Ways To Be A Better Music Director
As most of our readers know, Dusted runs charts each week based on the playlists of about 40 college radio stations in North America. In the U.S. and Canada, artists and labels that are ignored by commercial radio and the press often depend heavily on the support of college and non-commercial stations. Most of these stations are nonprofit, and unlike commercial radio stations, their playlists are not determined exclusively by the need to make money. Therefore, college and non-commercial stations have more freedom than other radio stations to play what they want. Many college radio stations have the simple and wonderful option of basing their programming around the most exciting music that’s out there.
But just as commercial radio playlists are determined more by money than by music, college radio charts, at both CMJ and Dusted, often say as much about the promotional dollars behind a CD as the music it features. In order to combat this reality, music directors at college radio must confront a number of difficult tasks, including acquiring CDs for their station, dealing with promoters and opening the minds of DJs who don’t want to play anything they haven’t heard of before. This article offers possible solutions to some of those problems.
1. Pick up your station’s mail and open it. Don’t let anyone else open your mail.
2. Listen to at least part of every new recording that comes in. Try to figure out what would work well on your station. Understand that even if you don’t like a particular CD, another DJ might. Some DJs may know more than you about some genres, so don’t be afraid to solicit their opinions.
3. Make as much of the new music as possible available to your DJs. This doesn’t mean you have to put all of it in rotation (I’ll discuss rotation later), but you should make sure it’s fairly easy to find. Unfortunately, many stations don’t have enough space to keep all the CDs they get; this problem could be the subject of another article, but you should at least give every new CD a chance to be played before you toss it out.
4. Maintain office hours, and make sure people who send you CDs are aware of when they are. Promoters and label employees will call you during these hours. Also, be sure to answer emails as quickly and reliably as possible.
5. Compile a Top 30 chart each week from the releases that are receiving the most airplay at your station, and report your chart, either to Dusted or CMJ (College Media Journal, a company that will publish your chart for a subscription fee) or both. CMJ also collects specialty charts for genres like RPM and jazz; if your station plays enough jazz (for example) to make a jazz chart meaningful, then it is also a good idea to compile and report a jazz chart as well. (Of course, you probably aren’t going to get much jazz to play unless you report jazz charts - a Catch 22, for sure.)
Acquiring New CDs For Your Station
Once you’re following all the steps listed above, you can begin to think about perhaps your most important responsibility as music director: acquiring music for your station that you would not otherwise receive. To do this, you’ll need to pay attention to what’s new and exciting. Read publications that cover all sorts of music, not just the sorts of music you like. There are plenty of good sources of information in print and on the web (including Dusted!).
You can also find out about new releases from other MDs, from web boards, and from looking at other stations’ playlists. You’ll probably already get most CDs that are covered in the mainstream press and in other publications that mostly write about major label product, so ignore those rags and look deeper.
Once you’ve targeted a CD you’d like to acquire for your station, go to the website of the label that’s releasing it. Find the label’s address and send out an email—not a mass email, but a personal one—briefly explaining what interests you about the CD. Also send basic details about your station like its address, its wattage and to whom it reports charts. (You can use a template email that contains this information, but be sure to include a personal note to the label.) Make sure to offer to email the label your charts each week, and send a couple of recent charts along with your email.
A phone call is another method of establishing contact with a label, but since many small label owners have day jobs, you may not get an answer, and you may never hear from the label again if they forget to write everything down. An email makes life easier for the employees of the label, and it’s also fairly simple for the MD to write.
Dealing With Promoters
Let’s get it straight right off the bat: PROMOTERS ARE (mostly) NOT YOUR FRIENDS. Sure, some of them are fine people. Many of them even really care about music, and some are former music directors. Those that treat you fairly and politely deserve to be treated fairly and politely in return. But, in most cases, they are not your friends.
To some degree, promoters are paid to keep track of what’s charting where, and people from smaller labels may call you simply because they don’t have access to your charts. Often promoters just want to make sure you’ve received the music they sent. These are perfectly legitimate reasons to want to talk to you. But at major labels, large independents, and large promotion firms, even the nicest promoters are also paid to get you to like them, and to therefore give more consideration to their music than you would otherwise.
One method promoters use to get you to like them (and to chart their records) is to offer free stuff, like T-shirts, concert tickets, and extra CDs. If they believe you’re not the moral type, promoters then may offer certain items in exchange for certain chart positions. Or, they might take a more indirect approach by sending you free stuff, then using it to make you feel guilty when you aren’t charting a record they’re working on.
There are some more innocent reasons for promoters to send out extra promotional materials—for example, a duplicate CD might cause you or another DJ to listen to an album a bit more, or you might be able to use a T-shirt as part of an on-air promotion. If promoters send you items you didn’t ask for, take advantage of them.
But when you start asking for extra free stuff, you open the door to a variety of weird mind games. You as the MD are free to choose to play these games, but when you base decisions on issues that don’t have to do with music, you hurt your DJs, your listeners and every label that can’t afford to bribe you. One way to nip temptation in the bud (and, really, the only honest way to chart) is to base your charts on what’s actually played at your station each week. You can allow a trustworthy DJ at your station, someone that doesn’t talk to promoters, to compile charts. This way, when promoters ask you for chart favors, you can say, “Sorry, but I don’t even see the charts until after they’ve been reported.”
Some promoters will still try to manipulate you, usually to get you to add a record you would not ordinarily add or to get you to convince your DJs to play an album more. The best way to deal with these sorts of requests is to ignore them and continue about your business. When listening to a record, pretend you don’t know who’s promoting it and consider, as objectively as possible, whether or not the album belongs in rotation at your station. If this proves difficult for you, perhaps you need to take a break from listening to music and talking to promoters for an hour or so. If it’s still difficult for you to ignore the promoter’s influence after an hour, perhaps you should not be a music director.
Some promoters will attempt to establish friendships with you. In many cases, these friendships are not real, and they may suddenly end when the promoter decides your "friendship" is no longer economically convenient. You should also be wary of promoters who want to meet you in person, not because they’re necessarily dangerous, but because they usually want to meet you so that you’ll feel guilty if you don’t add their records. Some promoters may even attempt to establish romantic relationships with you, and you should avoid those at all costs.
Finally, if any promoter verbally abuses you, you have every right to refuse to talk to him or her. When I was a music director, one representative of a major promotions company was verbally abusive to me on the phone, screaming and cursing when I didn’t add his records. He also called the music director who preceded me a “fucking idiot.” The next year, the same promoter led a seminar sponsored by CMJ, the goal of which was to teach aspiring promoters how to work records to college radio.
Clearly, then, abusive tactics are endorsed by the powers that be. Be on the lookout for abusive promoters—you can and should tell them to stop, and, if that doesn’t work, refuse to talk to them. People who make money by bullying 19 year olds into using a community resource to advertise corporate junk aren’t worthy of your time or respect.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with promoters, some of whom are just fine. But music directors should understand that most promoters are (directly or indirectly) paid for chart positions. The most efficient way for a promoter to ensure a good chart position for an album is to manipulate music directors, who are usually younger and less well-paid (if they’re paid at all) than promoters are.
Getting Your DJs To Play Lesser-Known Records
Many music directors work hard to ensure that their stations are stocked with great obscure music, but find that their DJs would rather stick to playing music by established artists whose names they recognize. This is unfortunate, because it’s likely that the only reason your DJs have heard of the more established artists is that such artists have received plenty of attention from radio and press outlets that are even more corrupt than the college radio system.
It’s not that established artists and labels are always bad or that lesser-known artists and labels are always good, but college radio is one of only a few places where it’s even possible for lesser-known artists to get a fair shake. It’s a shame when even a non-profit college station is incapable of maintaining a level playing field. There’s also far more diversity in the discs released by small labels than in whatever major labels and large promotion companies are pushing.
Also, it’s in your station’s best interest to chart more obscure titles in the first place. It is very, very difficult to get “cut off” (to have your servicing stopped) by major labels and large promotion groups, since they have a large budget for promotion and plenty of free CDs to pass out. If there’s any chance, even a small one, your station might play their records, they’ll still send them. If you don’t chart a few consecutive releases by a small label, on the other hand, there’s a good chance you’ll get cut off, since small labels and small promotion firms have less money to spend and fewer promos to spare.
Your station will acquire more CDs, therefore, if your charts tend to favor lesser-known artists. Of course, you can fake your charts to favor small labels even if their releases aren’t being played much, but that ultimately hurts the small labels, which legitimately depend heavily on your support.
Fortunately, there are many honest ways to help your DJs become aware of lesser-known releases. One is to control what your DJs play. But this method is undesirable, since you want your DJs (who, presumably, are volunteers) to enjoy their time at the station, and they’re obviously more likely to enjoy being DJs if they don’t feel they’re being coerced.
Some college stations adopt a freeform policy, in which the DJ can play whatever she wants, while others opt to have a rotation, a collection of new CDs from which the DJ must play a fixed number of tracks each hour. In many cases, the music director gets to choose what goes into rotation, and the music director usually gets to remove CDs from rotation, usually after five or six weeks. Be aware, however, that DJs will become upset if the music they want to play is never added to rotation or if the music they like is always removed quickly, and many of your DJs will gravitate toward the highest-profile releases in the rotation no matter what it contains.
One effective way to get DJs excited about lesser-known artists is to take steps to ensure that your DJs actually hear the more obscure releases that arrive at your station. WCWM, where I used to work, has a meeting each week in which the music directors play various new releases, and the DJs vote on which should go into the rotation. The music directors still choose which CDs to listen to, so they still exercise some control over what the rotation includes, and the DJs leave each meeting more aware of the lesser known releases that were added to the rotation that week.
This strategy can backfire if your DJs aren’t interested in a wide variety of music, and you’ll only be able to listen to each CD for a few minutes, which can give the proceedings a TV-commercial feel that shortchanges music that is slow to reveal itself. And, finally, sometimes feelings can be hurt when DJs disagree. But in general, this method helps get your DJs excited about new music, and it also keeps them from whining much about the rotation (since they, after all, helped choose it).
Another way to give your DJs good reasons to play lesser-known releases is to write reviews. Most college stations already use this strategy. Put a sticker on the front of each CD, and write a couple of sentences about what the music sounds like. You may also want to include an I.Y.L. (“if you like”) at the bottom of each sticker that lists better-known artists whose fans might enjoy the album. This keeps your DJs from looking at a new CD, then tossing it to the side because they’re not sure what it is. This process can sometimes be exhausting (though it can also be a lot of fun), but you may be able to get other DJs, especially specialty/genre directors, to help you out.
Since college radio is not as dependent on profits as other media, lesser-known artists should get at least a fair chance to get their music played. Unfortunately, many promoters realize that’s not in their best interests, and because the companies they represent have much more money behind them than college radio does, promoters will often try to distract music directors from music by playing mind games and offering small-scale bribes. Also, DJs will often only play music they’ve heard about elsewhere, which makes college radio more of an arm of the major media machine than an alternative to it.
A good strategy for you as a college radio music director, therefore, is try to avoid the pressures of the promotion and media systems as much as possible. Only through doing this can you give lesser-known artists a good chance of getting airtime and provide a real radio alternative for your listeners.
NOTE: When I became a music director in 2000, my perspective was shaped in part by the how-to ’zine Bubba, which remains an excellent, if somewhat outdated, resource.
By Charlie Wilmoth