CMJ and the people who want to get in your ears
By Andrew Frisicano
Flipping through the FM dial to find something unexpected is a unique pleasure. A DJ comes on the radio, begins to talk and, inevitably, doesn’t play Fergalicious. And it’s a release to know that there’s a human, and not some kind of Fergie-disseminating computer, on the other end putting his or her favorites songs, soon to be your favorite songs, over the air .
But a song’s path to radio glory isn’t always split between radio DJ or corporate machine. On college radio it’s actually somewhere down the middle.
A song has to go through a series of steps – from artist to record label to radio promoter to music director to DJ – to have any real shot at getting on the radio. At the ends of the spectrum the approach is pretty simple: for musicians and radio DJs the goal is to make and spread the best music as they judge it.
A station music director’s job, however, is a bit more complicated. College radio stations constantly receive records from radio promotion companies and bands, and it’s the music director’s job to sort through those releases. The music director, in most cases a student, finds the music that best fits the station and its audience, while weighing listener taste against personal taste and critical opinion with the pleas of radio promoters, with whom the music director is required to keep in frequent contact.
It’s the radio promoter’s job to act as an intermediary between the record company and the radio station. They service stations by sending new records from the artists they represent, as well as helping with general publicity for album releases by setting up radio interviews and on-air giveaways.
In return, music directors report back to the promoter what records are being played and how often. In addition to these verbal reports, college radio stations report their airplay in two basic categories –their “top thirty most played albums” and their top five new, or “add,” records—to the College Music Journal every week. CMJ publishes the complied chart in its weekly magazine.
“It’s almost universal in college radio that if you want service from record companies, you have to report to CMJ,” says Chris Wheatley, manager of radio operations at IC.
In theory, the CMJ chart provides proof to record labels and artists that the money they’re spending on radio promotion is paying off in terms of on-air play. It also reaches a wider audience, imperceptibly influencing everything from press buzz to future radio play decisions. The chart allows record labels and independent artists to track their success in particular markets, with particular stations, as well as allowing stations to gauge their playlist against that of other stations. The overall chart gives an industry-wide picture as to which artists are doing well in the college market and which are floundering. But that’s not always the case.
“That’s the naïve, in a perfect world [situation],” says Wheatley. “The problem with CMJ is the way the record industry works.”
Even on the most basic level, the criteria for charting are vague—radio stations have huge discretion in numerically ranking their top 30 records, a large portion of which may be getting an equal amount of radio play.
“Most radio stations are not as organized as ours,” says Wheatley. “What they report at their top thirty-five might just be their music director’s favorite.”
With this leeway, radio promoters use their close relationship with music directors and the amount of record label funding at their discretion to influence not just the airplay, but the chart position of particular records. Radio promoters enable “access” similar to that of political lobbyists, and they are uniquely situated in a way that makes them simultaneously friends and advertisements to music directors.
“[Promoters say] ‘I need you to say you’re playing it even if you’re not,’” says Wheatley describing the process promoters use to “butter up” student music directors for favorable placement on the charts. “Record reps will say, ‘It’s not really lying. You’re just helping me out. I’ll get the job, you’ll still get record service. Everybody wins.’
“So then you open up the new issue of CMJ,” continues Wheatley. “And you think: How many times did this happen over the last week, that somebody made a deal?”
Wheatley describes one technique radio promoters tend to use on student music directors: “[They’ll say] ‘I’m going to send you 25 copies of the Arctic Monkeys. Give ‘em to your friends, give ‘em away on the air, whatever. You’re really helping me out.’”
On top of the potential guilt of disappointing a promoter, who, through weekly phone calls will build a relationship with the music director, there’s always the chance that a particular promotion company might stop service to a college that routinely fails to chart any of its records, leaving the radio station without whatever future records that promoter works.
“I basically have said to music directors . . . ‘If any promoter threatens to pull service tell them to take a long walk off of a short pier,’” says Wheatley. “We’re reasonably well funded, we have good underwriting, and if there is something we need and we’re not getting it we’ll go buy it. At the same time, I have said to record company executives . . . I will be goddamned if we’re going to spend money to promote your product. If you want airplay get it in the mail.”
Another issue stems from the fact that record promoters are independent from record labels. As contractors of sorts, promoters have a strong incentive to try to boost a record’s chart performance, even if actual radio airplay for that record may be faltering.
The CMJ Airplay Reporter Agreement explicitly forbids “airplay reports that do not correlate with actual airplay,” which are known as “paper adds,” but their existence in college radio today is undeniable.
“The charts on CMJ are absolutely meaningless because of paper adds,” says Wheatley. “Overall there may be some general trends like Modest Mouse or Gnarls Barkley. You pretty much know every station is playing those, but there is a lot of stuff out there that I think, ‘Wait a minute. How can this be getting the kind of airplay that it’s getting?’”
There is little actual consequence for radio stations that skew their charts on a small scale. As previously mentioned, stations often have a large number of its top 30 records getting exactly the same amount of spins, so chart positions, which are weighted, do not need to be fully justified.
Of course, determining whether a record is charted accurately, or pinpointing a record that gets boost from paper adds, is impossible – even the best CD requires a massive, highly organized promotional push to climb the charts. But there’s always the lingering fact that the album with the most money behind it can afford the most promotion, and, in some cases, the most paper adds.
Right now, The Shin’s Wincing the Night Away has been in the top 3 spots for the past 2 months.
“[When it first came out] we had that at number five, and [the promoter] was like ‘you think you can move that to number one?’” says WICB music director Nate Hodge.
Promotional budget aside, the new Shin’s CD is good. “I think that’s a fair record to have at the top of the [national] chart, because it’s probably getting spun more than anything else,” says Hodge.
Some bands, though – bands maybe as good as The Shins –may never get a fair shot in college radio because they lack the same money behind them; records that are “priorities” for promoters tend to get a much harder push for both airplay and charting.
“With some records, [promoters] will ask you about them one week, and the next week they won’t even be on their list of priorities,” says Hodge.
For promoters and record labels, college radio is a business. But for the college radio station, it’s a struggle to throw those unimportant things over its shoulder and protect what sacred things we have left—music, and the right to be Fergie-free.
Andrew Frisicano is a senior writing and politics who has finally worn out his cassette copy of Radio Radio. Email him at afrisic1 [at] ithaca.edu.