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Radio Airplay 101 - Maximizing Your Billboard Airplay Charting, part 1 of 2

New for 2014: Since almost all music sales, and almost all ticket sales, come from the weekly "listens" from commercial regular rotation radio in the U.S. (meaning, no matter how much social media exists, no large quantity of actual sales occurs without commercial regular rotation radio), most artists and labels hope to achieve "charting" on Billboard. This is fine if you select the proper chart, at the proper level, and promote to it with the proper intensity. It's not easy or cheap, even when set up properly, and the reason for this is that it gets so many weekly "listens" concentrated in certain cities and towns (which is exactly what you need to sell large quantities of music or tickets) that labels put almost all their effort into it. So you will need to also. The more listens you want, the harder and more expensive it gets.

The first thing to do is make sure you are looking at a "radio only" Billboard chart; you don't want the charts that are a mix of radio, retail, online, etc. because they are even more difficult than radio-only charts. Get the radio going first, and the other things will follow much much more easily. Choose one of the radio-only charts from here:

Let's use the Top 40 (pop) chart as an example since it's the first one. Click on it and it will take you to the Billboard / Nielsen / BDS chart for "Mainstream Top 40 National Airplay". Yes this is the same Nielsen that does TV show ratings; they bought the radio ratings in 2013 for one billion dollars, because commercial radio listenership is at an all time high in history in the U.S. in 2014

The first big thing is to decide, is how many weekly listens you will need. When building a restaurant, this is like deciding how many customers you want to serve each day, which determines how large of a place you will need. Weekly listens is the column on the right hand side that says "Audience" and "Millions". It is usually a number like 80.488 which means that this week, the song got over 80 million listens, and this does not include any non-Billboard stations, non-USA stations, or any web stations. Now scroll down and watch as the weekly listens (Audience, Millions) gets smaller and smaller until you get to the end of this chart. What you just looked at is called the "monitored chart", meaning that the radio stations are listened to by Billboard / Nielsen / BDS, and the chart is made up of what is heard. Of course we are talking here about real plays, and not the fake plays / reports / tracking that many airplay promoters sell by just changing the html code from a major artist report.

Note that after each week, the number resets to zero, and it then starts counting again the following week; there is no carry-over of listens from the previous week to the next week. Also note that the number of weekly listens ("Audience" and "Millions") is different than the number of weekly plays. The number of plays is not as important as the number of listens, but interestingly, Billboard ranks these charts by plays instead. One play on a major station might give you 30,000 listens, but on a small station it might give you 300 listens (of course, a Youtube, Pandora, Itunes or Spotify play only gets one listen). Thus it's the weekly listens that control everything.

Now scroll down a few more sections to the "Mainstream Top 40 Indicator Chart". Make sure it says "Indicator". Again look on the right hand side for the "Audience" and "Millions" column; it usually says something like 3.205 which means that this week, the song got over 3 million listens, and this also does not include any non-Billboard stations, non-USA stations, or web stations. Yes, it's a lot fewer weekly listens, especially as you scroll further down that chart, but it's a lot less costly to get. This Indicator chart that you just saw is called a "non-monitored" chart, meaning that the radio stations are not listened to; instead the chart is made up of what the station say that they played.

So, how do you decide how many weekly listens you need? Well, one way might be to look at the artists who are currently charting, and see what level of gigs and sales they are getting, and on what size label. Then try to do what they did. Keep in mind that you'll need to look at the "peak" charting that they got, and not just the charting "this week", because the current chart might just be on the way up, or down. Many artists and labels live their entire lives in the middle or lower positions, and do just fine there sales wise, especially when they can repeat it over and over, with artist after artist, year after year.

Stations start associating your label with something that is going to do well; they can't do this on just your first or second promotion, because most first or second promotions for most new artists disappear afterwards. So you want to choose a level that is repeatable, several times per year. This is much better than doing a big promotion for just one time. You'll also find that on repeat promotions, the same stations will come on first; these become your "go to" stations, otherwise known as your "hot spots" or key cities. These stations, and the listeners in those cities and towns, become your true fans over time, and is where you'll be asked to do most of your gigs (and you'll get the most money there too).

The next big thing to decide on, of course, is how much budget you will be putting behind your radio. You never want to do just a single promotion for anything, and this certainly applies to radio. At the very least, a new artist (you are probably new to these stations/listeners) should have a budget to cover three singles over the course of a year. Any less, and the stations start forgetting about you and not taking you seriously. By the end of your first year, when the same stations are now playing your third song, they will start taking you seriously and that will change everything for your music and your label.

If you don't have the budget to do three songs in the first year, then change your goals from "sales" to "attention". As soon as you remove "sales" from your goal, things get much easier, because you no longer need three songs in your first year, and you no longer need to hold a chart position for a certain number of weeks, and you no longer care if you only get overnight (lunar) plays, and you won't even be bothered if the plays are scattered among many small stations and not concentrated in cities. Instead, you can just make a "blip" on the Indicator or Monitored chart, and then print this chart out and use it to convince others to give you the things you need for your marketing (like, more budget).

Hopefully it's obvious, but you'll want to stay in the same genre/format the whole time, which means you'll want to target the same chart every time. It's hard enough to get the same stations (and thus the same fans in the same cities) to support you each time; don't go making it harder by changing things around. So if you are lucky enough to have the budget to do more than the minimum three songs on the same chart for your first year, don't go spending it on other formats. Instead, increase your promotional level of the current chart, so as to increase the number of weekly listens. There is no maximum level of promotion that you can do, unless of course you are at #1, but even then you can still increase the plays and listens even more. Or you can add a fourth and fifth song to your year, so that a new song is promoted more often. This works great in the hot-selling formats like pop and urban.

In the next article we'll cover how to do the promotion so as to get the listens you need.

Next topic: Maximizing Your Billboard Airplay Charting, part 2 of 2

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