Morning Edition’s Allyson McCabe dropped a five minute mini-documentary about how “pay for play” at radio stations has evolved from the scandalous “song plugger” systems of the 1950s, through the bizarre indie promotion world of the 1990s, and into today’s branded content marketplace.
Brands like Pepsi, Coke, and Dr. Pepper rely on relationships with musicians to provide raw authenticity — even more now in today’s jaded marketplace than when Alan Freed was spinning records at the dawn of rock and roll. Radio needs the partnership with brands to keep the lights on, and funding a micro-program that wraps context around artists.
I don’t think it’s as easy to get featured on one of these new branded content series as the report suggests, though. Nobody’s looking to “discover” a completely new band. Brand managers and ad execs want artist partners who show the same early signals of success that radio program directors hunted for in the 1990s: a growing catalog of music that fits the brands aesthetic, a growing audience, and demonstrated business savvy.
Many early-stage artists find this whole thing frustrating, but it’s hardly worth the frustration of railing against the system. At the other end of the spectrum, I often bump into artists who want to buy their way in to this marketplace at far too early in their careers.
Getting support from brand managers isn’t any different from getting attention from the handful of remaining radio programmers. Focus on making music you love. Get experience by playing in front of audiences that don’t know you. Build your own brand from that place of authenticity. That way, if a brand manager decides to “adopt” you into a campaign, you’re already positioned for a mutually beneficial relationship.1