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SXSW journal: how to get your music on BBC radio and NPR

SXSW journalWhen last I meditated on my recent experiences at SXSW in Austin, I was commenting on the lack of interest in AM/FM among musicians with whom I spoke. It is unclear to me, however, whether those artists were representative of the broader creative population. I am certain that staffers and deejays from NPR and the BBC who attended SXSW 2015 would say that they were not. Both services ran panels at the conference offering tips on how musicians can get tunes on their respective shows. Panelists at the events reported being deluged with music from artists and their promoters.

I wonder, however, whether the performers in the respective rooms who received this advice found it encouraging or daunting. In any event, here is some of what I heard, first from the BBC.

BBC: UK music comes first

BBC Music 1 head George Ergatoudis started out with a caveat for international artists who want to “crack” the BBC. “Because of the way we are funded, we are strongly supporting UK music first,” Ergatoudis advised. So how do you gain access if you are ‘non-domestic’? “It has to start with being bloody amazing first of all,” he continued. “You need to stand out one way or another . . . you have managed to create a noise, a fan base interest. Any metric, any way you look there is a story that’s a reality about why you are different and exciting.”

But Ergatoudis did add that BBC radio does introduce UK listeners to new artists. At the early stage there’s very little to look at in terms of profile, “so it does boil back down to ears, and having people on the stations that frankly have that taste, have that ability to spot something in the music that excites them.”

What this suggests, at least to me, is that BBC 1 is open to non-domestic artists, even relatively obscure ones. But the process of picking them is very subjective. One of the things that struck me was how uninterested the BBC deejays and managers on the panel appeared to be in tapping into social media resources like Spotify or to see what fans on those sites were enjoying.

“You’ve just got to be great,” panelist Sarah Stennett, an artist agent, concurred. “You can be seen if you are doing something that’s exceptional.”

Send us a letter

Steve Lamacq, presenter for BBC 6 offered some immediate practical tips to the audience. “We get sent a lot of stuff,” Lamacq said. Most comes from promoters, “most of it terrible, or impersonal.”

“And this is an important point,” he added. “With so much stuff out there,” how do you make yourself different? “If there are 100 bands, of those, 20 are good, and of those 20 we are only going to play two, how do you make yourself stand out?”

Lamacq’s’ answer: “Send a letter. I know it sounds absolutely ridiculous in this technological age. But making a personal connection. If you want to get noticed by one of the specialist deejays or a tastemaker in the UK, make a personal connection. I think that everyone in this room knows that that’s valid.”

“Even an e-mail is ok,” Lamacq added, “but it’s not as good as a letter.” (BTW: here is Steve Lamacq’s snail mail address: Steve Lamacq, BBC 6 Music, London, W1A 1AA).

NPR: We’re not all in it together

Meanwhile NPR also held a panel, this one titled “Public Relations, Public Radio, & Music.” Bob Boilen, host and creator of All Songs Considered, attended to offer advice (I found Boilen’s counsel the most useful of the panelists). First, he pointed out, when you send music to NPR, keep in mind that the service is not a monolith.

“From your point of view,” Boilen told the audience, “from the point of view of people who are trying to reach us, we are a mystery and hard to figure, because it’s not like NPR, even though there is an NPR Music, it’s not like there is one central thing that you send things to. You have the choice to send it to any one of the shows. And they’re all little independent silos. There is some interaction, but think of them independently. So if you want to be on All Things Considered, or you want to be on Weekend Edition Saturday, that’s completely different from being on Morning Edition.”

The point is that when you try to get music on NPR, you really have to listen to the individual shows and figure out where your music would best fit in. Just generically sending your content to the service won’t get you very far. You have to find “the right marriage” of music and place, Boilen emphasized.

The music goes in and out . . .

“I’m going to say something that these people won’t say,” noted panel moderator and music publicist Dmitri Vietze. “There are times when I’ve heard back: ‘no more Tuvan Throat Singing, or no more banjo, or no more something. There are these sort of waves of stuff where something will rise in popularity . . . Bulgarian women’s choir . . . ”

“I’m Bulgarian!” interjected panelist Monika Evstatieva, Director of All Things Considered. The audience laughed.

“It’s been said to me, literally,” Vietze insisted. The point, Boilen quickly added, was that if some kind of music has been used recently, the host isn’t going to interested in using it again. “We have to be careful and do things that aren’t in our comfort zone.” So again, you have to listen to the shows to get a sense of what is appropriate for you to send to NPR.

Boilen, who sometimes appears on other NPR shows to talk about music, also urged prospective music pluggers to remember that music sent to the service needs to have a “really good and engaging story.” Most people who tune into NPR tune into listen to news, he observed, “and so when they hear music, a lot of people really get upset: ‘What are you doing? I want to hear news!” And so you have to have an engaging story and someone who can tell that story. So if you are a publicist and you are trying to pitch something, your musician has to have something to say beyond ‘Well, we met when we were in high school and . . . ‘ ”

The bottom line for getting your music on BBC and NPR: know the people, know the shows, and know the context. Neither you nor your publicist will be able to get on these programs by going on autopilot, just sending them CDs or e-mailing SoundCloud links and hoping for the best. But difficult questions flow from all this good advice. Are the efforts put into cultivating relationships with these services worth it? Are musicians better off building up a social media presence than trying to cipher the sometimes Vatican-like exteriors of radio networks? I’m not sure. My next SXSW post will explore a musical genre where getting on AM/FM is still absolutely essential: country music.


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