College & Indie Radio
If you’re an independent artist or band releasing new music, chances are you’ve considered reaching out to radio stations.
Maybe you’re a little stuck on the ‘hows’, but increasingly – as corporate radio stations continue to be conglomerated and seemingly out of reach – folks get stuck on the ‘whys’ that might pop up.
Why would I want to send my music to a radio stations if they’re only playing major label artists?
Why would I want to send my music to a platform so few music fans use these days?
Why would it be worth my time or effort to mail music to stations when I have such a little chance of being heard?!
While it’s true that a majority of radio stations on your FM dial are victims of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (which allowed corporations to buy up radio stations by the bushel), there are a lot of college-run and independently-owned stations that get overlooked by newer artists, simply because of their own personal listening habits. If you didn’t grow up near a university with a great radio station or you were subjected to only Top 40, it’s totally understandable.
College radio in general has a hugely important history, specifically when it comes to independent music. For decades, college stations provided the newest, most exciting programming for thirsty fans who sought music that was, to borrow a phrase from the seminal college radio rockers the Replacements, a little ‘left of the dial.’ College radio provided a platform that made it possible for well-known bands and artists to sell music and tour. These fans exist in droves still, but the internet and music streaming in general have simply created new means of discovery – and that’s why you need to distribute your music digitally! But to write off indie and college radio as a ‘dead format’ would be a mistake, as it’s these stations’ legacies that allow them to be tastemaking institutions within their communities.
Here’s the even better part: college and independent radio stations don’t just celebrate the DIY ethos that makes independent music move, they encourage submissions. Most college and indie stations have staff and parameters in place so up and coming artists have the chance to be considered for airplay.
To manage expectations a bit, it should be said that radio is like any other facet of the music industry: relationships matter. There are plenty of helpful companies out there offering assistance with college and independent radio campaigns (for a cost, of course), and their relationships at stations are certainly helpful. That being said, if you want to take a stab at this yourself, it’s more than doable.
Research & Planning
First things first, figure out your budget and the size of your radio campaign. Important things to consider include:
- Costs, including CDs, cases, printing, and postage.
- How wide-reaching do you want to go? 15 very specific stations? Or 50 ‘shot in the dark’ stations?
- How much time do you or your fellow artists have to dedicate to this?
In general, you should treat radio how you would treat the press – give them the opportunity to hear your new music at least a few weeks in advance of its official release date.
Every campaign is going to have different considerations, but you’re better off figuring that stuff out before you begin researching. You didn’t think this was going to be so easy that we’d leave the ‘R word’ out of this, did you?
Once you’ve taken a look at your budget/goals, the next step you’ll want to take is building a spreadsheet of stations you want to reach. Resources exist online for figuring out the top-ranking college and independent radio stations by country and state, and they might even include addresses. These are helpful, but if you decide to use these lists, it’s still worth looking into each stations’ programming and schedule – you might even find a show or staff member who would specifically enjoy your music!
As you build your list, important details to include are:
- Station address
- Any college/university affiliation
- Specific submission request details (i.e. “ATTN to specific shows/staff”)
- Do they accept digital submissions?
- Email addresses and follow-up information
While a majority of college and independent radio stations prefer physical submissions, it might be worth your time to include a separate list you can easily submit to digitally, too.
Who are you looking for?
While these kinds of radio stations often times have rotating staff/volunteers, the key individual you’re looking for is the music director. The music director at a radio station is in charge of selecting music to put into rotation or add to the station’s master music library. Some stations have genre-specific music directors, others have one or two for the whole station. If this information is lacking on a station’s website, target the broader role of ‘program director’ as a good alternative.
As mentioned above, college and indie radio stations tend to offer submission guidelines and requirements on their website. This information is super important to follow because it could make or break whether anyone ends up hearing your music once it arrives. And don’t forget to take notes for your future mailings, (i.e. “No singles, please.”).
Additionally, if you plan to follow up after you mail the music – and you should, more on that below – make sure to check for any communication preferences from the station and/or music directors.
Submitting Your Music
Now that you’ve got your list of targeted stations, it’s time to get everything you plan to send together. The quintessential mailer should include a CD (tracks can be burned with song title and artist information (metadata), artwork isn’t always requirement) and a radio ‘one-sheet.’ Again, while it might seem a little dated to be putting these together, you’ll find that a majority of stations prefer physical submissions, and adhering to their guidelines is crucial.
A radio one-sheet is just what it sounds like: a single sheet of paper that breaks down information about the artist and the release being sent, a photo, press clippings (if available), and what song(s) should be focused on. Additionally, most of these stations must follow FCC guidelines like anyone else, meaning they cannot play vulgar or offensive music on-air. If you’ve got explicit lyrics, make sure it’s known. If your songs are good to be played and won’t get anyone fired, denote somewhere on your one-sheet that the music is “FCC Clean.”
When it comes to the actual CDs you’re sending, music directors commonly want to receive CDs in jewel cases – those are the plastic, thicker, or ‘classic’ style CD cases. These are easier to file in a physical library, and prevents your CD from being lost in the shuffle if it’s otherwise too thin.
Once you’ve hit the minimum required to include in that envelope, anything else you wish to include is up to you. Feel free to be creative – maybe a personal note to a DJ or music director, a sticker, or other piece of promotional material that doesn’t take up more space and might earn you some ‘memorable points’. Full disclosure: we’re not encouraging anyone to mail cupcakes to radio stations.
You’re walking out of the post office. You’ve identified all the stations and staff members you want to hear your new release. You burned your CD-Rs (or had some duplicated), you designed and printed out a sweet one-sheet, and everything is officially in the mail!
Now, you wait.
If you’re a relatively unknown artist or band, it shouldn’t be implied that, even if a music director loved your release and added it to the library, you’ll have new fans from that station’s area knocking on your door a week later. That’s fine! You’ve got time to get in touch and figure out what’s what.
There are some resources online like Spinitron that monitor non-commercial radio stations’ playlists, and those can be super helpful. But if you’re more interested in double checking that the music director received and had a chance to check your music out, it’s worth it to follow up via email or phone. This is called ‘tracking’ – simply checking in with a radio station staff member and gauging interest and/or what kind of ‘rotation’ your music is receiving.
Your follow-ups should be seen as two-fold in purpose. First, you’re being diligent and making sure your music was received. Second, you’re opening up the potential for a new relationship if the music director liked it, (or maybe just increasing your odds of getting heard).
Like anything else, patience is key. Give yourself a couple of weeks before following up, as these things can take time pending the workload of radio staff. Now is your time to go back to that spreadsheet to grab email addresses/contacts and remember any specific requests they had published on their site in regard to best follow-up practices. If you’re comfortable on the phone, check out any stations’ sites for ‘tracking hours’ to call in and chat.
As far as an email goes, something simple and friendly works. Here’s an example:
Hi (MUSIC DIRECTOR NAME),
It’s [NAME] from [ARTIST/BAND], hope all is well at [STATION NAME/CALL LETTERS]. We sent in an advance copy of our new release, [RELEASE NAME], a few weeks back.I was hoping to check in to make sure you received it and see if it’s been getting any traction.
Let me know if I can provide anything else. Thanks for your time!
Always remember these people are doing their jobs because they love music, just like you. Treating them with courtesy and respecting their time will go a long way.
Utilizing Radio Airplay
Great news! You’ve just received word from a music director or DJ at one of those stations that one of your ‘focus tracks’ has been thrown into rotation. Aside from sending a note of gratitude back, there are other ways to parlay this news into shareable content.
Start by heading over to the radio station’s social channels – you might have the opportunity to ‘Share’ one of their playlists they’ve posted. Or maybe you just want to connect. Either way, sending out a note to your fans that your new music is being played in their area and tagging the station could be a great post (and the station will appreciate the free promo).
Or let’s pretend you’ve got a tour stop planned in that station’s city in a few months. Now is the perfect time to let the station know, and perhaps you’ll be able to arrange an interview or coordinate a ticket giveaway with their promotions director.
One way or the other, it never hurts to have a warm relationship at a radio station, especially if you plan on sending in your next release when the time comes.
However you decide to approach your independent and college radio campaign, be sure to put some thought into it. Like anything in your music career, this stuff takes work, but your attention to detail and tenacity can really pay off. Even if you’ve already released and distributed music in the past with no radio promotion component, that’s no reason not to expand your efforts on the next go-around.
Including a DIY radio campaign for your next release can be a very satisfying venture – even if you don’t get all the spins you had hoped for – as it can be a reminder that your music career really is in your hands.