Rules of Engagement for Radio and Independent Labels

A2IM has published the “Rules of Engagement” document that evolved from the settlement agreement with the country’s four biggest radio chains. In some ways, it feels like a throwback to twenty years ago.

In the pre-web days, to bend the ear of a music director, you had to call the station during “office hours,” a few hours a week where the MD or their assistant would dutifully answer any and all calls to their hotline. This way, an MD could set boundaries around answering calls from folks they don’t know without being impolite.

For instance, if you’re NeverHeardOfYou Promotions, and you happened to call in between my office hours of 3pm and 5pm on Mondays (not my office hours now, but they were when I did this stuff), and you got me on the phone, I’d be polite enough to let you pitch me your record. Likewise, I would expect you to give me the courtesy of letting me tell you why your record won’t work on my station, and what you can do better next time.

On the flip side, if you’re my college chum from AwesomeJob Promotions, and I already know I’m playing your record, we can get that out of the way and spend five minutes talking about what gigs we’re seeing this weekend without my boss getting on my case about taking a personal call.

And so, stations and promoters achieved a kind of detente. Anyone unwise enough to call outside of office hours was considered an amateur, and their calls were never returned. Fair enough.

Until — one day, Clear Channel and other chains realized that their music staffs spent a lot of time on the phone. That time, they figured, would be better spent doing voice tracking or cutting promos, or even cleaning the windows. So they streamlined the process by forcing all music calls to go through a single independent promoter, who could schedule a more manageable tracking call each week. This move went hand in hand with the trend of scheduling entire chains of stations through a master office, removing the responsibility of MDs in local markets.

The new “rules” stipulate that stations can no longer designate a single point of contact for their MDs, and that stations must publicize office hours and other official means of contacting music staffs. That’s all well and good, but it’s another MacGuffin designed to let negotiators feel good.

That’s because music directors who are really good at what they do no longer rely on submissions and music calls to discover new music. They’re online, on blogs, in discussion groups, and at shows. I don’t know a single radio programmer who waits for music calls to be told what they should be playing. If a music director decides to play your track on the air, you will be the last to know. Music calls made a difference in 1990, when they were the only way you could gossip about label staff and find out who’s in the studio. Now, we’ve got Pitchfork, Velvet Rope, and a hundred other sites doing that job.

Remember, if you’re an independent musician, getting on the radio is not your end game. Do not fall for the hype of the crush of unethical radio promoters who will use this announcement to try and convince you that they can get an add to a station’s main playlist. Remember that the only way radio will help you connect to your audience is if you target a very tight specialty niche (and, if this is the case, there is only one promoter I endorse for this very specific task).

Finally, know that radio programmers would actually love have you ask them to be your mentor and to give you advice about your career instead of just asking for spins. So ask for help instead of adds, and see how much farther you will get.

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