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Radio Airplay 101 - Airplay vs. Sales

"Sales" is one of the most common goals that people have when they promote their music to radio (second only to "awareness".)

Yes, airplay is the most important force in selling large quantities of CDs (more than 100,000), especially in areas where you cannot play live. But I need to emphasize that the term "selling CDs" does not mean that your phone will start ringing with orders from websites and stores. To cause large sales to happen, you need to contact store buyers. You may get a few web orders, but most of your sales will be retail (about 97 percent of all CD sales are in-person at retail stores.) Your final sales will be a result of (1) your airplay, (2) your distribution (consignment, self, indie or major), and (3) how well you sell when you call the stores. With this in mind, here are some rough airplay-to-sales guidelines...

College radio is the starting point. If your music is playing several times a week on a particular medium or large college station, you can probably sell one CD per week in EACH store that is in the same town that the station is. This is a realistic goal for an artist/label that has not done this before. Labels that HAVE done it before (and do ONLY college radio) top out at around 30,000 units of their best title, and maybe 2000 for their worst, after one full year. But these labels know what they are doing. Your sales will not be this high.

Commercial specialty/mixshow radio, if done by itself, would probably have about the same sales ceiling as college radio by itself. But most labels that are going for "sales" (and not just awareness) do specialty/mixshow and college radio together. Thus, their best titles top out around 20,000 to 40,000, and bottom out around 3,000, after one full year. But remember, they are doing two separate radio campaigns together, and they probably have 3 people doing just the retail sales (full time).

Commercial regular rotation is where the real sales occur, again, provided you have a retail sales team. But to do it properly (meaning, to do the radio and the sales together) is extremely difficult. It is possible, of course, to do commercial regular rotation for just the awareness value alone (i.e., not attempting sales,) but in this article, we are incorporating sales into the concept.

Rock, pop and urban releases on indie labels have the capacity to top 100,000 if distributed by a major, 50,000 if distributed by an indie, 10,000 if self distributed, or 1000 on consignment, after one full year. But these are expensive radio campaigns, ranging from $10,000 to $150,000, and they require a strong effort at retail (3 to 5 full-time people to sell 100,000 units). PR and touring would be nice, too. Other genres, like AAA or smooth jazz, are much more limited in sales, because there are fewer stations and because their listeners buy fewer CDs.

Considering all the above, here are some of the big variables which will determine your final sales (assuming that both the artist and the label are new, and assuming that this is all separate from your web efforts)...

1. Your airplay
2. How much listeners like the music.
3. Radio advertising (an additional cost).
4. How often you call the stores to make a sale.
5. Press
6. Touring
7. The amount of time you spend on the campaign.

Final point: If you don't have someone calling the stores to get them to place an order, your sales will basically be zero no matter WHAT radio you do.

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