As a kid in the early 1970’s I lived in San Francisco. My parents were music fans in general but they didn’t have an extensive collection of albums. When we listened to music it was on a cheaply produced Panasonic radio made from molded black plastic with a built in tape deck and that one crappy speaker was not exactly high fidelity.
One night my mother turned on the radio and dialed up one of San Francisco’s rock stations. I was barely paying attention when a song began to play, a guitar riff so heavy and hypnotic that it sent shivers through my body…
“My heart is black, and my lips are cold… Cities on flame…with rock and roll”
I was six years old, and Blue Öyster Cult had just made a fan for life.
If you’re of a certain generation, this is probably a familiar story. The band you heard on the radio might have been different but it was that limited exposure via the air waves that set you on the left hand path.
In 1994, Bobby Rayfield (currently the program director at TrendKill Radio) was driving home at two in the morning. “I tuned in to WUTC, who had a terrific late night jazz platform. A couple of students had taken over the station for the evening. One of the hosts played the opening track ‘Lost’ from the Neurosis album Enemy of the Sun. At that moment, I knew I was not alone. Someone around me was also connected to the music I loved. It is still to this day the only time I have ever heard Neurosis played on an AM/FM radio broadcast.”
Look, we get it. “Radio? That ancient technology from a long forgotten age when men wore stylish hats and fought the rising tide of fascisim?” Well… yes. Even in the Era of Information Overload there are good reasons to consider using the airwaves and internet radio — its modern analogue — to expose your music to the masses.
Radio was initially used as a communication tool for commercial ship traffic; but by the 1920’s it had become a source of news, information, and entertainment. Radio turned the living room into a stage, a concert hall, a sports arena or a dance floor. It made long car rides tolerable and spread music to every corner of the world.
While the artists who grace the top of the charts churn out facile music with broad appeal, metal, punk and hardcore aims for a smaller target. One of the hard truths about being a creator or even a fan of extreme music is the relatively small size of the audience. And that’s an issue when it comes to advertising, which is the engine that drives commercial radio. “The majority of radio stations are trying to please the sponsors and the mass listeners,” explained Bobby Rayfield of Trendkill Radio. “They want to pay the bills. Everything else occurs as a result of that first step. With so many rules and regulations regarding content and language toward airwaves, they may be afraid that something might cross a line that could get them in some type of trouble or dropped by a sponsor.”
“Popular” music is an important distinction. The main source of revenue for commercial radio stations has always been advertisers. The more listeners a station can claim, the more attractive they become to potential advertisers. And as much as we love them, all the heavy and extreme genres and subgenres combined have never wielded the same pure purchasing power of pop music.
In practical terms, that meant underground music was limited to college radio stations funded by the university and run by students, listener sponsored radio where the programming wasn’t dictated by potential sponsors, and the murky world of localized pirate radio. The closest it got to being popular was in the 1980s when a watered down, glossy and glammed up version of metal swaggered into pop culture, eventually leading us to Seattle and the alt-rock/grunge scene. The industry’s brief fascination with dark, heavy radio rock may have allowed a band like Morbid Angel to get signed to a major label, that didn’t mean Where the Slime Live would ever play on the same station that played Smells Like Teen Spirit.
Outside of student run college stations, specific shows on listener sponsored stations (one of my personal favorites is the long running Sweet Nightmares show on Houston’s KPFT 90.1), or independent stations — some legit, some pirate — the chances of getting extreme music on terrestrial radio remain as small as they ever have been, even with a major label or PR department willing to try. There just isn’t the market share to support it.
But don’t despair! Those niche stations and shows are the key to your exposure on the old FM/AM dial. Find the ones in your area first, then expand to other markets. Get familiar with the kind of music they play, use all that social media prowess you’ve developed to establish contact with the DJs and program directors. Invite them to your live shows and get to know them. If that sounds like hustling, it is. Work it from every angle.
Launch the Satellites!
In 2001, satellite radio entered the fray and it does, in fact, cater a bit more toward extreme music. There is only one major player at the moment (Sirius and XM merged in 2008 to avoid bankruptcy), and it covers the US and Canada. Sirius XM is subscription based and mostly listened to in the car, though it has both an internet presence and also has receivers that can be used in the home. It’s almost entirely commercial free (depends on the channel). Plus the DJ’s can cuss and they generally play unedited versions of songs.
For hard rock or heavy metal, you get Ozzy’s Boneyard, Octane, Liquid Metal, and Hair Nation. For punk rockers out there you’ve got Faction Punk or Marky Ramone’s Punk Rock Blitzkrieg.
To get on the air with Sirius XM, the same basic principles that were applied for FM/AM are in play here as well. Use that social media savvy to get to know the DJs and the program directors who are the gatekeepers of stations. And be patient, because this is a bigger operation than a college radio station; they’re getting inundated with requests. At this level, it might make sense to invest in a public relations (PR) firm that already has a good working relationship with the program directors. And be patient: according to Jessica Allossery, writing on Soundfly.com, “I tried for 5 years to get on SiriusXM radio, and got turned down many times before I actually succeeded… you must also be confident in knowing that there is a station out there waiting for your song to show up on its doorstep, even if you’re a DIY musician without a manager.”
The Internet Reshaped the Radio Landscape
The internet, as we know it today, had similar humble beginnings to the radio. Initially developed for military usage, there was potential for it to be used for entertainment as well as communication. And though it took several decades of development before home computers were streaming multiple forms of content, by the 1990s the potential of a world-wide web of data sharing was well on its way to being fully realized.
From the earliest days of streaming and file sharing, it was clear that heavy metal, punk and hardcore, and every conceivable sub-genre had found a place to exist that wasn’t dependent on advertising models or share of listenership to attract sponsors.
Today, the internet is inundated with websites promoting, reviewing, streaming and geeking out about extreme music, both above and below the underground. There’s also the wide range of internet radio, from terrestrial radio simulcasts to streaming stations under the umbrella of a bigger internet platform like Live365, Internet-radio, or AccuRadio, to fully independent internet radio stations like Trendkill Radio, Rebel Radio, or GimmeRadio.
Independent Internet Radio
GimmeRadio is a good example of how much a website can offer. Log in to gimmeradio.com (it’s free, no subscription fees) and start listening to the streaming music; then enter the chat room and it’s like bellying up to an international, virtual version of a lively bar at a metal club (except you don’t have to shout to be heard).
“Our listeners are pals with the staff, DJs and each other at this point,” said Brian Turner, the Program/Music Director from GimmeRadio. “We’re also discovering music from our listeners (they have hosted Listener Guest DJ spots, too, from everywhere around the world, even Iran) and the whole blueprint of Gimme always included having the listeners as much in the spotlight as what’s on the air.”
Listen to GimmeRadio for any amount of time and you’ll probably hear some things you know and love and be introduced to some music you may well never have heard before… which mirrors the experience I had listening to the radio back in the early 1970s, but on a more personal level. And if you like what you hear, you can keep track of new music by adding it to a wishlist built into the website; no more waiting around for the DJ to announce what you just heard! I asked Brian why GimmeRadio decided to forego the traditional playlist and allowed the DJs to curate their own music.
“I think an elementary thing of what Gimme does is bridging the moat between artists and fans,” he said. “Our listeners are deep, thoughtful, music fans who can sense BS and companies who try to be cool and cater to them but don’t have their souls invested in music. Listeners want a station that’s open wide with choices and has hosts and staff who loves music as much as they do. Musicians who have appeared on Gimme with shows, from kids making black metal in their Scottish basement right up to Dave Mustaine, all share this common trait: they love music. They love playing and talking about the music they’re into, schooling listeners like you’re just hanging in their record parlor.”
The Less Well-Defined Part of the Internet
Somewhere between actual internet radio stations and the ubiquity of YouTube there exists a variety of different outlets that could, potentially, be used by an enterprising extreme musician.
There are a number of music sites like Live365 that host a wide variety of “stations” under a broader umbrella, and this includes many stations that play metal, punk, hardcore, or straight up experimental noise. Besides the obvious avenue of contacting the programmer/DJs of these stations, you can start your own station as well and use that as a platform to promote your own material, play artists you either know personally, were inspired by, or just want to give a leg up. Live365 takes royalties seriously and works with all the relevant licensing companies (ASCAP, BMI, SoundExchange, etc.) so the artists you play will be compensated.
While not exactly radio, podcasting in an interesting corner of the internet landscape. Most people think of podcasts as being used for news or information, but they can also be used to promote your music. Guesting on podcast is a no-brainer marketing move, but creating a podcast for your band and using a hosting service like Buzzsprout or Blubrry (there are many others to choose from) can get your program listed in podcast directories across many platforms. This may not seem as likely a choice, but it does offer an intriguing way to promote your music, especially if you consider using it as a platform to communicate with your fanbase by sharing stories, tales from the road, or insight into your writing process.
The Very Commercial Side of the Internet
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention those well known websites that are backed by the tech and media conglomerates: YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, iHeart Music, and all the rest.
YouTube is perhaps the most intriguing of the more mainstream sites for extreme musicians. It’s easy to upload your own music and then direct people to the channel, but the promotion is all up to you. It cuts both ways: there are 1.9 billion people who access YouTube, but the competition is fierce and you’re fighting for a sliver of attention from users who are inundated with content that is slick, well produced, and targeted to sate their individual viewing appetites. Uploading a song or video to YouTube is easy enough, and if you want to delve into the tips and tricks, there is the YouTube provided Creator Academy which starts off at a very rudimentary level but does cover some of the finer points like “Channel Optimization” and “Money and Business”.
Devin Townsend, interviewed by Ultimate Guitar’s Justin Beckner in October 2020 (https://bit.ly/34mUFLP), was asked how he felt about YouTube being used as an avenue for gaining exposure. “I can’t imagine another way to do it right now,” Townsend replied. “The way I got into it doesn’t really exist anymore…I think you just have to use the technology that is available.” But he went on to point out that there is a downside to putting your material out on a social media platform that invites interaction with the viewer. “It’s a hugely toxic environment and it has become a game for a lot of people to see if they can get under your skin.”
The attraction to YouTube over something like Spotify, for instance, is that you don’t have to go through an artist distributor, label distributor, or delivery platform to get your music on the internet. On the other hand, if you do pay for a distributor service or delivery platform, they handle the business side of collecting any royalties that might be owed to you. It bears pointing out (though it’s well understood at this point) that only artists with billions of streams are seriously profiting from a streaming service, which pays out percents of a penny per stream. The same math that keeps terrestrial-commercial radio from playing extreme music is at work here: the biggest metal bands you’ve ever heard of get (roughly) a fifth of the streams of the top pop artists, and therefore less of the overall market share.
If anything on the web has replaced real time streaming radio, it’s curated playlists on the streaming services. Listeners don’t get the charm of a local DJ but they can see the songs, play through, shuffle or pick and choose. In the hands of a good curator with a recognizable name and frequently updated, a playlist can scratch the itch for new music, and endorse the listeners taste with the bonafides of the curator. Not surprisingly, a certain streaming service has found ways to use playlists to avoid paying artists (read Rolling Stone’s 2019 article on Spotify’s fake artists), and a host of dubious services offering to get you placed have popped up, but if you do manage to get placed on a playlist with an audience, you might see a bump in your plays, engagement and sales.
We’ve really only scratched the surface of what is available to the entrepreneurial musician on the internet. It remains one of the few media outlets that is still open enough to allow for experimentation and innovation. Perhaps a young listener in a kitchen in San Francisco won’t ever again hear a song on a beat up Panasonic FM/AM radio and become a metal fan; but just maybe one of the songs you create will be heard on GimmeRadio or a YouTube channel by a young person with open ears who will carry on the next generation of extreme music.
Things to check out:
Internet Radio Stations
Internet Radio Station Directories
Getting paid for radio play
Other things mentioned or sourced