I’m always stunned, slack-jawed, big-eyed and stupid when a person chooses to do what obviously won’t work. I stand there in a daze, awed by the fact that Jesus can love such idiots as the human race. Maybe I overreact.
My first big-eyed moment happened when I was 21 years old. I was a sales rep in a radio station back before we learned to call ourselves Account Executives. Yes, I’m talking about the really old days. Cell phones didn’t exist. If you needed to make a call, you dug in your pocket for a quarter and looked around for a phone booth. There were no such things as CD players or the internet. The only way for the public to hear new music was on the radio.
Radio stations played black vinyl circles with grooves cut into them. A diamond needle on a mechanical arm would ride the groove and its vibrations are what created the music. You’ve probably seen this on the Flintstones.
My desk at the radio station faced a window that looked into the parking lot. About once a week I’d see a band show up in their finest show-clothes and walk toward our door with hope shining from their faces like Christmas morning. The leader would carry the band’s privately produced album like it was the Ark of the Covenant, a disc with the power to spin them into superstars at thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute.
They imagined themselves greeted by a receptionist with a beaming smile. “My!” she would say, “You’re obviously an important, up-and-coming band. I can tell by your impressive show-clothes. Let me get the person in charge of the radio station so he can officially discover you.”
Curious and hopeful, I'd always walk down the hallway to see their pitch.
Our receptionist was as polished as a teller in a drive-thru bank. You could almost see the bulletproof glass. “I’m sorry but he can’t see you right now… No, you’ll need to leave that with me. If he likes it he’ll give you a call… Yes, I promise I’ll give it to him personally.”
And that would be the end of it.
Unless… I liked these people. In those rare cases I would follow them into the parking lot and say, “Did you bring another one of those with you?”
In a wink I was surrounded by wide eyes and white teeth. Christmas morning had returned and I was Santa Claus. It was scary. “Do you work for Love 98 FM?” they’d ask.
“No, I work for their AM sister station.”
An album would magically appear in my hands and a voice would say, “What’s your format? We do all kinds of music. We’ve got slow songs, fast songs, rock songs, country songs, ballads, you name it. What kind of music do you play?”
“My station doesn’t play music but I can still help you.”
Disappointed and suspicious they would look at me as if Santa had said, “I didn’t bring you any toys this year.”
And then I would tell them how to get the attention of every radio station in America.
“The person who chooses the music is called the Program Director. And all along the baseboard of his office are stacked at least 2,000 unsolicited record albums he plans to evaluate as soon as he has time. Each album has 10 songs. Finding a hit in that pile of 20,000 songs will be like looking for a needle in a haystack. And to make matters worse, privately produced albums have covers that always look a little bit homemade. This creates an expectation of low-budget sound. And guess what? That’s exactly what he hears when he drops the needle. Ten seconds into the first song, he lifts the needle and the party’s over. The album goes back into the jacket, never to be seen again.”
Now they’re looking at Santa like he kicked their puppy.
I had been told I lacked people skills but I plunged ahead, “Unsolicited albums are added to the stack along the baseboard but 45 RPM singles get a needle dropped on them immediately, especially when they’ve got the same song on both sides. A 45 RPM single says to the Program Director, ‘Somebody really believes in this song.’ And singles are packaged in plain paper sleeves so there’s no cover art to prejudice his opinion.”
I’m doing this because I want to help these people, remember? So I’d always tell them, “Pick your best song and pull out all the stops. Hire an arranger and a producer. Pay studio musicians to play those little accent parts that turn good songs into great ones. A high-budget single costs less money to produce than a low-budget album.”
We’d stand there in awkward silence until one of them broke the stillness. “You’re an idiot,” the voice would say, “With an album we’ve got 10 chances to get airplay but with a single we’ve only got one chance.” And then they’d climb in the van and drive away while I stood there in the parking lot, dumbfounded.
Not once did they ever say, “Wow. Thanks for caring enough to share that with us.”
I knew the bands were delusional. I just never realized that I was, too.
Strangely, I never quit advising people. In fact, I made a career of it.
But a good friend told me something that has saved everyone a lot of pain. “Unsolicited advice is abuse,” he said. So I no longer offer unsolicited advice.
And just to play it safe, I no longer try to help musicians.
Roy H. Williams
PS – I no longer help musicians but I will help you.
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