Professional advice is our column where we ask professionals inside the music industry for their insight. Today we hear from Jim McGuinn – the program director for 89.3 The Current in the Twin Cities – on tips, advice, and what the station’s process for selecting local music for airplay looks like.
In the streaming age why is it still so important to get on your local airwaves?
Jim McGuinn: Access to virtually all music ever recorded, via free or subscription streaming is amazing. But it’s also overwhelming in its breadth and options. What should I listen to next? For many, that is a daunting question, answered by a combination of resources (which vary per person) – recommendations from friends, algorithms, music press, social media, and outlets like radio – which listened to creates unique exposure opportunities, in a social/shared setting. You are hearing a song at the same time as thousands of others, there is a community in that, and there’s also an ‘endorsement’ if the station is a trusted filter for you.
In the end, look up spins of most bands – from classic rock to today’s pop stars, and generally, the song that was played the most on the radio will be their most spun song on streaming services. This is even more important with smaller/local artists, where that exposure is the spark that begins the flame for an artist. I see that in the math – we get music from maybe 1,500 local artists per year, and give at least one spin to maybe 600 or so, with significant airplay for perhaps 150 local artists per year. That’s a lot of music, but we cover a lot of genres.
And while streaming services are great at helping you find and enjoy the music you already love, they are tougher to use for discovery (though getting better with playlisting). But there’s still something super unique about hearing your music on the radio, knowing that others are hearing it at the same time as well. I could go on – because this also helps translate to live show attendance. It’s not surprising that local artists can draw more fans to shows after they get regular play on a station like The Current, so radio play can really drive impact and growth for artists. That said, I don’t think radio is necessary for all artists, nor should it be a goal – the goal should be to make the best music you possibly can, and if radio stations and their listeners respond to it, that’s amazing, but not all music is a good fit for radio, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.
What does the process of selecting local music look like?
Jim McGuinn: We receive a LOT of local music from artists. Some comes in via the mail, like CDs, some is digitally submitted to us, downloads of songs or albums, some via a submission form we have on our site. Then there’s music we hear about that is not submitted to us, which we then go out and bring in to the station, if we think it’s relevant to our audience. We try to centralize the process, but it is sent to many of us to varying degrees. I hear from an average of two to three local artists per day via email, and usually give a listen to the song, respond and pass them along to our team that sorts and picks the majority of the local music for The Local Show and Local Current stream, host Andrea Swensson, and Associate Producer Jesse Wiza. They work to monitor and keep track of the submissions, and then pick the music to feature that makes the most sense for our audience, in our estimation. And that part there is up for a lot of debate and discussion – because we don’t know what every person who listens to the Current knows and wants – at a certain point, we’re making our best guesstimates, backed up by whatever evidence we see from that airplay – which could be phone calls and emails and reactions, getting bigger/better gigs, support from other local media, streaming numbers increasing, or just general feel – does the song feel like The Current when it’s on the radio?
The other thing that happens is we start to develop relationships with artists – sometimes we meet them at shows, or online, or through emails, and that begins a working relationship. I’ve probably offered as much advice as airplay to artists over the years – on everything from how to approach radio and the industry, to how to mix their next song for more listener impact. A lot of communication about timing – it’s great that some new distribution models are out there like releasing a single a week for six months, but if that’s your plan, we’re not going to play all of them – so how do we work together to figure out how we can operate and maximize the window of exposure that our airplay opens? It could be in finding the best song to focus on for us every three months, and that can create a situation where we’re almost collaborating with the artist, but with the intent to help them have the most success they can, given what we expect our audience’s interest level to be for their work.
What should new artists know before they submit music to their local station?
Jim McGuinn: Be organized. Make it easy for us to grasp what you’re doing with your music, what you’ve done so far with your career, and what you are planning to do coming up that our audience might find interesting. So translating, that could take the form of – highlight the one or two songs you think would fit on our particular radio station (versus just sending a 14-song album then being mad if we didn’t recognize the brilliance of track 12), letting us know where you’ve played and with what like-minded bands, and what is coming up like a release party show or the launch of a new video. Then keep letting us know this stuff in the months to come as we build familiarity with you and your career.
We encounter a lot of artists, so allow us grace if we don’t remember that one email from two years ago, and remind us of what we’ve done (or not done) together when you reach out the next time, and also try to be OK with it if we say ‘thanks, but no thanks on this one’ to you. It’s not personal – it’s musical, and like I said, we’re trying to find a fit for the music based on what we think our audience will value. I’ve responded to many artists who are outside our format and offered advice – how to try to break into mainstream country or jazz genres, for example.
Also – come to us when you are ready – when you think the mixes sound up to the level of what you hear on our station, when you have new music you are excited about, when you have shows coming up you think our audience would want to know about and attend. And give us enough lead time to listen, assess, and act on your music if we like it. Eventually we develop these kind of working friendships – many artists will send work-in-progress music way early to get a read, or reach out with the rough draft of a release plan to both inform us and try to figure out how we might fit best into each other’s worlds. And I personally love that – it enables us both to be more upfront from the start, so the artist has a better understanding of what to expect or not from the radio station when the time comes to put out the music.
The space for airtime is very competitive with national artists and other local acts vying for space, what can a new artist with a limited audience do to stand out and get a better shot at getting their music on the airwaves?
Jim McGuinn: The first is to impress us with music that feels both unique and valuable to our audience. Which is almost… impossible to translate. But it happens. The most famous story we played a role in was with Lizzo, who came to us when she was in an act called The Chalice, and Andrea Swensson met one of the members and ended up finding one song on a SoundCloud page, and put it on the air. Now, it took multiple iterations and several releases, but from that single spin you get to today, and Lizzo is one of the biggest artists in the world. And if you go back to that first Chalice song, it’s clear there’s something special there. That said, as stated above – make it easy for us to say yes, hard to say no. It starts with the music being a sonic fit and special, and being ready in case we like it! Too many bands send us music and we love it and start playing it, but they aren’t ready to put out the album, or play shows, or follow through – and if you aren’t ready to do that, then don’t go to radio at that time. Wait until you are. Think of us loving your song as opening a window that might only open for a few weeks, and if that window opens, are you ready to maximize what opportunities come together when that window is open?
Is there anything you’ve noticed that artists do when submitting music that actually hurt their chances of being considered for airplay?
Jim McGuinn: I like knowing what you are up to, but there is a point where it turns to badgering – and it’s not based on the frequency of emails, it’s the attitude. There are some artists we play infrequently, but they are great about communicating gigs, appreciating when we do play them, understanding why they might not be in heavy rotation. Then there are artists who are the opposite. We don’t owe anyone airplay. If we are really wrong in our evaluation of your music, you can prove us wrong by selling out shows, getting great reviews or airplay elsewhere, and sometimes we change our minds. The radio station serves its audience.
The cool thing about a station like The Current is that we believe our audience wants to hear a lot of local music from a variety of genres, so it is a win-win for artists, station, and listeners. Helping local artists succeed isn’t really in my job description, but it’s the most rewarding thing I get to play a small role in making happen by working at The Current. We can’t make that happen for every artist, and even some I would swear are brilliant and deserve it don’t happen. But when it does – and that could mean the validation of one spin on the local show for some fledgling songwriter or bar band, or seeing an artist grow from opening at Big V’s to selling out the Mainroom [First Avenue] – it’s great to be part of that story, of bringing artists and audiences together.
Many thanks to Jim McGuinn for taking time out of his day for this interview. When he isn’t busy as program director for one of the best independent music radio stations in the country, he is also the frontman behind two great bands, Saint Small and The People Between. Check them out!
(Author’s note: Look at them lake trout! Dang! (It’s a Minnesotan thing))