“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 business – they’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. Continue reading…