Five ways for indie musicians to get their songs played on KCRW [Updated]
Lawrence is in charge of one of the most critical avenues to an independent rock band's success -- getting your songs played on KCRW-FM (89.9).
As the music librarian at KCRW, his job is to dive into the hundreds of albums sent to the Santa Monica station every week and surface a handful of CDs to place on a row of compact wooden shelves in his library. And it is these shelves that the station's 25 DJs and producers turn to to figure out what to play next.
For indie bands, getting their music played on KCRW is a sign of success -- and not just because of the estimated 375,000 people per week who listen to the station's music programming, both online and over the air. That's because the public radio station has a reputation for being a tastemaker, with its fingers on the pulse of independent music trends poised to be the next big thing. It's one reason why music directors in Hollywood troll the station for new music to include in their television shows and movies.
As a result, the station gets anywhere from 200 to 400 unsolicited albums each week. Lawrence listens to every album and makes a record of whether it is added to the library or rejected. Of those, only 30 to 35 albums are chosen.
"I view my job as putting ears to every single record sent to us," Lawrence said. "Anything sent to us gets some amount of attention."
That's a lot more than you can say for just about all the commercial radio stations with 10 times the resources.
Lawrence doesn't want people to think he's the all-powerful magical genie that dictates all the music that airs on KCRW. In fact, the station's DJs are free to play whatever they want. It just turns out that much of what they spin comes from the shelves that Lawrence diligently maintains in the station's library.
"I tend to think of myself rather as a genial Santa Claus-like character who can make a very merry Christmas for some artists," Lawrence said.
We interviewed Lawrence, who has been at KCRW for 17 years and hosts his own show on Sunday nights, and asked him how artists can boost the chances of their CDs ending up on those hallowed shelves, alongside the Dead Weather, Arcade Fire and Massive Attack. Here are his five tips:
1. Make it personal. Don't waste money on fancy folders, glossy photographs and premium packaging. All of that ends up in the trash without so much as a backward glance. Instead, write a personal note and stick it on the jewel case. Address the person by name and say why the music fits with the station's vibe or the show you'd like it to play on. Lawrence recalls seeing a handwritten note from an artist, referencing some songs he played on his show. "They took the time to know me, so I took more time to know them." If it's an album, call attention to its best tracks. "There's no way we can listen to the entire record," Lawrence said. "We tend to sample two or three. So go ahead and recommend a track or two."
2. Get experienced. Prodigies aside, the station prefers to see artists get some experience under their belts before giving them exposure, Lawrence said. Get some gigs. Get mentioned in a music blog. Build a fan base on MySpace, YouTube or Twitter. "When we play a record, we're putting our stamp of approval on it. And we want to make sure the artists are in a position to take it to the next level. We want them to be serious about their careers."
3. Make sure the songs are "radio ready." Don't send tunes that are recorded in a garage with an ambient mike from Best Buy, unless that's part of the sound. "Audio quality is the key," Lawrence said. "When we play our sets, the songs all have to flow together. If your song is thin and skeletal, it will sound underproduced next to the other songs around it that are more polished. It doesn't have to be big or loud. It just has to have good audio quality."
4. Include relevant (and legible) information. What's relevant? Contact name and number, song titles, credits, guest artists and notable producers. It's best to have the information on the jewel case as well as the CD itself, in the event the case gets lost. Drop the elaborate fonts and just make sure what's there is legible. "If I can't read it, I'm not going to play it," Lawrence said.
5. Send a CD. For now at least, the KCRW library is primarily disc-based (it has more than 60,000 CDs and 15,000 vinyl discs). All of the music is digitized, backed up and archived, but the selection presented to DJs is currently CDs stacked on shelves, Lawrence said.
Even digital files sent to the station are burned onto discs, if they make the cut. The problem then is that the disc becomes divorced from the album art that may have accompanied the digital file. And while you're at it, don't bother hand-delivering CDs to the station or stalking DJs. Many of those discs get lost in the shuffle. The most reliable way of getting someone at the station to listen to the music is to send it in the mail. That way, it flows directly into Lawrence's queue. For those who don't know it, the address is: KCRW Music Library, 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90405.
As a reward for reading this far, we have a bonus tip! You can always try to follow up with Lawrence either via e-mail or a phone call. His "office hours" are noon to 3 p.m. every Wednesday. Calls are cut off at 3 sharp, and the hold times might be insane. But if you get him on the phone, Lawrence can personally relay the status of your submission and perhaps why it did or did not make the cut. The number is (310) 314-4640. Alternatively, you can also send him an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Updated, Sept. 9, 2010: We added a quote from Lawrence saying he regards himself as a "genial Santa Claus" rather than the omnipotent "gatekeeperbro" that some may think.
-- Alex Pham
Photo: Eric J. Lawrence, KCRW music librarian. Credit: Alex Pham / Los Angeles Times