I'm sitting at Cherrywood Coffeehouse about 15 minutes from where all the action is happening in downtown Austin. The conference portion of the SXSW festival wrapped up yesterday, but there are a few musical hangover brunches happening around the city. I ended up here at around noon with my crashing pad buddy and got to see a teenage punk wonderband from Vermont, The Snaz, playing for families of toddlers and dogs. The band members' parents traveled down with them and we got to talking about how these kids could not see any music at the festival they were performing at. They even got kicked out of the club after they finished their official showcase. WTF Austin?! For another post.
I traveled about 20 blocks north to the legendary Carousel Lounge of Dazed and Confused fame to check out the Sunday afternoon showcase of the rockabilly-punk-rock-Jerry-Lee-Lewis inspired Low Cut Connie - who I caught a few weeks ago when they played The Echo in LA and was mesmerized enough to buy their shirt and vinyl. The hard rock, British two-piece, God Damn, were melting faces of the crowd within spitting distance when I arrived. A true punk club. I'm now drinking an Austin Beerworks IPA with my noise canceling headphones on (I'm so cool!), nestled in a booth straight out of the 50s with a dime operated jukebox at my table.
"Public Relations, Public Radio & Music" panel at SXSW
Yesterday, was one of the better panels of the festival (save for the ones I was on of course!) put together and moderated by Dmitri Vietze, CEO of StoryAmp and Rock Paper Scissors. It included NPR heavyweights: The Director of All Things Considered, Monika Evstatieva, Associate Producer of Morning Edition, Vince Pearson, and the creator/host of All Songs Considered and The Tiny Desk Concert series, Bob Boilen.
They explained the best practices for getting music played on NPR.
For those of you international readers who don't know what NPR is - it's the American equivalent to the BBC for the most part. Morning Edition is the 2nd most popular show on the radio behind Rush Limbaugh. All Things Considered is the 3rd most popular show on the radio. Each get just about 13 million listeners a week with over 1,000 member stations around the country.
The point they kept hitting over and over again, is YOU MUST HAVE A STORY. This is something I've been reiterating over and over and over and over again. And I'm glad to see I'm not completely off base here.
Boilen explained that when he was the music director of All Things Considered he always "made the assumption that the person listening to this music is going to hate it. And if you work from that premise then you have to some way tell a story and give [the listener] a reason to understand why this person makes the music they make and why they've chosen this path in life. You might hate the music... BUT you understand why they're playing that music."
"There has to be a story that any person can get excited about whether or not they like the music" - Vince Pearson, Associate Producer, Morning Edition, NPR
Pearson said that in the last 3 years the staff has gotten "a lot more disciplined" and that if they just did a story on, say, Tuvan throat singing, they're not going to do another for a little while. In addition, they are trying to bring more diversity to the music lineup and are trying to "break out of that box" of what most people think of NPR. Pearson revealed, "we want to be surprising, interesting and relevant." They want to get away from what people think of the kind of music NPR plays.
"We know that we will become obsolete if we don't change. If we constantly serve the same audience with the same content those people will eventually...um... die. And then there will be no one to listen to NPR" - Monika Evstatieva, Director, All Things Considered, NPR
Evstatieva is working hard to bring in diverse talent to appeal to new audiences. She's personally spoken with Killer Mike and T-Pain - artists Robert Siegle or Melissa Block might not seek out to speak with on the show.
"If you have an idea of what Morning Edition Is, We're Trying To break out of that box" - Vince Pearson, Associate Producer, Morning Edition, NPR
How Does The Programming Work
There are many different kinds of stories that will feature music on NPR. Evstatieva places instrumental music for the transitions on All Things Considered and includes all of the music that gets used on a Spotify playlist. All music on All Things Considered, of any kind, goes through her. Good person to know.
There are (I think - they whizzed through this and used a bit of radio jargon I did not understand, but...) 5 different kinds of music pieces that can be featured on NPR: Host interviews, "Music Moments" where the producer might interview the artist and then give that interview to the host, A story by the host, a story by a reporter or Bob Boilen might come in to All Things Considered to talk about an artist he's passionate about.
Passion was another recurring theme of the panel. Boilen hit it over and over again proclaiming to the publicists in the room, "we only want the stuff that YOU really care about. I never want to know what you're working. I don't care what you're working. I want to know what you, as a music lover, which is why you're in this business, what you really care about."
Tiny Desk Concerts
The Tiny Desk Concert was started by Bob Boilen in 2008. Boilen got the idea to do the show when he saw a quiet singer/songwriter at SXSW performing in a loud bar. He remembers "half the audience was watching some football game." He and one of his producers went up to this singer/songwriter after her show and said "we couldn't really hear you. You aught to play Bob's desk." So they invited this singer/songwriter, Laura Gibson, for the first Tiny Desk concert - literally just behind Boilen's desk. Since then, Boilen has hosted 440 Tiny Desk concerts.
Boilen has a rule for Tiny Desk: "Anyone on our staff can pitch an artist...but the rule is that they have to really really really love the artist." Passion is #1.
Boilen just concluded the Tiny Desk Concert contest where bands submitted videos of themselves performing original songs behind desks. Boilen and his team received nearly 7,000 submissions. After the panel, I asked him how the selection process worked and how he could possibly get through all 7,000 entries. He said that the staff split up a bunch of the videos and then narrowed the list down to 100 and gave the judges between 20-100 of the staff picks. In the end, the soulful Fantastic Negrito arose as the victor. Boilen assured me that he didn't read any back stories for the selection, even though Negrito's is pretty incredible.
All Songs Considered
Bob Boilen's show, which he started in 2000, currently gets 522,000 downloads per podcast and over 2 million listeners a month. The show is basically Boilen and Robin Hilton sitting around discussing 6 or 7 songs that they love. "We hit record as two buddies would in a room. We play what we want to play and talk about it," he mused.
Boilen revealed that he never reads press releases. Let me say that again, he never reads press releases! That's not to say that no blogger or radio host does (most do), Boilen does not until after he's fallen in love with the band and maybe needs to look up some facts. The moderator of the panel, Dmitri Vietze of StoryAmp and Rock Paper Scissors PR, was awfully surprised by this - being a publicist who writes the damn press releases this was quite the shocker and probably a bit disappointing. He asked "so what do you do?" And Boilen casually responded, "I listen."
Let that sink in. Someone in the music business actually cares about what you sound like first.
But again, the music is just the starting point. Even if you have an incredible record, if you don't have a great story that the listening audience will respond to, it won't get played.
Vietze pressed on "you listen to everything you get?" Boilen of course can't do that. He estimates he gets 5-7 records an hour. He filters by the old fashioned model - by the album cover! So, good idea to invest a bit of your album budget into a graphic design artist for the cover.
"It's an aesthetic. What you see in that artwork is almost 100% connected [to the music]. You CAN in fact tell a book by its cover" - Bob Boilen, All Songs Considered, Tiny Desk Consert, NPR
Physical Or Download Or Stream
"I no longer care. But I get to downloads faster." - Bob Boilen, All Songs Considered/Tiny Desk Concert Host, NPR
Boilen says he dumps "the interesting looking stuff and the stuff I get from people I trust on my iPhone and I drive home and I make dinner." His drive home is "30ish minutes."
Pearson also listens to music in his car, but he prefers his CD player. If someone sends him a download link he'll actually burn it to a CD so he can listen to it in his car.
"If you send me a stream I won't listen to it. I only listen to CDs." Vince Pearson, Morning Edition, NPR
"You thought you had one thing you had to figure out to get on NPR, it's actually multiple things. It depends on the individual person. You have to understand the program you are pitching." - Dmitri Vietze, CEO, StoryAmp, Rock Paper Scissors
Who To Pitch
There are 25 producers on All Things Considered. The best chance to get on the show is if you get a producer on board. As of now there is no full-time journalist that covers music or full-time reviewer that covers music. So you have to get to the producer or Evstatieva herself, because, again, all music goes through her.
Every show has a director. You can send your music directly to the director or you can get a producer or host on board. Pearson noted, "your main thing is to get it to people. To be effective, a lot of people will send their CD to every single person in the building. And that's a pretty good strategy if you don't really care what show it's going to be on."
He continues that if you DO care what show it's going to be on, then, obviously, send it to that show's director.
And how do you find their mailing address? Well, a quick Google search brought up the contact page which has a form to contact nearly every show in the building along with a physical mailing address if you'd rather go that route. But it's better to find the actual person's email and send a personalized message with their name and (brownie points!) some notes about why you love their show!
Unlike Clear Channel run stations, NPR affiliate stations are free to play whatever they want. So if you want to get your music on your local NPR station, like KCRW in LA, you have to go to them directly. There's no wizard behind the curtain at NPR headquarters in DC pulling the levers, dictating the playlists to the 1,000 affiliate munchkins.
"NBC has affiliates that have to do what 'mom and pop' tell them to do. Our stations are free to do whatever they want. Take any of the programming we make. Or not. It's a loose conglomeration." - Bob Boilen
How To Pitch
Boilen: "Give me a link. I'll stream first, then if I like it i'll download it"
Evstatieva: "Approach us like we're friends. If your email starts with 'Hi Monika' I enjoy it."
Boilen: "Mass emails never work"
Pearson: "If you send me a streaming link I won't listen to it"
Evstatieva: "tweet us a link to a song"
So, as you can see, there's no one way to pitch. Every person has a
different preference. So make it easy for them. Send them options! Best
practice would be to send a CD first, then follow up with an email
including a link to download AND stream (Box.com works best).
An audience member asked at the end how an indie label who none of the hosts, producers or directors know can get their music listened to. The panel advised to just send an email and/or a CD and make the case for why it should be on the show. Boilen also made the point that "It's really important to be listeners [of the NPR show you're pitching]. If you're going to pitch us. Listen."
As an NPR junkie myself, I was giddy sitting in the front row getting this incredible information from people I respect more than most in the entertainment field. KCRW and KPCC are my #1 and #2 presets in my car and as much as I try to keep up with what 'the kids' are listening to on top 40, NPR has been my respite from the chaos of the LA hustle (and traffic). Being a musician in LA the past 5 years has provided lots of excitement, some little victories here and there, accompanied with even more confusion within this crazy industry. It was nice to have the curtain lifted, ever so slightly, for the country's most prestigious radio organization. Now if only I could get Jason Bentley to tweet me back!