40 Million Bands Competing for 40 Radio Slots
by Alex Cosper (11/17/14)

Even though terrestrial radio has been dying a slow miserable death since high speed internet made onilne music listening more seamless and enjoyable over a decade ago, the radio industry still controls much of the music that sells nationally. The internet has indeed empowered indie musicians to bypass record labels and middlemen to get their music to the public, but the music that makes money is still largely based on radio airplay, not so much the zillions of spins on the internet. Radio still reaches 240 to 260 million listeners in the United States, which still overshadows internet radio streaming services by about four times.

Even if you're an indie musician who gets played on Spotify, unless you pull a prank like Michigan indie band Volfpeck did, you'll be lucky if you make enough money to pay your phone bill after a zillion online plays. "Sleepify" was the name of Volfpeck's clever album in March 2014 that was literally nothing but tracks of pure silence, as reported in Rolling Stone. They encouraged fans to play the whole album before going to bed every night, set on repeat. Each of the 10 tracks was 30 seconds of silence. It worked, as they quickly generated over 100,000 streams. The band calculated they were paid between .005 and .008 USD per stream. The album generated $20,000 in two months. Spotify then removed the album for violating its terms for content, but the band was still awarded the royalties in July.

The Volfpeck story is an anomaly since most indie artists will not generate as many streams or income. In fact, even known artists have complained about earning between $6,000 and $8,000 for 1 million streams. Those million streams usually account for several albums, not just one song. That's not exactly a business model that's exciting to artists. Certainly 1 million spins on the radio pays much more, but it's much harder for an artist to get commercial radio airplay if they are not part of the three major label groups - Universal, Sony and Warner. The big three simply have a way of dominating over 90 percent of music on the radio.

You may as well forget about airplay on top 40 radio stations, which have the tightest playlists of any format. Their main focus is on the national charts anyway, so it's very hard to get into those rotations. Top 40, by the way, is a misnomer since most of those stations only play 10 to 30 current songs mixed with recurrent hits of the past few years. The "gold" or oldies library on these stations is very tight, based mainly on research of the top testing hits in various forms of research. The definition of "hit" is also murky since certain country music artists outsell pop artists, but are ignored by pop radio and confined to country music stations, which outnumber pop stations in America by nearly three times (2000 verses 700).

Radio stations that play rock, alternative and adult alternative are your best bets for getting airplay at least on their weekend specialty shows devoted to local music. But it's still difficult to get into the looser rotations around the clock on those stations. It's all about a limited number of slots for music per hour built around commercials, which are the real priority on radio stations. Since most listenership amounts to an average of 20 minutes per day - the average listening time during commutes - stations want to keep recycling their most popular songs as much as possible so that listeners hear their favorites in that 20 minute span. It leaves very little time for experimentation.

Despite the odds against any given indie artist getting substantial airplay on radio or streaming services, it's still possible since the music that does get the most attention isn't exactly the most credible or creative. It just happens to be on big labels and sounds commercial enough to fill up the slots. If you write powerful music in which the melody and lyrics stand out, there's always a chance that radio programmers will like it and play it. Getting to know radio personnel in your market also helps.

Due to the tight programming of radio, it makes much more sense for most indie artists to explore other avenues for getting their music heard. But what else is there? What the indie music world needs more than anything are new platforms designed to target audiences who specifically want to hear new music by indie acts. Slice The Pie is a site that actually pays music fans dimes and nickels per song to listen and rate new music. This model is innovative, but the low pay turns many people off. If the model paid just a little more it might become an explosive hit online that revolutionizes the music industry.

Music streaming has become a hot topic in the otherwise struggling music industry, even though music streaming services are far from profitable if you factor in investment costs. The CEOs of Spotify and Pandora might be making a lot of money but the companies themselves are not yet based on profitable business models. Like a corporation that borrows millions of dollars to pay its CEO and other top officers as well as operating expenses, streaming services are posing as industry giants, but are nowhere near the level of success executed by Apple's iTunes in 2014.

Yet streaming services have taken a bite out of iTunes profits and Apple has responded by buying its own streaming service, Beats Music. Like a monkey-see/monkey-do rat race to a bad finish, the music industry has helped push its industry in another inefficient direction. Taylor Swift made double headlines in November 2014 by hitting number one with 1989, the first platinum album all year by an artist outside of the Frozen Soundtrack the same week she pulled her music from Spotify. It sent a message to the music world that streaming services don't have the best interests for artists in mind.

So is streaming the answer to musicians getting paid? Maybe if you're on a major label or if an indie-conscious streaming service comes along. Is radio the answer? Not really since getting played in heavy rotation on one station may only generate a few hundred bucks in royalties from BMI or ASCAP. You need to get played on hundreds of stations across the country to get a decent paycheck. It is possible to make a few thousand dollars a year if you get a song played in a TV show that airs one time. You can make substantially more money if your music is played all the time on television or in the movies. But the best way for indie artists to get paid is still through live shows where you can promote your music.

As former Nirvana producer Steve Albini has told the music world, the internet has been the solution, not the problem for musicians in the new century. The internet has already eliminated the gatekeepers that held back indie artists last century, and has provided a low cost means of distribution and marketing of music. Digital solutions such as iTunes have eliminated the need and cost for manufacturing CDs. All that's missing from the equation now is for something to replace radio so that indie music can be heard by a large audience. It is unlikely that the radio industry, which is billions in debt, will rise to this challenge. So something from the tech world is needed, and not just the same old ideas about streaming and apps that already do what other apps have done.

At some point venture capitalists may be approached by entrepreneurs who craft an idea designed to help indie artists get paid. ReverbNation and SoundClick are good models that offer ways to present and market music, but there is still no global or national media platform that brings a huge audience together that pays indie artists the way major label artists make money through radio. In that sense, the indie revolution in which indie artists have a shot at earning a living online from music is just one platform away.

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