A valuable info piece by: Motheo Moleko
On Wednesday 11 May jazz legend Don Laka, after a months-long crusade to get more South African music played on local radio, convinced the SABC to change the quota on all of its radio stations to 90% South African content for a trial period of three months. The change took effect the day after it was announced.
Why now and why so suddenly? That’s anyone’s guess, really. Could be electioneering. Could be altruistic. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is more local content will be played on South African radio than at any time in history. This is a big deal.
While this isn’t a free-for-all for everyone to get their music onto radio, it does present an opportunity for acts who were otherwise at the fringes, due to intense competition, to get their music heard.
So how then do you get your music onto South African radio? Here’s a simplified guide:
Before you even consider submitting
- Ensure you’re a member of performance rights organisation SAMRO …and register every song you publish with SAMRO. Among other benefits, it ensures you earn royalties on radio spins of your music. More info on registration here
- Make sure the music you submit has an ISRC code. An ISRC code is a unique code given to every piece of music published. It makes it easy to track radio plays as well as sales. You can get an ISRC code from RISA or from aggregators like TuneCore and CDBaby when uploading your music to digital retailers.
- Remember the clean versions! While it would be great to live in a country like Germany where music is heard as intended – swear words and all intact – South Africa is not that. Submit only clean versions of your music to commercial stations. If you don’t have clean masters, get clean masters made, and remember to register those songs as standalone records with SAMRO and get unique ISRC codes too.
Bonus tip: It is crucial to already have some buzz with your music before going to radio. If you’ve previously uploaded the song to services like Soundcloud and its racking up decent plays or if you have a community of fans backing you and some decent press behind your work, it’s a good story to go to the radio stations with. Remember, big stations don’t want to take risks, they want to make money, and they make money from engaged listeners. Whatever you can do to prove your record is a sure thing that’s already resonating with the target market only serves your case.
Preparing for submission
With all the ‘legal’ admin in place, it’s time to prepare for submission.
- Make a list of all the stations whose format suits your style of music. Radio is not a free for all. Stations have specific formats – a catch all term for ‘genres and styles of music played’ – they adhere to. It’s unlikely SAFM will ever play AKA and Yanga’s ‘Dreamwork‘, and equally unlikely Ukhozi will play James Blake’s latest bangers. Establish which stations your songs are appropriate for, which radio hosts your songs may resonate with, and make a list of them.
- Establish the station’s submission procedure. Every major station will have specific instructions for music submission. This will include submission addresses, file formats they accept, submission deadlines, and when to expect feedback (if at all). This info is usually a Google search away. Most SABC radio stations have a FAQ page with this info.
You’ll find the info, but here are some links to the main ones:
Bonus tip: Look beyond the major stations when preparing your list! Campus radio, community radio and online radio (even though it’s painfully nascent) are all viable.
The submission process
1) Submit your music in time for your desired week’s deadline.
At most stations music submitted one week will be on the playlist the following week. If you have a strategy around radio releasing your music at a specific time, keep this in mind, but don’t bank on the radio playlisting your song as the main hype.
2) Follow the submission protocol the station advises… and sell yourself!
I strongly advise including an image of the song art (if submitting digitally), links to your bio, and links to any other media that may impress the playlist committee in the event they like your song.
Remember, a big part of the work you do in popular music is selling yourself and selling your story. Nobody wants a lengthy email when they have to go through 100, but leading with two strong lines about who you are and why this song is important with a link to read more is professional and more considerate than just attaching an MP3 with a subject line that says ‘HEAT! This song is lit AF! ???’
Bonus tip: Get someone to check your spelling, grammar, sentence structure and style.
What happens once your music is submitted?
Most major stations have a playlist committee who discuss and select songs that go on the playlist from the crop submitted that week. At the SABC, the claim is all music that’s submitted gets heard, and is therefore considered for playlisting.
Await feedback on your submitted song. You’ll often be contacted directly. This is not promised or guaranteed. In fact many SABC sites say if you don’t hear back from them in 6 weeks(!) consider your song rejected. Look, chances are if you don’t hear back about your song directly or on air within the week it was considered for, it’s been rejected already. Don’t sit on your hands for 6 weeks!
2) Resubmit if rejected
Stations generally have a three strike rule. You can resubmit a song twice more before it gets struck off for consideration. This is really significant. Rejection doesn’t necessarily mean that your music isn’t good enough. It could be that you rap and submitted your track in the same week the new Drake, Cassper, K.O, Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, and Kid X went in for consideration, and even if your song is better than all of their’s, their profile overshadows yours. So resubmit.
I recommend a one to two week gap between resubmissions, in which time try push for online listens and blog coverage of your song to make your story stronger when you do resubmit.
3) Amend if requested
Occasionally, stations will like your song, but it won’t be radio ready in its current incarnation. Take the station’s advice on board for making the song’s structure more radio friendly, and resubmit. Obvs we know this is your art, and you intended for it to be heard the way it is, but this is radio in the age of attention spans too short to even spellcheck tweets.
4) Support your song when it’s accepted
If your song gets on the airwaves, well done! Here comes all the skrilla! Well, only kinda…
Remember, getting onto the airwaves is just winning the heat before the finals. Chances are if you’re making top 40 music – i.e. pop, indie, hip hop, and dance – you’ll be competing against the biggest pop stars on the planet for space.
You would do well to get your core audience to engage with the station by requesting your music, participating in hot or not competitions, and continuing to support your song with other media like videos, etc.
Bonus section: How big players submit their music
No doubt you’re fully aware submitting a faceless record alongside a bunch of other faceless records is something of a lottery, especially if you do not already have a rising or established profile. Unless you have a monster song – and even when you do(!) – your chances of getting your records accepted are slim.
Record labels and independent artists with more money than you and I have teams of people working their music to ensure it gets onto the airwaves. In a radio context, they have one or both of the following key players on the payroll.
1) A plugger
Remember Future’s line ‘really I’m the plug, really I’m the plug?’. Yeah. This person has an already established relationship with the stations, and will do the music submission on your behalf. A good plugger is both a great promoter for you, and a great quality controller for stations, because she’s able to tell and sell your story in person to key people at stations, while the stations trust them to not take on poor clients. They really are the plug.
A plugger isn’t cheap, but few things can change an artist’s life the way radio can, so consider investing in the services of a plugger.
2) A publicist
This person performs a more traditional PR role, with radio plugging being a facet of their business. They too benefit from having industry connections and a reputation that precedes them. Importantly, a publicist is able to tell your story to other media platforms like print and web, and is able to put a strategy together to go in step with your song’s release to radio, which is immeasurably valuable if you’re competing for the big leagues.