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Indie stations and indie musicians working together? An immodest proposal

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I’ve been giving some thought to the relationship between musicians and radio. In particular, I’m interested in independent artists and labels and how they interact and are interdependent with noncommercial and independent commercial radio.

This was spurred by attending TechFest NW here in Portland, where several sessions tackled how independent musicians can better use technology in their careers, and talking with Casey Rae about the upcoming Future of Music Summit. While Rae stressed the value of independent radio, especially LPFM, to independent musicians, radio was barely mentioned at TechFest.This disparity set me thinking about how the relationship between radio and musicians has changed, evolved, and maybe devolved over the last twenty years.

In my experience noncommercial radio–especially college and community radio–has been very much about indie rock, under-represented genres and local artists. It seems like most of these stations make an effort to play some portion of this broad spectrum of music not heard on most commercial radio. Many also play host to local and touring artists to play live on air, promote their shows and discuss their art.

At the same time, the last seventeen years of consolidation in commercial radio has resulted in programming that is less open to new, original artists, and even less responsive to local tastes. This change has had a definite affect on most musicians who had any hope of garnering airplay, and has arguably contributed to the downturn in the mainstream recording industry.

But I get the impression that there is a growing impression amongst musicians of many stripes that all radio is declining in value. Somehow noncommercial stations suffer from the sins of their neighbors north of 92 on the dial.

In the last decade we’ve seen the ascent of public radio in supporting independent music beyond its historical adherence to more highbrow genres like folk, jazz and classical. NPR Music regularly debuts albums from cutting edge and even avant garde pop, rock and international artists. New style public stations like Seattle’s KEXP and Minneapolis’ The Current focus exclusively on this music, while more established public stations are adding speciality shows, online streams or HD channels with similar programming.

You’d think just this would help compensate for commercial radio dropping the ball. Still, I can’t shake the sense that the gap between radio and musicians is growing, not contracting.

Yet, now more than ever, it appears to me that the fortunes of independent musicians and noncommercial radio are bound together. The question is, how do we close this gap? How does radio make itself more accessible and valuable to musicians, and how do musicians take advantage of radio’s opportunity, while also helping build more support for noncommercial stations?

I’m not forgetting the fact that the Future of Music Coalition is being proactive in inviting broadcasters to the table alongside musicians, labels and other stakeholders for this discussion. This is a useful and necessary step for all parties. But FMC can’t bare this responsibility alone.

Perhaps their very independence works against many noncommercial stations, in the same way that an independent label or musician often has to go it alone. In many ways 2013 looks a lot like 1993, with labels and artists mailing CDs (or emailing MP3s) one by one to dozens or hundreds of stations, hoping just one will get added and maybe played a few times. Likewise, how does a young noncommercial station get the attention of artists and bring in a stream of music?

Sure, I know there are industry journals like CMJ that cater to the college and noncommercial markets. But not every station can afford a subscription. And even though independent artists still have a better shot at a CMJ chart than a Billboard chart, they’re still competing against many more well-funded big indie and major labels.

So the next question is: Is there a way that independent noncommercial stations–especially new LPFMs–can more effectively cooperate and coordinate with independent artists–especially ones without the backing of a bigger indie or major label?

For instance, imagine small package tours crossing regions, states or the country, going from station to station–LPFM, college or community–making enough money to support the musicians and give something to the stations. They could leverage Kickstarters in each community to seed the money in advance, reducing the risk. And I’d think that the publicity for such a larger, but not enormous, enterprise could be greater than any one benefit show for one station.

I know these things don’t just happen. One major obstacle being that independent stations and artists are each already overburdened with the business of just doing what they do. Such a project really requires additional hands to do the logistics, manage the money and give support to both the artists and stations.

Also, it means that stations have to work together. Which means being just a touch less independent, since they’ll have to agree on a slate of artists that they will all support with on-air plays as well as on-air promotion. The artists have to work together, too. Though–perhaps it’s just my bias from working 20 years in noncomm radio–I’d guess the musicians would find it easier to coordinate than the stations.

This is just one idea out of many possible thousands for how stations and musicians can work together in new ways. From radio’s side, I do have to emphasize that it means stations have to work together and be willing to give up just tiny bit of independence in order to jointly support some commonly agreed upon artists.

I think it could be possible. What do you think? Join the discussion at the Radio Survivor Forums.

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