Hundreds of musical artists send me their work each year.
Every band wants to be played on the radio.
As a fellow musician, it’s easy for me to remember that each CD or MP3 is a piece of art, beloved by its creator. Each song is a part of someone’s dream.
As a DJ having to choose from the horde, I’m seeing that many groups and artists make recurring mistakes that stop them from getting radio play.
Eliminating these common roadblocks can speed your way to the top.
1. Bad Band Name
Sure, there are famous groups with less-than-great names, but unless you’re Led Zeppelin or the Butthole Surfers in talent quality it will hurt you.
Here are qualities of good band names:
- Easily heard in a nightclub. If no one can understand the name when you say it on a mic in a crowded room, it’s virtually useless.
- Must be memorable! You may think it’s clever to name the group after a scientific principle or misspelled book title, but you should be able to say the handle once and have it make an impression. Test it.
- Gives an indication of the music you’ll hear from the band. A name is a brand. If you’re a soul group with the word “metal” in your name, or a metal band with a cheery title, it creates a promise of art the listener will not hear. Inside jokes don’t work in promo. Make good on what your name sounds like.
Bad Band Names:
-Anything you thought of with a bong in your hand. The words “spaceship”, “dude” or “excellent” are probably a mistake.
-Sexual or genital innuendos are not very original. These are the most common bad names and make you look like a tool. Think of something arty or musical instead.
-Names that are hard to say or spell are going to hinder you. Keep it simple.
2. Low-Quality Players in Band
The most common bad musicians in bands are the drummers and singers. If there is anyone in your band that can’t do their job competently, you need to replace them.
Drummers – You must LEAD the band. If you are following the singer or guitarist the whole beat will be thrown off. Play to a click-track if you must but do not follow the other players.
Singers – This one is my biggest pet peeve. If you couldn’t play guitar most groups would throw you out, but somehow people who can’t sing are still fronting bands. If your singer is pitchy, off-time or you find yourself turning them down in the mix, please get new vocalist.
3. No Good Hooks
Think of a famous song. Odds are it has a memorable phrase and/or melody that sticks in your head.
Songwriters must provide catchy, interesting hooks in order for a song to be great. Every song you want played on the radio needs one.
Bill Withers used to listen to other people’s conversation to find writing material. Granddaddy keeps long lists of ideas from his travels.
However you find your hook make it just a few words long and keep the melody simple. Sing it to someone once and see if they can repeat it. If not, try again.
4. Lack of Enigma
Music, like all art, is partially created by the spectator.
Leave a little mystery in your lyrics so that the listener can add their own meaning.
The above song “Use Me” by Bill Withers is a good example. We know he’s being used, but our mind starts to imagine how he was used. This is good art.
Straightforward lyrics are fine when mixed in as part of a puzzle or when telling a story. Otherwise, leave something to the imagination.
If you still don’t know what I mean, please go and have a listen to the Bob Dylan masterpiece Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan is the master of strong lyrical enigma.
Putting out music means making yourself vulnerable, sharing your inner self and doing something original.
Nature is always interesting. I’d much rather see one person with a guitar singing an honest ballad about their experience on earth than a full band fronting about girls and cars.
Having technical skills is key, but if there’s no personal story or unique emotion in your songs they’ll likely be dull. Real music needs passion and risk-taking.
There are thousands of bands that sound like The Who but are not as good. As a DJ I will always play the original band.
6. Lack of Originality.
This is close to copying, but more about creating a unique brand to promote.
In Seattle alone there are probably thousands of rock bands. Most of them seem to be made up of four black-clad guys who sound kind of like Gang of Four.
If you want to succeed in any style of music you have to stand out.
Do something original. Add a saxophone or cellist. Choose someone who’s visually or audially interesting to play in your band. Use video or art to make your show pop like no other.
7. Long Intros or Songs
So many times I’ve put a band’s CD on and waited for the intro to be over. Unless it’s stunning, dramatic or ear-catching it should be as short as possible.
Most music industry folks will listen to your CD for only 30 seconds. If your intro is that long you’ve just lost the job.
Songs played on the radio (my DJ buddy and I call them “radio food”) are usually 2-5 minutes long. Sure, Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” is almost seven minutes, and some stations like KEXP will play longer songs.
Ultimately though, a radio DJ will have the choice to play your longer song or fit two shorter tracks in the same set. Most will choose the tunes that take less time.
To optimize your chances, I’d suggest making your songs for radio under four minutes long.
8. Promotional Bungling
Skinny CD Cases
So you got your CD into the hands of a radio DJ. They are looking for it. Guess what? They can’t find it!
Why? The skinny CD case you purchased is too thin to see in a stack of CDs.
Even if they do find it, they’ll lose it again. It won’t be visible in the library of the radio station either.
Go eco-friendly if you like but use the standard-sized cases for promotion.
When you write a letter or promo about your music, make it short.
All music professionals get hundreds of emails. Address the note to them directly and say something human. Otherwise it’s spam.
If the letter is too long, uses prose instead of bullet points, or has tons of material it won’t get read unless we already have a professional relationship.
Lack of Promotion
Studies say that most of a listener’s first impression of a CD comes from the cover art. Make sure your disc looks pro on the outside.
A bar code on your CD is essential. You need it to sell your work in stores.
Gigwise, if you really want to be successful you should be playing at least a few times a month, have your name in the music listings and your stickers/flyers all over town.
Building a fan base takes at least a few years. In the meantime play festivals to improve your draw. Hook up with charities for benefits -they make the news! Volunteer to open for bands you like for free. Give your music to fans to build audience. Invest in yourself by working harder than you’ve ever worked.
9. Requesting Your Band On The Radio
Don’t do it.
After almost two decades of being a music professional I find it painfully obvious when a band member or friend asks for their song on the radio.
Pro musicians do not ever request their own material. They also don’t put email blasts out to their fans urging them to overwhelm a radio station with asks for a record no one’s heard of.
Do diligent promotion and gigs and if you’re talented requests will come from your fanbase.
10. Being Snooty
Most of the famous people I’ve met have been super nice. Think about it. High-level musicians are social for a living. It’s part of the job.
You can mark yourself as a mid-range artist just by showing an unprofessional attitude.
Be cool to everyone! Do justice to the music and work hard. Make art that you love.
This list is made to help anyone who is trying to get their music out there professionally.
It’s all just one humble DJ’s opinion and does not reflect the views of anyone else.
Tune in to DJ Michele Myers Friday nights at 9pm on KEXP 90.3FM Seattle, kexp.org. Music historian & producer, Michele’s made over 200 radio stories for KEXP Documentaries. She’s written scripts, lesson plans & features for The Smithsonian, Experience Music Project, the University of Washington & NPR.