Radio Killed the Rock & Roll Stars
In the mid-'90s, Semisonic Shopped Their Single to Top 40 Stations, Answered Idiotic Interview Questions, Played Countless On-Air Jams, and Ended Up Feeling Like They Got Played--Even When Their Album Didn't. In Jacob Slichter's New Book, the Drummer Explains Why.
Daniel Corrigan for City Pages
MCA's goal was to get "Down in Flames" on the radio six weeks or more before the release date of our album--standard procedure. This allows time for listeners to hear a song enough times to get excited about it so that they rush out and buy the album during the important opening weeks of sales. Our album's release date was scheduled for early April, so MCA's target "add-date" of "Down in Flames" was mid-February. (In the world of radio, "add" can be used as both a verb and a noun referring to a song's addition to a station's playlist--for example, "They're adding the song," or "We got the add." The add-date is the day on which the label hopes stations will begin to play a single.)
Two weeks before the add-date for "Down in Flames," we flew to Boston and began a cross-country campaign of station visits, hoping to line up support for our single. Our chaperones for these visits were the MCA promotion staff, the locals. Each of the locals was based in a big city and covered a several-hundred-mile radius of territory. His or her job was to get MCA singles added to the stations in that region. The Boston local was an old pro who covered every station in New England. The San Francisco local was a former DJ who covered a huge swath of terrain all the way to Vegas. As far as I could tell, being a local was miserable work, where most of the day was spent behind the steering wheel, driving to stations, handing off new CDs from MCA's bands, schmoozing with the station bigwigs, and then driving to the next station while answering cell-phone calls from the impatient bosses in Los Angeles.
We met most of these locals at five in the morning. They would pick us up at our motel to drive us to the first station of the day for an interview in an on-air acoustic performance. As we opened our eyes to the predawn light, we'd ride down the vacant highways of some big city and toward a distant radio tower, sipping coffee and eating donuts thoughtfully provided by the local. The local, always one cup of coffee ahead of us, would give us a sketch of what awaited us. "This first station's the big alternative station in town. They haven't added 'Down in Flames' yet, but I'm working on them. This interview is gonna help."
At 5:30 a.m., we'd pull into the station lot and park, often next to a Humvee painted with the station's call letters. Then we'd yawn one last time before following the local through the station doors, past the receptionist, who knew the local by name, and down the hallways. Dan carried his acoustic guitar, and John lugged his electric bass and a small practice amp. I would scan the hallways for an empty water-cooler jug or a wastebasket that I could turn upside down and convert into a makeshift drum for our on-air acoustic performance. After snaking through the hallways to the back of the station, the local held open the door to the broadcast studio and we'd walk in, greeted by a wave from the DJ who was introducing the next song, shuffling CDs, and punching buttons to play and eject them in proper order. Within a couple of minutes, we were on the air.
"We've got some special guests with us this morning, Semisonic from Minneapolis. Dan Wilson on guitar, John Munson on bass, and Jake..."
We had been on the radio in Minneapolis a few times, and having seen Dan and John handle interviewers' questions, I had learned a lot. Being so well acquainted with my bandmates, I gleaned beyond their easy manner a certain delicacy in their answers. For instance, when asked to list our influences, Dan and John never mentioned the Beatles. Though we, like a majority of the musicians we knew, were intimately familiar with everything the Beatles had ever recorded, for interview purposes it was apparently better to name artists less likely to pigeonhole us--Elvis Costello and the Clash, for example. During the next interview, answering the same question, Dan and John might list other influences--Joni Mitchell and the Jam, perhaps--so we wouldn't be too strongly associated with a particular artist, I gathered. Only years later did I discover the truth: What looked to me like carefully managed answers were usually nothing more than random workings of my bandmates' brains.
The interview proceeded. "So, Dan, you guys are up awfully early this morning."
"We're on a whirlwind schedule right now, so we aren't getting much sleep." Whirlwind schedule was good. In reality, we were an unknown band who had actually come to this studio at this awful hour in hopes of ingratiating ourselves to the program director.
"How would you describe your music for our listeners?"
Dan had this answer, too. "Take all the best records in your collection and melt them down into one record."
"Cool. Who are some of the bands that you like?"
John leaned toward the mike. "My Bloody Valentine." A nod to the hipsters.
Dan went next. "Björk." Aha! A smart trumpeting of our pop-star aspirations with an off-center (Icelandic) choice.
"Jake, how about you?"
"Marvin Gaye." A bit conservative, but unassailable. My Bloody Valentine, Björk, and Marvin Gaye--that ought to keep people guessing.
"So you brought your instruments with you. What are you going to play for us?"
The MCA local, knowing the station's musical leanings, had usually suggested a song to us in advance. "This is a song from our album called 'f.n.t.' One, two, three, four..."
We strummed, plucked, whacked, and sang as best we could, given the hour and the quality of the coffee we had just sipped. We were quite good at these on-air performances, something the locals could take advantage of in arranging other station visits. I trained my eyes on Dan, who was notorious for taking early-morning detours around entire verses and choruses, sometimes absentmindedly and other times in the interest of saving his voice. His scowls and smiles were good indicators of how well I had judged the volume of the overturned water jug I was using as a hand drum. Upon strumming the final chord, he would hold his hand in the air to suspend the silence and then lower it to mute the strings, at which point the DJ and the local would applaud--joined by the band members, of course. After all, no one could see us engaging in self-applause.
"Great. That was called 'f.n.t.,' and that's off your new album, Great Divide. When is it coming out?"
The answer was Tuesday, April ninth, but I knew better than to betray such uncool attention to the realm of commerce. "I don't know. Dan? John? In a few weeks maybe?"
"Sounds good. The band is Semisonic, and here's their new single, 'Down in Flames.' Thanks for coming in, guys."
The DJ would punch a button and our first single would play on tens of thousands of radios across town. We packed up our instruments, shook hands with the DJ, and followed the local out of the studio and down the hall, past boxes and cabinets overflowing with station swag--posters, T-shirts, and hats, all covered with the station's logo--to the corner office of the program director.
The program director, or PD, is the most powerful person at a station. He or she decides what songs the station will play and how frequently it will play them. Unlike the old days of rock radio, the DJs have no say in the matter; they play songs only as dictated by the playlist. Requests are largely a fiction. If a DJ says, "Here's a request from Bob in Long Beach," chances are Bob in Long Beach requested a song that, according to the printed-out playlist, was already slotted for imminent airplay.
As far as the airwaves were concerned, the PDs held absolute power. Each station's PD would decide whether or not to play our single, whether to put it into light rotation (ten spins a week) or moderate or perhaps power rotation (thirty spins a week or more). The right PD could "break" us, turning thousands of listeners on to us and thereby launching our album and career. Or, even in the face of building momentum, an influential PD could kill our single by dropping it from the station's playlist, sending our stock plummeting. No wonder that when introducing us to a program director, the MCA locals typically bounced on their toes, smiled too much, and laughed too readily.
Some of the PDs were most welcoming, inviting us on a tour of their stations, embarking on discussions of new music that they found inspiring, and sometimes handing us CDs of bands they thought we would like. Dan and John were a great asset in these cases, for this subgroup of PDs, the music addicts, knew of Trip Shakespeare and enjoyed engaging with two musicians with superior musical literacy and taste. These PDs had a mission: turning the world on to interesting new music, a cause that usually doomed them to program obscure stations with weak broadcast signals and a listening audience that was loyal but small. A commitment to variety meant that their playlists accommodated a greater number of songs, giving fewer spins to each song, and thus they were excited to add Semisonic. They hinted that we should return sometime to play a longer set on the air, and such happy encounters would conclude with the MCA local snapping some pictures of the band and PD, photos that would then be sent off to the radio trade magazines--"Semisonic with WXYZ program director John Doe."
Another subset of PDs shook our hands limply. Just as they had sprinkled us into their playlists, they were equally hesitant to embrace us in person, but they left open the possibility of warmer relations in the future, depending on our success. One undecided PD in Wichita, after hearing our on-air interview--entirely devoted to hockey--said of us, "Kinda cerebral, but I like you." He disappeared before we could pose for pictures.
Most of the PDs, however, were egomaniacs for whom it seemed music was nothing more than the ammunition in the all-important ratings war with rival stations. Their connection to our music had been reduced to gauging the effects of "Down in Flames" on listeners. Their playlists were short--lots of spins for the proven hits and no room for anything else. Their bulletin boards were covered with updates on the on-air sports car giveaways and in-person appearances by the DJs at the local shopping mall. How depressingly predictable it was that these stations enjoyed the highest ratings.
The PDs who ran these stations had not added "Down in Flames." Nor would they grant us on-air interviews. One morning in Houston, the MCA local took us to visit two stations, neither of which was playing our single. At the first station, we had been refused an interview, but the PD allowed us to perform three songs for him and his staff in a conference room. The applause was restrained; no employee dared applaud too heartily and undermine the verdict of the glowering PD. After an icy good-bye, we drove to a second station, where again the PD refused to let us be interviewed on air. Furthermore, he refused to let us play for the station staff. The local pleaded with him and negotiated a compromise: We took our instruments into a coffee-break room and played for three secretaries as they ate pizza.
The PDs who liked us always invited us to record a few station IDs for future use. An engineer led us to a small studio and handed us a printout from which we read.
"Hi, I'm Dan."
"And I'm Jake."
"We're Semisonic, and you're listening to Mary Lucia on Rev One-O-Five."
In addition to call letters and a frequency, most stations have a moniker such as "The River" or "Drive 105" and perhaps a slogan: "Where the music never stops." I noticed that some stations in different cities used the same nickname--"The Edge," for example. The locals informed me that this was because those far-flung stations used a common programming consultant, someone who advised the various program directors on song selection and station image. The number of people who decided whether or not our song would be played was frightfully small.
After recording the IDs, we'd wait on the couch in the lobby as the local finished business with the PD, perhaps talking about other MCA records. I'd sift through the magazines on the coffee table and pick a copy of Hits, a tip sheet for industry insiders full of columns promoting various songs and bands, and advertisements taken out by record companies to tout a particular single's early successes--"Most added at alternative last week." By contrast, the full-page ad MCA had taken out for "Down in Flames" included a picture of the band and a short list of stations playing the song.
Sometimes I'd get up to look at the gold and platinum records hanging on the wall of the lobby. These giant thank-you cards from record labels consisted of a framed picture of an album cover and a gold or platinum LP or CD. (Multi-platinum award plaques often display several platinum CDs, one for each multiple of one million records sold.) "Presented to WXYZ in recognition of sales of over two million copies of 'Siamese Dream.'" Finally, the local and the PD would emerge, the PD with station shirts draped over his arm: "Here, guys."
"Thanks." I didn't dare refuse a station's shirt, no matter how cheesy it looked. We'd hit two coffee shops and three stations before lunch. When the second and third DJs asked us the same questions, we'd twist the old answers into new ones. Our favorite locals would reward a good morning's work with lunch at a nice restaurant. "What do you guys feel like? French? Italian?" I always thanked the locals for lunch, and then one day it occurred to me...
"Dwayne, that's a corporate Amex, right?"
"And you write 'Semisonic' on the credit-card slip, and that gets billed to our recoupable account, right?"
"So really, shouldn't you be thanking us for lunch?"
Copyright © 2004 by Jacob Slichter. From the book So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star by Jacob Slichter, published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
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