Every once in a while I think back to my stint as a radio promotions manager at a Christian record label in Nashville. It’s a job that, although somewhat important in your radio-listening experience, is one that most people probably don’t even realize exists. Basically I would call or email every radio station each week and try to get them to play the current singles by the artists on our label. I only worked at the label for two years, which is nothing compared to the others I know in the field doing the same thing, but it’s a slice of my life that left a strong impact.
The hardest part for me was hearing the music director at a radio station say “No.” I knew it was never personal but it always killed me a little bit because I believed so much in the music the label was putting out at the time. I never had to fake it and I genuinely liked and listened to (and still do) what we were promoting. What was hard for me was they were saying no to people I genuinely cared for, musicians who really were at the top of their game. I still get a little sad when a song pops up in my iPod that I thought was going to tear up the charts but never did for one reason or another. (I realize this makes it sound like we never got any airplay but that’s far from the case. We did have some nice success with some songs I really loved, but like Jerry Seinfeld once said, he could have 999 people laughing, cheering, and applauding but the only one he’ll remember after the show is the 1 person who just sat there. Why do we do that?).
Despite how much fun I had at the label and how many close friends I made whom I still keep in touch with today, there’s one memory that always bubbles to the surface that to this day I still find unsettling/surprising/disappointing. I was on the phone with the rep from a pretty big station in the South. They were a heavy hitter and they knew it and it was always really difficult to get them on the phone (even when I called during their designated “tracking hours”). When I would finally catch him, he always talked to me like I was wasting his time and wasn’t worthy of actually speaking to him. This behavior always sort of puzzled me, especially since the songs they were playing were the ultra-cheesy, snooze-inducing cookie cutter songs most people who don’t listen to Christian music think of when they think of listening to Christian music.
One day I finally caught the music director while he was in his office taking calls and I asked if he’d listened to the new single from (I forget which artist) I had sent to him. He said he had and that it was nice. I asked him if he thought he would be adding it to the station’s music rotation and he responded by asking me how much money the label was going to give him to do so. It threw me for a loop and sort of took me back for a second, mostly because although a lot of listener-supported stations get a lot of exemptions, I was pretty sure payola was still illegal for everyone.
I honestly thought the man was joking, but he wasn’t. I remember telling him all we had to offer was really good music and he simply thanked me and hung up. He never took a call from me again and it was a long time after that before they would play a song by any artist from our label.
That incident still blows my mind today. It’s still incredible to me that someone saw themselves as so big and powerful and influential, they felt it was completely within their rights to be so blatantly…illegal. And douche-y. It poisoned my perception not of the music industry, but of the Christian music industry and I know that’s not fair.
I should point out this was the only station I dealt with to ever do anything remotely like this. The very large majority of the stations I dealt with were very cool people. Still…sometimes it just takes one person to wreck the fun. It’s sort of a bummer that, of all the nice people I dealt with and were kind to me and played our music, that guy is the one I always remember when I look back. I resent that guy not only for denying airtime to some great artists but also for still having such a strong place in my memory.