A BELATED TRIBUTE TO THE RADIO PROMOTION PERSON – SOMEONE HAS TO DO IT!

“The industry is both the enemy and the best friend of the artist. Trouble is, they need each other.” – Chrissie Hynde

You may not be familiar with a rather obscure Rolling Stones’ song “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man”. It was the American B-side of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in mid-1965 and also appeared on the Out Of Our Heads LP. Before you read on, if you haven’t heard it, take three minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9IImmRrFBz4   (Ignore the vain attempt by the YouTube poster at synching other footage to the song.)***

The target of the song was the promotion rep for London Records on the West Coast in the mid-60s – one George Sherlock. In addition to getting the band’s records played on the radio, Sherlock traveled with the band to set up tour promotions. Apparently Sherlock was from a different time and culture than the Stones (shocker), and so the band was put off by his demeanor. They subsequently wrote and recorded this song about the experience. From all reports, though, the Stones eventually warmed to Sherlock and didn’t mind having him around.

Although the song is an indictment of the quintessential radio promo guy of the era, there is a line of truth in the song: “I’m a necessary talent behind every rock and roll band.”  Exactly. Records don’t just get played on the radio out of the blue. Someone has to bring it in the door and get it heard. Someone has to have, to quote Artie Fufkin from Polymer Records, a “relationship” with the programmer. (Ed. note: Spinal Tap is funny because it’s all true.) You can’t just walk in to a station and expect to get an audience with a radio programmer. Not going to happen. It takes a seasoned, experienced, professional radio promotion person to get a record played on the radio. There is no other way. None. Period.

Radio promotion is a sales job except that you’re not selling a tangible item – like shoes or cars or real estate – you’re selling an emotion, a feeling, a song and a sound – trying to convince a radio programmer that the song will make an audience feel so good that they’ll keep listening to the station just to see if whatever comes on next makes them feel that way again, over and over, day and night, 24/7/365.

But you have to remember that radio programmers are not really in the music businessthey’re in the music using business; that is, they utilize music to sell airtime to advertisers who want to sell something to a certain segment of the population, not unlike how TV and film use music to enhance a certain scene. So even though radio promotion people are trying to sell the relative value of one record over another to a radio programmer, it’s really the radio audience that needs to be sold to, thereby making the job even harder – convincing a programmer that despite his or her taste, it’s all about what the audience wants to hear.

So who are these radio promotion people and why do they do whatever it is that they do? I’m not sure. On the surface, it would seem like a real cool gig. Working as an important cog in the music business wheel, taking people out to lunch and dinner on an expense account, going to shows, hanging with the bands, and, from the Stones’ description, driving Corvettes and wearing seersucker suits. But much like the tour manager job described in last month’s blog, there is also a downside.

 

In reality, it’s a very difficult, demanding and disheartening job. For instance, in order to have any credibility with radio programmers, you have to know the existence and stats of every other record in the marketplace today (and for the last ten years) for every station’s playlist in your market(s). And your markets these days may number in the dozens and be hundreds of miles apart. Whatever it is that they’re getting paid, it’s not enough.

And talk about demanding – it’s one of the very few jobs that REALLY IS 24/7. (It’s not 365, thanks to the traditional two weeks off at the end of December.) You’re up early checking on yesterday’s airplay, trying to get programmers on the phone before the business day starts and before any other promo person can get to them. More often than not you’re either driving around a large metropolitan area to make personal visits all of your stations (because face-to-face beats phone calls and emails every time) or you’re flying to another city to do the same thing. And you’re out every evening at a club, theater, or arena to see some show, then waiting around until some ungodly hour afterwards to make sure that the artist meets and is photographed with you and the artist’s new best friend, the radio programmer.

But worst of all, it’s the rejection. For all your research, for all your salesmanship, for all your promotional pitches and efforts, you’re lucky if you get an “add” or two a week for the plethora of records that you’re working. Or you’ll be on a two-week drought and then get a whole bunch of “yes’s” in one day, for reasons that can’t be explained or duplicated. But you can count on plenty of “no’s” on a daily basis (or some bullshit jargon that means “no”). And it’s really difficult to keep going back, time and again, with the same record after the repeated rejection – but you have to. That’s the job. And that’s why it takes a special person to do this job, do it well, and to keep the positive juices flowing on a daily basis.

And that’s why my hat’s off to all my compatriots at The Artist Cooperative. They’re all former major label people that have been kind enough to allow me to join them in their efforts to provide independent marketing and promotion to artists and labels in need of a promotional field staff and music marketing consultation. Find out more at www.theartistcooperative.com.

*** The Stones’ song is credited as a group composition. It has original lyrics, of course, but it features the identical verse melody and the signature guitar/harmonica riff of Buster Brown’s ‘Fanny Mae’, a song that was part of the band’s playlist in the ‘60s and one that they recorded for a BBC session as well. Remarkably, Buster Brown’s manager/publisher didn’t claim infringement. I would have. And it would not have been a feel good Sam Smith/Tom Petty/Jeff Lynne moment or, even worse, like a Robin Thicke/Farrell Williams/Marvin Gaye situation. The Stones were totally familiar with the Buster Brown song and ripped it off; it was out and out theft.

PS  If you want to take in a great story about how record promotion worked in the ‘50s, follow this link to a Dutch rockabilly website which describes the path taken by the record company owner and promotion man for Buster Brown’s “Fannie Mae”: http://www.rockabilly.nl/references/messages/buster_brown.

PPS  Early in 1942, when Glenn Miller’s version of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” had sold over a million 78 rpm records, an RCA Records promo guy (of course) came up with the idea that they they should commemorate the event with some sort of special plaque. Since many other records had already achieved that sales plateau over the years (the first being Alma Gluck’s recording of “Carry Me Back To Old Virginny” in 1914), this guy had the idea of painting the record gold to set it apart from the others. Thus it became the first gold record presentation, proving that a radio promotion rep is the necessary talent behind every rock and roll band.”

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