Something you may not know: for three years in college, I was a DJ at WTBU. I graduated from the crappy Sunday 10AM-12PM slot to the Thursday night 10PM-12AM slot over six semesters, spinning new and favorite rock on my show “High Fidelity” (named for the Elvis Costello song and not the book/movie, thank you very much).
After I graduated, the radio bug never quite went away. So in 2006, some friends and I got a radio show on WMFO (since they are open to community DJs) and had a 6AM-8AM show (that’s devotion) called “Makin’ Bacon.” After a few months of that, I branched off and got my own show, “Pop Music’s Hard Work” (named for a fateful utterance by Ralph Wiggum on The Simpsons). I eventually had to move on from WMFO– other obligations called — but I am very glad I got to reprise my college radio experience. It made me responsible for staying on top of new music, which was a pleasant responsibility to uphold.
So that’s why I was particularly interested in the most recent Rock Shop, which brought together hosts past and present from local music shows on area stations for an audience of musicians and other interested parties. The participants were:
- Tim Kelly, WMBR, Hidden Capital
- Dave Duncan, WFNX, Boston Accents
- Anngelle Wood, WZLX, Boston Emissions
- Carmelita, WAAF, Bay State Rock
- Mark Hamilton, formerly of WZBC and WBCN and host of past iterations of New England Product and Boston Emissions, now in LA
- Angie C, a ten-year veteran of WFNX, now in LA
Steve Theo of Pirate!, organizer of the Rock Shop series, moderated the discussion, which ranged over the following topics.
- Sending out your music: The popular opinion was that aspiring musicians should send their music out to everyone at once, college and commercial stations alike. “Go for it all,” said Anngelle, adding that the best thing to include is a simple one-pager of pertinent info rather than a fancy press kit. “It can look really pretty and sound like shit,” she said. And even if one DJ doesn’t like a set of songs, said Mark, they might know someone who would and will pass them along. It’s also preferable to direct a mailing to a specific DJ rather than the music director, since the efficiency with which a MD gets new music on the shelves can vary by station.
- Format: Bands shouldn’t be afraid of reaching out and asking the DJ what format they prefer to receive music in. Many of them even specify their preferences on their websites. (“If you’re in a band, all the research should be done,” said Carmelita.) Dave says CD is still preferable, but if burning a disc, check to make sure it burned properly before sending it off (he’s received blank discs before). Relatedly: don’t write the song names on the CD (where they can’t be read while it’s inside the CD player), but do write them (and number them) on a case. And that case should have a spine, for ease of filing, with the artist and album name written legibly along it.
- Swears: If a song has curse words, you’d best do the following: 1) edit them out 2) flag the tracks with curses or 3) just don’t send along those songs at all, if you’re sending a sampler. The FCC is strict about vulgarity, commercial and college alike. When editing, dropping out the curse is better than beeping. “If you want to meow,” meows work,” said Anngelle. (Note: meowing also came up at the last Rock Shop, courtesy of Ryan Spaulding’s cellphone ring. Eerie coincidence, or hidden Rock Shop theme?)
- Length of song: As much as we all love a good seven-minute epic, these guys are trying to produce a two-hour show. “We’re hoping to play as much quality music as possible,” says Anngelle. A two-and-a-half minute song stands a better chance of getting played than a five minute song; it’s just the way it is.
- Follow-ups: Reach out, but don’t be a pest. If a band has a show coming up, giving a week’s notice is cool, even if the songs haven’t been played on the show yet. But a weekly e-mail — especially if you have no news — may be overkill. Dave says news will always be more relevant if a band has been played on the show before. “Be gracious, don’t be an asshole,” says Angie C. “Don’t kiss ass, but don’t throw attitude.” “Reach out and rock someone,” said Mark. If you’ve sent your songs to a DJ, Dave says it’s best to wait until it’s been played at least once before asking your legions of fans to call in with a request. To that point, Anngelle recommends being patient — they receive a ton of music and don’t have time to review everything. “But,” she adds, “if you have a big gig coming up, let us know to look for it.” Anngelle and Carmelita also host the monthly Rock and Roll Social at the Model Cafe in Allston, which is a good opportunity to socialize with DJs and other musicians and learn even more about getting heard.
- How do certain songs get played? By virtue of time, a band has got to make a quick impact, since the DJs will play what they like. “You’ve got 20 seconds to get my attention,” said Angie C. Bands can try things like flagging recommended cuts (but not ones with swears) or only sending along a three-disc sampler from a full album. Also, Carmelita recommends having a friend who works in some aspect of the music industry give songs a listen and recommend which ones to highlight, since programmers have different ears than musicians and even listeners and may know what will appeal to a DJ. Anngelle added that listenability remains key — if a recording has poor audio quality, no matter how good the track is, it likely won’t make it on the air. Off-key vocals, out-of-time drumming or shoddy mastering can all spell the downfall of what might otherwise be a promising track. “DIY goes so far, but sometimes you need help in the mastering process,” said Anngelle. Plus, if you send along a song in MP3 format, the compression may compromise the quality of the audio. As for live tracks, a band stands a better chance of getting a live version of a song played if they are already an established act, though the DJs seemed to take it on a case-by-case basis.
- Do the work: The DJs have high expectations for bands seeking to get played on their show. “Just have heart,” said Anngelle. “We’re gonna see that. We’ll give you a chance if it is not totally a mess… Just existing as a band is not enough. You’ve got to do some of the work. To run a band is like running a business.” She urges bands to go see other bands and learn how they do it. Beyond friends and family, other musicians are going to be a band’s first orbit of fans, so geting out there and making connections is key.
- Being online: It seems like there are a thousand and one digital outposts for musicians nowadays, but Anngelle says bands should do “as much as you know how to manage.” The key, they all emphasized, is making sure your information is up to date. If information is outdated or hard to find, to the DJ’s eyes, “it’s like they don’t care,” said Anngelle. Angie C, who is now a social media consultant, recommended having a hub that ties it all together.
- Promoting gigs: A weekly playlist is heavily influenced by which bands are playing in town over the next week, so knowing about upcoming gigs is important for these DJs. While the emphasis naturally falls on bands playing the Boston/Cambridge/Somerville circuit, Carmelita says she often highlights bands from Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, while Dave says he’s happy to highlight bands playing “Joe’s Clam Shack in Gloucester.”
- Funneling up: These DJs’ shows are speciality shows at commercial stations, and while the regular programming at stations like WZLX (classic rock) and WAAF (hard rock) may not be appropriate for the latest local indie rock track, there are opportunities. At WFNX, Dave says the music director will sometimes ask him for his three best bands on the show at a given time, and one might get asked to participate in a gig. The Rock and Roll Rumble, once the domain of the now-defunct WBCN (where Boston Emissions used to live) will be back, and that is another great outlet for local bands.
- How to get your own local show: College radio stations like WZBC (Boston College), WMBR (MIT) and of course WMFO have community memberships. While it’s not a guaranteed walk-on role, you can work your way in and up.
- How can the music industry become profitable again: “If I knew the answer, I wouldn’t tell you,” joked Mark. Angie made the point that labels are no longer a profitable destination for a band and that if a band is very smart, it can be profitable on its own. “You’d be out of your mind to sign with a major label right now,” said Anngelle. “There is freedom,” said Dave. “You can do it your own way.” “With every door closed, a window opens, and this window is doing what you want with honesty,” said Carmelita. “Music is about sincerity. It’s about doing what you feel. Someone will notice when you do the work on your end and never compromise for the money.”
And these DJs operate in much the same way. Hours upon hours of preparation go into producing their two-hour slices of local music programming, and you can tell it is a labor of love. They are committed to the local music scene and highlighting great Boston music. While the guidelines outlined above may make it easier to sift through the sheer volume of music they receive in order to program a show, they are not cavalier in the decisions they make. They understand that local bands are looking to their shows as a platform to possibly leapfrog them to the next level, and they will often go out of their way to make that can happen. It was heartwarming to be around people who not only love local music so much, but want to see these bands thrive.
There’ s some good stuff on deck for upcoming Rock Shops. The next one Sept. 13 will feature music writers from local papers, while the Oct. 6 Rock Shop is part of the Future M marketing conference. A college radio-centric Rock Shop is also in the works. Stay tuned.