Getting Airplay: The Top Ten Mistakes That Bands Make

fitztantrums

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 MP3 or CD 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.

In the interest of getting your music into the right hands and making it shine, here are some helpful points…

Eliminating these common roadblocks can step up your professional game.

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 likely hurt you.

Here are qualities of good band names:

- Easily heard in a nightclub. Should be able to understand the name when said over a mic in a crowded bar.

- Must be memorable! You should be able to say the handle once and have it make an impression. Test it. A scientific principle or misspelled book title might be clever, but can they remember 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. Please 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, unless you sing only songs about doing it.

-Names that are hard to say or spell are going to hinder you. Please keep it simple and short.

2. Low-Quality Players in Band

The most common musicians in bands who can’t play seem to be drummers and singers.  If there is anyone in your band that can’t do their job competently, it’s essential to replace them.

Drummers – You must lead the band. Following the singer or guitarist will throw the beat off. Play to a click-track if you must but please do not follow the other players.

Singers – This one is surprisingly the most common. How does this happen? 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 a new vocalist.

3. Lack of 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 basic unless you’re a master. Sing it to someone once and see if they can repeat it. If not, try again.

4. Needs Some Mystery

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, please leave something to the imagination.

A great example is Bob Dylan’s masterpiece Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan is the master of  strong lyrical enigma.

5. Copying/Lack of Originality

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.

 

On the air at KEXP. Picture by Evie Cooke.

On the air at KEXP. Picture by Evie Cooke.

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.

Lack of originality 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 DJ, 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.

6. Unprofessional Mix

This is probably the advice I give out most to folks. “Musicians are not engineers.” There are people that have spent their lives becoming good at mixing tracks for airplay, just like you’ve practiced your craft to get it to this point.

Please choose a pro engineer to mix and master who has a history of airplay in your exact style of music!

To give your music the best chance I’d recommend you find a professional to record you as well.

7. Long Intros or Songs

Long Intros

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.

Extended Songs

Songs played on the radio (my DJ buddy calls 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, but they’re the exception.

Ultimately, 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 if you haven’t gotten played yet, 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 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. Always use the standard-sized cases!

Long-Winded Promotion

When you write a letter or promo about your music, please 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 all 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. Please do 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.

Be prepared to give away a lot of music to media and folks you meet in person. You have to draw in the fan before they’re inspired to buy your record. Sell your songs (and anything else you can put your name on) at gigs and online.

A lot of folks say they don’t want to turn into business people. I don’t think you have to. Be authentic, make great music that you genuinely want to share and treat everyone well. They’ll love you.

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 Unprofessional

Lots of bands send big press kits when all the station wants is a CD and a one-sheet. Please check each radio station’s website individually to see how they’d like you to present your music. Educating yourself on the process will be well worth your time.

Send personal messages as much as possible. Group mails can feel impersonal and don’t require a response.

Be kind. Most of the famous people I’ve met have been easy to work with. Think about it. High-level musicians are social for a living. It’s part of the job. Who are you going to ask back? The group who made you feel like family or the guy who complained about the sound?

You can mark yourself as a mid-range artist just by showing an unprofessional attitude. Connect with all types of people. You never know who will help you the most.

Take the knocks the music industry gives you (there will be many) with a smile on your face.

Be cool to everyone! Do justice to the music and work hard. Make art that you love.

Note from Michele: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 worldwide. Music writer and producer, Michele’s made over 200 radio stories for KEXP DocumentariesShe’s a live party DJ and has performed at Seattle Space Needle, Seattle Art Museum, Bumbershoot and select events. Michele’s written scripts, lesson plans and features for The Smithsonian InstituteExperience Music Projectthe University of Washington and NPR.

 

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2 thoughts on “Getting Airplay: The Top Ten Mistakes That Bands Make

  1. Mike Fuller

    I agree with all of the above and would like to add a few things: 1) Figure out which radio stations might actually play your CD, let them know when you’re playing and invite them down to see you. It never ceases to amaze me how many bands complain that I didn’t announce their gig on the air when they couldn’t be bothered to email me about it in advance!; 2) If you’re a touring band, make sure that the most likely radio station in the next town has your CD (why on Earth would you NOT do this!? but lots of bands don’t) and ask if they’d like a few copies (or tickets) for an on-air giveaway; 3) Building on Michele’s ‘don’t request your own song,’ especially don’t request it on a show that would never play it (in other words, if you’re a death metal band, don’t request it on the jazz show–they’ll know you’re not listening to the station and it will really piss them off–something that’s likely to get back to the host of the show who actually might play you). Above all, don’t argue with the DJ when they say they can’t play your death metal song during the jazz show (that actually happens!). I get that bands don’t want to become business people, but the reality is that show business is more business than show (I’d estimate about 20% creativity and 80% business and that may be shorting the business side) and if you want to get your work out there, do your homework.

  2. Mike Fuller

    Sorry, one more thing: don’t assume that the venue will promote your gig. That’s YOUR job. If you don’t bring in customers, the next time you go back there, you’ll BE a customer. A radio station is far more likely to play a band that people have heard about and the best way for people to hear about you is by playing live. I know this all might seem obvious but I’ve seen bands being their own worst enemy over and over again.

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