Can College Radio Survive the Internet?

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:19

    Despite all the noise and shmoozing, the festival takes place at a time when college radio is fast losing its reputation as the vanguard medium for the promotion of new sounds; the (wildly inflated) expectations of a cultural revolution via the Internet have stolen a lot of college radio's buzz. To make matters worse, record labels have cut back on promotion to college radio. The current consolidation of the industry has put the accountants in command, and instant pop hits, not grassroots artist development, are the order of the day.

    None of this seems to overly concern Alex Ellerson, CMJ's chief operating officer, who says despite the current negative atmosphere at the major labels, "college radio may not be the only game in town, but it is a very integral part in the overall equation of launching an artist." And CMJ's CEO, Robert Haber, counters the notion that the medium's position on the cutting edge is being superseded by cyberspace: "College radio continues to play the role it always has. Pundits always want to jump on the notion of the day. Just remember that for a while they were saying that electronica was the next big thing that would save the industry. The sweeping notions are never all that accurate. When it comes to the Internet and college radio, it's not an either/or situation. The bottom line is that at the present time, for a developing band nothing is more important than college radio."

    On Saturday, the festival hosts MusicNet '99, a daylong symposium devoted to "the convergence of new media and the music industry." Ellerson says he sees cyberspace as a more level playing field on which nonmainstream artists have a shot at getting heard by listeners outside of the traditional commercial hipster cul-de-sacs. "We are very exited by the Web, because it enhances the power of college radio, potentially exposing the broad scope and depth of their programming to a much wider audience," he tells me. "And that is more important than ever given the relaxing of FCC regs that allows further consolidation of commercial radio, making it that much more homogeneous and conservative."

    Still, given Ellerson's attitude about the baneful effects mergers and acquisitions are having on popular culture, it's ironic that along with Ice-T, the other keynote speaker at MusicNet '99 will be Fred Seibert, the president of MTV Networks, whose parent company Viacom just bought CBS, which owns Infinity Broadcasting, whose holdings include more than 160 radio stations. It's hard to imagine that Seibert's address will outline a guerrilla strategy to subvert the trend toward monopoly and conformity that currently characterizes the industry.

    One thing Haber does not predict is that the position of college radio in the overall industry is going to grow significantly in the near future. He sounds a little defensive when he tells me, "The college radio story has never been about unit sales. What it is really about is that it's the only distinct media that involves the kids who are really into finding tomorrow's stars. And where do they go after they graduate? Many go into the recording side of things, and many go into artist relations. College radio has never sold lots of records, but it is where the story begins for an emerging artist. And in that way it's reaching many more people than it can reach by virtue of its antennae."

    Market Saturation It's not like Wind-up Records had a great deal to be worried about. Creed, the label's hit factory, saw its first record, 1997's My Own Prison, sell almost four million copies; it was the first debut album by a band ever to garner four number-one rock radio singles. Moody hard rock apparently had a few fans left. Still, as Syd Schwartz, VP for new media at the label, points out, "When you have a very successful piece of music, there is always the concern of how you fight against your own success. And how do you measure success? Success among an existing fan community, or expanding the base to include new fans? Besides, the 16-year-old who bought the first record is now an 18-year-old, and he has a whole new set of priorities, feelings and interactions with the music he likes."

    So Schwartz left nothing to chance. Massive marketing on the Internet was a given in the strategy to have Creed's new Human Clay dominate the charts after its release on Sept. 28.

    The Net had already been kind to the band on its first outing. "We had airplay in 25 markets, but it was by no means gangbuster airplay. Still, we had sales in every market, and the reason was that we did a very aggressive Internet marketing campaign before the release of the record."

    Schwartz acknowledges that today the Internet "is almost a different medium," and it takes more than a few banner ads to distract the harried Web consumer. Schwartz convinced the label to mount the most massive marketing campaign ever attempted on the Net. Schwartz's strategy was to partner with brick-and-mortar retailers and radio stations, using both their traditional and digitized resources to take the new release to the top of the charts.

    The centerpiece of the plan was to offer a free digital download of the CD's first single, "Higher," to eight music chains (with a combined total of 3200 retail outlets), two pure e-merchants and 160 modern rock stations. Fans can download the track until Oct. 12, when it is replaced by a message telling you to click the "Buy CD" button. To further sweeten the pot, Wind-up offered the participating retailers (including, Best Buy, Tower Records and others) an exclusive track from the album for streaming. The carrot offered to radio stations was a free Creed concert for the station with the highest percentage of listeners who download the single by Sept. 28.

    It's a massive effort, with retailers displaying numerous signs around their stores in an effort to drive consumers to their websites to take advantage of the promotion. Since the single was released three weeks ago, participating radio stations have also been shilling the contest every time they play it. Schwartz calls it a win-win situation "with brick-and-mortar retailers, who have until now had problems attracting consumers to their sites."

    As of last week, Creed's upcoming shows in New York, Boston and Chicago are sold out, and "Higher" is number one on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. The other big labels are watching the progress of the campaign as Wind-up prepares to ship an initial 1.5 million units to the stores. Schwartz's brainchild may well become the prevailing model in the industry.