College radio gets fingerprinted.

CMJ quietly announced a new technology partnership that allows them to monitor some top college radio stations using “fingerprint technology.” This is the same kind of tool that BDS uses to verify airplay at commercial radio, and it has some college radio folks freaked out. Here’s what it really means for working musicians:

Control over a college station’s chart is shifting back into the hands of on-air staffs. Though some non-comm stations rule their DJs with iron fists, most college stations go by the “our jocks pick the songs” mentality. Up until now, a music director could report “paper adds” and jostle the placement of songs from medium into heavy, even though the station might not actually be playing those songs very much.

Monitoring opens up “second chance” windows for independent music. If a song catches on among a college station’s air staff without ever being formally “added,” monitoring can catch it. Unfortunately, it will still require significant numbers of spins to get on CMJ’s radar, but I like the idea of one less set of gatekeepers.

College radio promoters’ jobs just got a little harder. Someone with great phone chops can muscle an add out of a college music director. But monitoring standardizes playlists across diverse formats. A “heavy” rotation at WICB might mean forty or fifty spins a week, while a “heavy” rotation at WUOG might just mean the disc is in a case closer to the microphone. Promoters are going to have to follow through to make sure they really get the spins they have been promised.

“Grey hat” promoters are going to work hard to open up your wallet. You can register a song with MediaGuide for about $30, and you can even do it through your SonicBids account. Already, I’ve seen half a dozen promoters write about how you can “guarantee exposure” for your music by registering through their programs. They guarantee exposure in the same way that my home number listed in the Athens White Pages guarantees me exposure — you’re just one more name in a sea of white noise. Only register a song when you’re making a concerted effort to promote it at radio — don’t just plop down hundreds of dollars to get in the database.

Remember that radio airplay is a symptom of success, not the other way around. Unless you’re going after a tight speciality market with the guidance of an experienced radio promoter, radio should be the last thing you’re worried about. Do you have the money it takes to get played, even on college radio? If not, focus on growing your audience to the point that radio can no longer ignore you.