I wish I knew how to quit you.
There are a few topics that I feel like I’ve killed and buried, but they keep coming back from the dead like hip-hop Freddy Kruegers. I thought I had put the nail in the coffin of the term “mixtapes” two years ago, and yet here I am, explaining why Chance’s new album isn’t a mixtape. And I thought I had explained that mainstream radio stations are just extensions of the major labels months ago, and yet I still get indie artists constantly complaining to me that, for example, Hot 97 isn’t playing their music.
So one last time, let’s break this down to the basics.
Let’s start by setting aside any idea that mainstream radio has any “obligation” to play and support local, independent artists. There’s a conversation to be had there, but this isn’t that conversation. This is a conversation about the simple, hard realities of how the business is run, and make no mistake, the songs that get played on mainstream radio are all about business. Business can be cold, but at least it’s direct. Does it make money? Answer that question and you’ve cracked the code.
What bothers me is the lies and half-truths, when people like Ebro Darden, Hot 97’s former program director and the public face of the station, claim that indie artists aren’t being played because they’re not “hot” enough, or they need to “get their buzz up.” The simple truth is that no amount of “hotness” or buzz really matters if you’re not signed to a major and your song is testing well with audiences. Period. Deal with it. Thinking anything else is to give yourself false hope, and false hope can be too expensive for an indie artist to afford.
I hate to focus on Ebro and Hot 97, he’s just one person at one radio station when this applies to every radio station in the country, but credit due, he’s made himself into the Death Star of hip-hop radio, the unavoidable force drawing (nearly) every conversation about mainstream radio into his gravitational pull. That’s why it’s been so interesting being able to compare and contrast the music he plays on Hot 97 and the music he plays on his Beats/Apple Music radio show. Comparing the freedom he has at those two respective outlets says it all. As he said himself in a recent Billboard interview:
Billboard: How do your shows on Hot 97 and Beats 1 differ?
Ebro: The songs we play on Hot 97 are researched; we know they’re popular…But [musically] at Beats, I’m going to take more risks and play underground records and artists you never heard of because that’s why you’ve opted in to that service.
Billboard: What brought you to Beats 1?
Ebro: They actually came and asked me. They didn’t really have to sell me; I’ve been in radio a long time and I know people at the top of the organization, so it was a matter of me wanting to extend what I do at Hot 97 and also be able to curate music and get involved with breaking new artists.
Hey, indie artists with dreams of getting your music played on a mainstream radio station, what else do you need to hear? The man himself just broke it down for you. With the exception of some special programming, almost always played during off peak hours, the idea that mainstream radio DJs have any say in the music they play is hopelessly outdated. If you want to hear that en fuego new banger you just made played during rush hour on Hot 97, or Power 106, or V103, or any other big station in a major market, you need to sign to a major label, and then your song needs to test well with audiences. Otherwise, it’s not happening for you. It’s a strict formula, and there aren’t deviations.
You don’t need to believe in a conspiracy theory to believe that, just take a look at Hot 97’s most recently posted playlist for the week (from 5/12 to 5/18). Chance the Rapper just dropped the most talked about album in the country last week, do you see his name anywhere? You’re telling me a record like “No Problem” with Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz wouldn’t work on radio? What more could he possibly do to get his “buzz up” or “get hot” than he is now?
And on the flip-side, Ebro could play an hour straight of nothing but Chance the Rapper on his Beats 1 show, which isn’t beholden to any advertising money, if he wanted. True, the rare indie artist occasionally does slip through the cracks of radio’s major label-dominated formula, but even those rare exceptions often turn out to be false flags. Hot 97’s playing the shit out of Young Greatness’ “Moolah” record right now, and he’s so new you might assume he’s indie, but he’s actually got a deal through QC/Capitol Records. Radio couldn’t stop playing Macklemore about a year ago and while he wasn’t full on “signed” to a major, he had a side deal with Warner that allowed him to access their radio promotions arm. In fact, the surest way to guess who’s secretly signed to a major label is to look at the radio play they are, or aren’t, getting.
Honestly, I don’t particularly care about what hip-hop that mainstream radio plays. I don’t even own a radio anymore outside my car, and I’m far from alone. What I care about are all the indie artists who come to me complaining that radio won’t play their shit, the artist I see pay money to have promoters service their songs to radio, who have their eyes solely fixed on mainstream radio as the thing that’s going to blow them up, when there’s a snowball’s chance in hell of it ever happening. All that energy and money would be better spent on almost anything else. Like, for example, buying your beats so you can get a publishing deal, or actually mixing and mastering you music.
I don’t have to play the radio game. I tried to play it. I spent $1.6 million pushing four singles off of the Absolute Power album. If I had to do it all over again, I would take every dime of that money back, tell all those dudes who took my money to fuck off, and do something totally different with the money. I would’ve been in the streets giving away samplers, I would have done a variety of different promotional ideas, and I would’ve spent the money touring. – Travis O’Guin, Strange Music CEO in a HipHopDX Interview
So indie artists, mainstream radio’s not playing your shit. Point blank. Period. Stop thinking about it, stop complaining about it and especially stop making “radio ready” singles that have a zero percent chance of actually getting played on the radio. But as much as I’d like to hope this issue’s now settled, something tells me I’ll be back here again.
By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter. Image via HOT 97.