kory cook sees thousands of cds a year as assistant music director for kut public radio in austin. i asked him to write a little about what advice he might give for folks sending him music and what he thinks about the whole deal.
When banjo-master, string-wizard, songwriter/composer and all-around cult-hero musician extraordinaire Danny Barnes asked me to compose a piece/blog/article for his site, I was suddenly overtaken with the simple question of where to start. So thanks for pushing my mind to work harder, Danny. You’re always reliable for getting the creative juices-a-flowin.’ Here goes…
What should an artist/musician keep in mind and do to have his or her music be heard on the radio airwaves and introduced to listeners of both non-commercial and commercial radio entities?
Since the first known radio broadcast transmission in 1906 (with the exception of satellite and internet radio), many of the greatest musicians and performers alive or dead never had the pleasure of hearing their recorded works played in any consistent rotation on the radio. I counted on one hand how many times the altruistic improvisations of saxophone preacher and jazz legend Albert Ayler have aired on any American radio station in the past year. 1! Meanwhile, countless punk rock and American garage bands that helped fuel rock-n-roll and pop music as we know it today are either deemed too offensive or too loud or too….whatever. Even the otherwise “popular,” oft-offensive genius of classical and rock composer Frank Zappa still has no place in commercial radio. Okay…maybe “Montana” might pop up somewhere on the classic rock FM dial late on a Sunday night, but that’s about it for Frank. He probably wanted it that way though, and that’s a different story.
Radio is driven by ratings and ad sales and plagued by competition without creativity, listener demands, enormous egos, nepotism, extreme disparity with exorbitant salaries vs. people who work for nothing, spin, cheaters, whores, fat white guys, Joe 6-pack, bad breath and a whole slew of other rotten little items that have nothing to do with your beautiful music, so forget about impressing anybody at a radio station and just play. Then record it..cause we wanna hear it!
To avoid the issue of commercial radio and hit records dominating the charts while pushing and shoving out anyone’s chance of being heard on the air, we’ll focus on non-commercial radio as it is in respect to the artist. I happen to be very lucky that I’m part of a radio station (KUT 90.5 FM in Austin, TX) that promotes the musician’s personal, creative endeavors and not so much record or ad sales. Although, as the Assistant Music Director of one of the nation’s leading public radio stations I am partly in the business of selling records. In this ever-changing shift in the economy and technology, it’s simply unavoidable. We keep the music business alive, but many of you have still never heard of public radio. Again, that’s another story. As a musician and radio programmer, I’m aware that artists know there must be a place somewhere for their music to be heard, but your local commercial radio station isn’t hearing it because they’re too busy looking at a selector computer screen with a list of the same 25 artists in heavy rotation.
1. Play what you know:
Play what you know! I don’t mean for you to ignore growing technically on your instrument. But find your roots, think about them and embrace them. I may want to be the next Max Roach on the drum kit, but I’m not black, nor did I grow up listening to jazz. As a matter of fact, I didn’t hear my first jazz recording and fall in the love with the fat, trumpet blast of Dizzy Gillespie until I was 16. By that time, The Kingsmen, The Rascals, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Ramones were already swirling around my head like some cosmic electric hydra monster let loose. So now when I crank out a song with a group of musicians playing and recording music in the vein of what I grew up listening to, the nuance is there and I know I’m where I’m supposed to be creatively. Then as I grow to learn more about other forms, ideas and theories of music, my music grows with it. This may all sound more like instructions on how to approach your art rather than what you bring to a radio station, but the point is that your finished product and the music you ultimately present to a radio station should be a reflection of yourself and your music and not something specifically designed for a radio programmer, hence….
2. Don’t tailor your music for radio:
I hear it on a regular basis. A CD comes in the mail representing a fresh new artist with great pipes, hot looks and some of the best studio musicians in the world behind them. But suddenly, forgetful and predictable lyrics with a formulaic, almost strategic, song structure painfully designed for radio vomits through my speakers. You know who you are. And you may be a star in some circles…for a week or two…with an ethic like that, but your musical integrity has thus been violated and in short, you just wasted your money and everyone’s time.
3. The right producer – maybe it’s you!
Find a producer that likes and understands what you’re doing. An experienced and highly-paid producer/engineer can tweak the knobs, sail the faders and give you something sonically pleasing, but it may not be to your specifications until it’s too late. Or you’ll have what you want, and the next day you’re confused because your recording sounds completely different from when you left the night before. A producer already familiar with your work will work with you and help guide the process of recording. Then mix and master that thing. Spend a few days, a few weeks, or a few months with it. In some instances, a more lo-fi recording may represent a particular artist’s style. So be sure your abstract concept is somehow conveyed through your art, so as not to have your recording dismissed as unfinished or “unmastered” for the airwaves.
Best case scenario: You and/or your band produce a competent recording.
See Thurston Moore: google.com
4. Presentation and follow-up: Album art / Press packet
It sounds meaningless in terms of ‘the music,’ but I have 126 CDs stacked on my desk as I write, still waiting to be heard, and you have to grab my senses if I’ve never heard of you. That orange-yellow colored slip cover with the giant cartoon robot eating a slab of vinyl will probably get my attention first before your common name typed onto a white piece of paper complete with arial-font typed track list.
Case in point: Russian Balalaika master and former Red Elvis Zhenya Kolykhanov sent me a CD with the name “ZEEGRASS” lazily emblazoned in red magic marker across the white sleeve. No track list! “What the hell is this?” I asked myself. Then I sat it by my phone and forgot about it for a week. Zhenya called a few days later to ask me if I had heard it yet. “No, but I’ll get to it.” I calmly stated. He said thanks and hung up. 5 minutes later I popped it in the CD player. In an instant I recognized the dexterity, virtuosity and highly original music of Zhenya. I called him back instantly to book him for a live performance in Studio 1A, to which he casually agreed, although it was past his official CD release. Today, I make music with Zhenya when he’s looking for a drummer and Pat Mastellatto can’t make the gig. I often look back on my judgment and initial passing of his material and think if artists just took the time to ponder presentation and the overall impression of what they want their recording to “look” like, it could help get the attention of programmers flooded with reviewing everyone’s creation. And follow-up calls don’t hurt either, obviously. Just don’t do it too often or I’ll never call you back.
One-sheets droning on with meaningless adjectives, lame/drawn-out descriptions and producer/sideman name-dropping doesn’t impress me. I don’t care if you hired the guys from Radiohead or Tom Waits himself to produce your record. Nor will it turn my head around to learn that you paid Roger McGuinn or local string-king Lloyd Maines to make your record sound better. Your song, if not the entire album, could still lack quality. And for godssakes, if I see another picture of a band grimacing in front of a brick wall or on the hood of a car my teeth’ll start to hurt.
5. Finally, ask yourself what’s missing?
What’s missing in your local clubs or on your local radio dial? What’s the sound that’s being deprived from the ears and minds of your relentlessly energetic children, teenage degenerates, jazz snobs, senior swingers, cowboys, patriots and anyone else capable of enjoying music on any level? Maybe you think there’s a lack of indie-pop bands with distorted keyboards, lyrics about the end of the world and a cheerleader horn section? So do that! Maybe you think there are too many Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan or Beatles wanna-bes still on the radio today. So do something different! Then ask yourself why anyone would want to hear the music that you’re making? Maybe you can’t come up with the answer and would prefer to subject your art to passers-by in a bus station or on the street corner. That’s kind-of-cool too, and not such a bad idea. But questioning your motives will at least begin to help guide you in the right direction of where your music will eventually be heard.
One man’s scrumptious, thick, and hearty gravy is another man’s slop. Remind yourself that music is the universal language, therefore it is understood and appreciated on multiple levels. What I deem as essential to one’s record collection could be considered garbage and a waste of recording tape, even to another self-described music aficionado. Such is the nature of criticism. Just believe in yourself. The music will follow.
here's a short bio on kory:
Kory Cook lives, works and plays the drums in Austin, TX. He holds two bachelor’s degrees in Broadcast Journalism and English, respectively, from Oklahoma State University. He’s earned a certificate of music performance from the Drummer’s Collective in New York City. He’s recorded and performed with the Sons of Hercules since 1997. He’s also recorded and performed with, Jeff “Monoman” Connelly (DMZ, The Lyres), Jesse Sublett and Jon Dee Graham as the Skunks, Dave Bone and the Troublemakers, Todd Snider and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.