously, what today's smart label execs have to do is to know their market and their people. They've got to work with those decision-makers who are left who do listen to music and keep their word.
Fully understanding today's creative indulgence can give label executives and programmers alike a huge advantage once they learn to work together. And we can all be more proficient and have some fun at the same time. Finally, remember Christopher Columbus. When he left Spain, he didn't know where he was going. When he got here, he didn't know where he was. And when he got back, he didn't know where he'd been ... but he got credit for the add.