Everything you need to know about indie radio promotion in Canada!

Even in today’s era of social media and streaming, radio remains the medium king when you’re an artist either trying to kickstart their career or maintaining public momentum through your music.

According to 2018 Nielsen Music report entitled Canada Music 360, which collated the feedback of 13000 Canadian music fans over past five years, 91% of all Canadians listen to music, with 66% discovering new music through AM-FM radio listening, compared with 43% through streaming and 36% through friends and relatives. Hence, the majority of your listening audience is still discovering their music through radio.

In order to land your music on your preferred format – be it contemporary hit radio (CHR); Adult Contemporary (AC, Hot AC and SOFT AC); Country, Rock, Rhythmic Top 40, Adult Album Alternative (AAA or Triple A), collectively representing 472 Canadian radio stations – you’ve got to get past the gatekeepers: radio’s program and music directors.

If you’re an independent artist not hooked up to a major label, one of the most effective ways to do that is through independent radio promotion services. Indie music is big business:  According to the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA), in 2011 alone, Canadian independent music – which employs more than 13,400 people, 67% of those being artists – generated approximately $292M in revenues, contributing more than $300M in GDP to the Canadian economy. And for every $10M of music industry revenue, the GDP impact was $8.2M. And because it’s big business, it also provides plenty of content for radio playlists.

“Indie music – it’s huge,” says Oscar Furtado, founder of Vancouver, B.C.-based Tandemtracks Promotions, who has led successful radio campaigns for Carly Rae Jepsen, Kristina Maria and U.S.S. among others. “The indie scene provides a certain ear-to-the-street pulse and has a good stronghold on Canadian radio – especially alternative rock.”

Janet Trecarten, Winnipeg, Manitoba country radio station QX104’s program and music director, says that 28% of her station’s playlist is comprised of indie music. “Twenty-three of 82 singles on our current and recurrent playlists are independent,” noted Trecarten in a recent interview.

While indie music continues to play an important role in the growth of the Canadian music scene and the indie radio promoter continues to pitch songs that will hopefully land on a playlist, there are never any guarantees that a pitched song will land on its target. Before we get any further, let’s take a look at a closer look at radio.

The playlist is the roster of songs that a radio station builds to attract and retain its highest concentration of listeners in its market.

Sarah Christie, music director for Kitchener, Ontario’s CHR-formatted 105.3 Virgin Radio, says her station’s current rotation comprises “35-to-40 songs, with recurrents and golds sprinkled in.”

The 35-to-40 songs represent the newest, freshest material and receive the highest amount of “spins,” or airplay, in the rotation, usually falling into power, heavy, medium and light categories that indicate the level of airplay; the recurrents are songs that have been removed from the playlist but still appear on the radio from time-to-time, and golds are the proven hits from the past.

Every week, radio stations hold music meetings to update their playlists and review new music that has been submitted over the past week. At that time songs will be added and dropped in accordance with the station’s needs.

“We go into a music meeting with a page’s worth of music,” says Virgin’s Christie. “It’s a list that every song the labels have sent throughout the week. So, say there are 30 songs on the list: they’re separated by what are international songs and what are CanCon.

“Because we’re a CHR station we have to be on top of what’s really hot right now. So, this song is Top 5 in Billboard’s Hot 100 or it’s Top 40. We look at the charts to see what’s really popular and then narrow down that list, but I myself will listen to everything on it. There might be a song that hasn’t charted yet, but your gut feeling is that you know it’s going to go somewhere or you’re just willing to take a chance on it. But it varies from week to week according to just how much room we have on our playlist.”

Regardless of whether you’re affiliated with a major or an indie, there are only so many slots open at a radio station to add new music on a weekly basis – and they can range from five to none. “It varies from week to week according to just how much room we have on our playlist,” says Christie.

“If we add five songs, the following week we may not want to make too many changes just because we did a lot the week before.” Adds QX104’s Trecarten: “Any given week, there might be 10 to 15 contenders for playlist spots that have or may be opening up. Some weeks you may only have one playlist spot opening up – other weeks, you may have four. There are more singles hoping for a spot on your playlist, but you may have already determined that they just may not be strong enough to add.”

Trecarten says her station has dedicated slots for both CanCon and international singles.“We have a Power CanCon and a Medium CanCon – and a Power, Medium and Lite international,” she notes.

Ah yes, CanCon: Further complicating matters for domestic radio are Canadian content (CanCon) regulations.

In 1971, in order to protect homegrown music from being shunned in favour of foreign music on Canadian mediums, the Canadian Radio-telecommunications Commission (CRTC) introduced a mandated floor of 30% minimum Canadian content for English-language, French-language radio and television stations. Currently, that minimum sits at 35%, which offers both advantages and disadvantages for both established and aspiring domestic recording artists trying to establish a radio foothold.

While the regulations offer a guarantee that homegrown radio will play a minimum percentage of Canadian content, the recent and enormous global success of Canadian superstars such as Drake, Justin Bieber, The Weeknd, Shawn Mendes and Alessia Cara have resulted in a happy problem: automatic playlist adds due to popular public demand.

The downside? Valuable CanCon real estate that might have been used new and developing domestic acts.

Adding another kink in the chain is current trend for some artists to “surprise” their fans with previously unannounced material.  “We have our music meetings on Mondays or Tuesdays,” says Virgin’s Christie, who also doubles on weekday mornings as an on-air host.

“That’s when we have to report our ads.  But now a lot of people release their music on Fridays, which means we could be planning something for our Monday or Tuesday music meeting, but by Friday we’re now changing up the playlist because Justin Bieber has released a new song.”

Even more recently, that trend has moved beyond Friday, with power couple The Carters – as in Jay-Z and Beyoncé – dropping their collaborative album Everything Is Love and the single “Apeshit” on a Saturday. It’s something that Christie says her station can’t ignore when it happens. “A lot of big stars will release stuff that we’ll have to play right away because your station just has to be on it,” she laments. “We’re in competition with streaming services and other places, so you’d hate to risk not playing the new Taylor Swift song and have her fans go somewhere else.”

This one may be obvious, but it’s still tricky.  The simple answer?  “We’re looking for a great song,” admits QX104’s Janet Trecarten. “Is it a hit? Regardless if you’re a major or an independent label, we’re looking for great song by a great singer.” However, rarely do songs land on radio on the perceived strength of the melody, chorus and arrangement alone, though it does happen.

“Until there’s chart numbers or a chart position, or you see something, you’re going on gut,” says Trecarten. “But that’s part of the gig, using your gut. Sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong.

“You’ll also get acts coming out which are the ‘given’ – stars in the industry and you listen to the single and it’s more of a surefire thing: We’ve got the new Luke Bryan single and chances are it’s going to be a hit. If one speaks specifically to recent Canadian acts, Ryan Langdon is a brand-new artist signed to Slaight Music. His single ‘Leave Me Right’ came with a little bit of promotion; it’s on an independent label and it was fantastic.”

Aside from monitoring charts and reaction elsewhere, radio is also looking for a story – and research is important.Virgin Music’s Sarah Christie says label reps and indie radio promoters send her a weekly e-mail with all the charts and samples of song reaction. “Are people Shazaming it?” she asks. “We also like receiving bios.” Showcase performances or attending concerts can also help the cause.

“I recently saw Sofi Tukker at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto and couldn’t believe how people reacted to them,” says Christie. “It made me go back and put their music back on the radar in time for our music meeting.”

Listener participation can also play a role in determining a song’s future on radio. “We have a feature called ‘New to You at 2:02,’” says QX104’s Trecarten. “We’ll put singles up there and just get people to vote on them, but to honest, the response is fairly limited. All it will give us is an idea if there’s a dislike for the song, or if it polarizes listeners. But one spin is not enough to test a record.”

Sarah Christie’s Virgin Radio has a chain feature particularly designed to boost Canadian talent.  “Our Future Star program helps launch up-and-coming artists in Canada,” she explains. “It might be indie, or new to a label.  Every two months, we get a list of music sent to us. The song that gets the most votes, we have to play for a minimum of two months.  So, for last two months it’s been ‘Not A Love Song’ by Bülow – someone we’ve never heard of or met before. We’re just going to help this song and help it grow. Bülow is charting on iTunes and is testing really well right now.”

On the other side, however, radio’s needs can be a source of frustration for radio promoters.“What radio might be looking for can be a moving target,” admits Tandemtracks’ Oscar Furtado, who also doubles as Director of National Radio Promotions (Canada) for his company.  “The uncertainty is the big thing. I know that’s the nature of it, but it’s hairpulling. And trying to understand where a record is in the minds of programmers. What do they really think?  Sometimes I get the real deal, but many keep their cards close to their chest.”

Strange as it seems, you may also be at the whim of the season in which you released your song. Summer represents happier, lighter fare, for example.

The ultimate goal of an independent radio promoter is to get your song on the air with as many radio stations as possible, and then track their progress up the charts once added.  Vying for those playlist spots are both majors and indie radio promoters, both of whom have strong and influential relationships with Canadian radio stations. They pitch, present and do everything under the sun to create the best argument and emphasize the best story for your music to be added to a playlist.

Sometimes, it requires travel and face-to-face meetings.  “That’s what you have to do – shake hands and kiss babies,” says Dale Peters. As president and founder of Toronto, Ontario-based Dale Speaking, he recently returned from a cross-Canada series of trips accompanied by Mike Denne, president and founder of country label MDM Recordings.

The duo covered 15 cities from Ottawa to Vancouver in 12 days and pressed the flesh with 20 country radio station programmers and directors.“It’s the only thing that seems to get through to radio people. They still need to see you and understand and know what’s going on – especially in the country world right now, because it’s so fragmented and crazy.”

Peters, whose firm represents approximately 10 projects a year, says the process involves more than just digitally sending a copy of someone’s latest song. “The problem with sending just the song out is that we feel that doesn’t do the trick,” he explains. “It’s one thing to phone, email and MailChimp a person. But going on the road is about setting records up. It’s not so much about, we have a single today. It’s about setting records up three to four weeks in advance, whether that’s pop, rock or country. That’s what’s changed. “For Mike and I, it was going out and telling them what we had planned for our artists in the future, records or not.”

QX104’s Janet Trecarten favours the advance warning approach. “It gives us the opportunity to know when it’s coming,” she explains. “Sometimes we’ll get a stream of the song, so we can kind of audition it ahead of time. So, we’ll know that someone has a great single and we’ll want to add it when it’s out.” And if they don’t know it’s coming? “We could put a song into a slot in the week before the other drops. We get an opening and we add one of the other songs in the Waiting Room.  If we knew that this other killer song was coming, we might wait a week. If we have a sense of what’s in the wings, we can plan accordingly.”

Peters says the volume of music being pitched at radio stations warrants approaches where you stand out from the crowd. “Radio is vying for attention just like everything else,” Peters notes. “What you wind up doing is setting them up in advance and continue to let them know that it’s coming because they’ve got so much stuff coming at them at all times.”

One other aspect for your consideration: sometimes radio is the last place your song is pitched. Since digital platforms and streaming options have steadily increased in popularity with listeners, places like satellite radio and Spotify – and even the CBC, which has a foothold in both mediums – are approached to help generate a story that might get too big for radio to ignore. “Spotify, SiriusXM, Stingray, CBC: they get talked to first,” says Peters.

“The CBC is so overwrought right now, it’s crazy. They have to be pitched the same way, and all have to be pitched earlier than radio. If you’re dropping a song to radio, your streaming partners want to know a week or two beforehand, so they can get it on to their playlist. “Overall, we create a strategy for their social media, streaming services and playlisting, outreach – and then radio.”

First, you need that great song.  “Most singles are lucky if they get 30 seconds in a music meeting – so your song better be strong upfront,” says Peters.

Second, be prepared to do some work on your own behalf as well: Gone are the days when the artist simply handed in their song to the indie radio promoter and sat back on their hindquarters waiting for the promoter to work their magic.

“People send music, want radio and believe their song is going to get on radio right away,” Peters explains. “The reality – it happened with pop and rock and country – got to the point where it got very fragmented and those categories weren’t there to break artists, in the traditional way of breaking artists. “Now (radio) is looking for artists who are already built. I had a broadcaster tell us, ‘hey, you bring them to us built and we’ll put them on the radio.’ You know what? They’re right. It’s called Spotify, or any of the streaming services. It’s what you need to do with your streaming platforms to be noticed.”

Peters says that radio program and music directors take everything into consideration when looking at a potential playlist add – and that any artist worth his weight in salt better be on top of their social media. “When I go to pitch Danny Fernandes, because I’ve got a Danny Fernandes track coming and he’s still got some lineage to his side of pop,” says Peters. “So, they’re checking his Instagram. They’re checking his Facebook. They’re looking at his YouTube numbers, to see what he’s generating for his audience.”

Anya Wilson, a veteran Toronto-based indie radio promoter and publicist whose clients include Dallas Smith, George Canyon, Aaron Pritchett, Emerson Drive and Lindsay Ell as well as the U.S. label Broken Bow and country superstar Jason Aldean echoes the sentiment, especially when it comes to new clients.

“New acts are harder work,” she notes. “They’re different. They are the ones who should really start with social media ahead of time. It would be nice for them to make a radio debut after they’ve had streaming success and success elsewhere through social. And that’s a long haul, because we’re also battling the thin stream of availability at radio for Canadians. It’s still a Canadian content thing. So, it’s not like we’re up against everybody.”

One of radio’s prior concerns has been virtually eliminated through evolution: the questionable artistic quality of Canadian product.“Years ago, our artists didn’t have the production chops,” says Wilson.

“Many of them weren’t a match for Americans, but now you can’t say that.  We have a lot of domestic acts where the quality surpasses some of the Americans.”

The longer the lead time, the better the result, say Canadian indie radio promoters. “We’ll ask for a minimum three months,” says Peters. “If we can’t do the work we need to, and then place that in front of the artist so they can start rolling, it’s a no-win situation as far as we’re concerned.” Anya Wilson agrees that more advance notice is advantageous.
“They should get hold of me way ahead of recording,” she explains. “It would be nice to educated on route with what they’re doing.  If the song is done and we’re the last port of call and they say, we want to put this out in three weeks, it may not happen. Folks usually book us way in advance.” That’s assuming that an independent radio promotion firm takes you on in the first place.
There may be several reasons for rejection. “I have to like the song,” admits Tandemtracks’ Oscar Furtado. “It comes down to that song at the end of the day, and that is such a subjective thing. That song is so key. The story is important as to how it’s growing.”

Wilson, who pitches to 37 reporting stations (including BDS and Mediabase) and also some secondary stations, says workload is another consideration.“I have to turn people down due to overload, especially if it’s one format, you can only take on so much. It limits you – which is why I’ll never be rich. You’re always fighting yourself. If I have too many horses out of the gate, and there are too many at par, you’re fighting yourself and you have to stagger your releases.”From radio’s perspective, Janet Trecarten says it often takes a while for listeners to connect with your music.
“For a single to really resonate with the audience, the optimum number of weeks for a hit single should be in the 16-to-22-week range,” Trecarten explains. “But many stations get off after 12 weeks; they start to get nervous, looking to get the next single. I feel that a number of stations get off a single too soon in order to free up another spot, so they’re moving off too quickly.”

Once radio stations have been serviced with the new material, follow-up is tantamount, with the preferred method of contact being e-mail.
“The world has gotten very, very busy and everybody’s multi-tasking, so I think communicating by e-mail is ideal,” says Trecarten. “You can follow-up with phone calls, but many people who also have on-air shifts, or the PDs, who are also doing other things.
“Communicate efficiently. Be respectful of the person’s time. And we will always respond to people.”  Virgin Radio’s Sarah Christie also says reaching out on Facebook is a no-no.
“People should avoid reaching out on Facebook,” Christie explains.  “We get so many e-mails in a day, it’s easier to keep things in one place. Otherwise, you’re never going to be able to get back to everyone properly.”

There’s no getting around it: indie radio promotion requires an investment from the artist of both time and money – and can vary from four to five figures, depending on length and time involved. Peters says trackers in general can charge between $1000 to $2000 monthly or for two months, just for radio.
“If you’re looking for a quality service, you should spend a minimum of $2000,” suggests Peters. “That is a flexible number up for negotiation. But in the end, if you’re looking for your team to do $500 of work weekly, that’s a lot of work to do, especially if it involves socials and radio. That should be expected. Socials nowadays are $2000 on their own, just for a month.”

There are some unscrupulous promoters out there who promise the moon, sun and the stars but don’t deliver them – and still wind up taking your money. So, what are some of the questions you should be asking to protect yourself?
“Artists should look at the website and see how many artists they work,” suggests Peters. “Then they should ask, ‘how many artists are you working at whatever genre? How many artists do you work in total? Which categories?? Which artists are you working at radio? What is your success rate? Did you have a Top 10? Top 5? What got featured? What didn’t?
“Do they have ability to work your socials? Will they look at your calendar with you? Are they only in for one song? What does that look like? What do I get for $1000: a weekly report? An e-mail? A phone-call?”  Peters says that you should be a priority with the service you hire. “If you’re not going to be a priority, why would you go with that company?

“I would suggest that artists never represent themselves promotionally,” says QX104’s Janet Trecarten. “They’re the artist. They’re not management – and they’re so close to the project that they should really be hiring somebody independent to represent them.
“There are a lot of good people out there that have a relationship with the radio station and with whom the radio station feels it can be more candid. If there’s a single that’s not likely going to be added, the artist doesn’t want to hear that.  And radio stations don’t want to tell the artists that.  “Nobody wants to hurt anybody’s feelings.”