From his humble beginnings as a high school aged intern at a radio station in Albuquerque, Chris Chicago has now grown into a jack-of-all-trades powerhouse in the world of electronic air waves – host at Hype Radio, the number one syndicated Christian hip-hop show in the world with over 140 FM stations across the planet. And he doesn’t stop there. He’s also the Founder and President of radio promotions company Shamrock Media Group, in addition to the Head of National Promotions for Save The City Records. Needless to say, he knows a lot about music charts and charting.
After stumbling upon success as an independent promoter – he boasted two huge number one singles for Natalie Grant and Plumb in his beginning stages in radio promotion – Chris founded Shamrock Media Group in 2005 and was also recently brought on as Head of National Promotions for Save the City Records, based out of Seattle.
So why is it important to understand the music charts? I sat down with Chris to learn the basics. Here are the top things I derived from our conversation, and what you should know about charting and why radio is still relevant to you even as an independent artist.
1. Know the lingo.
Let’s first familiarize ourselves with four basic terms used in the world of music charts: add, spin, bullet, and total audience (TA). “I take those things for granted because it’s everyday lingo for me,” Chris says, “but the normal person doesn’t know what a spin means, or they don’t know what an add means. An ADD is where a radio station takes your song and they add it to their playlist. You got added into their rotation. A SPIN is every time that song plays on that station. We can assume where that lingo came from – back in the day when they used to spin records. A BULLET means you have forward momentum on that chart. It means you have some sort of growth – you either have positive adds, which means stations have added you that week, or you have increased place. Maybe we’re spinning 30 times in Denver this week, and then on the next week you’re spinning 33 times. So in that particular market, you have a +3 in the spin column. As you climb the charts, you want to see every station continually increasing your spins – so as you grow your spins, you’re going to show positive increase on the chart. When you’re showing growth, you’re going to have a bullet next to your song. It’s very important to have your bullet; you don’t ever want to lose your bullet. If you lose your bullet, that means you lost spin somewhere, and you need to figure out why and how you lost those spins. TA stands for TOTAL AUDIENCE. Let’s say your song spins 30 times in Denver this week, and you have a total audience of 200,000. Then next week your spins go up to 33. That means you’ve spun three more times this week, which means your potential audience now grew because that song spun more and it has more potential to reach a bigger audience. Every time your spins go up, your total audience is going to go up as well. That’s another column that you’ll want to see growing. You want to see your total audience growing, you want to see your spins growing, you want to keep your bullet, and you want to see your adds growing as well – you want more and more stations to add the song every week.”
2. You are not a failure if you’re not charting.
Just because it’s not charting does not mean a really amazing song still can’t be popular, even in radio. “For my radio show, there is not a chart that currently exists for Christian hip-hop, so I look for hot songs that are relevant and can compete with mainstream,” Chris says. “I look for awesome hooks, great production, and just overall great songs. It has to be on par with what mainstream is playing.”
He continues, “It’s more about building your audience. Obviously if you’re charting, that means you’re going to have a bigger audience because to chart, you have to have the most spins. If you have more plays than the other artists, you have more exposure to their audience. Every single time a station adds your song, you have an opportunity to make an impression to their audience. If you’re on a station in Denver, that now opens up every church in that market as a potential opportunity to book a show. Then every person that listens to that station now becomes someone you can market a CD to or you can sell a song to on iTunes. When independent artists freak out if they’re not charting, they need to understand that’s not the important thing. If you chart that’s great, but look – every time you get an add, you’re opening up an entire spot on the map that you can expand, start touring, start moving units and start selling your music to that spot on the map.”
3. Anytime can be a good time to release a song.
“Other people may have different opinions than I do, but I think that there’s not a good time or a bad time to release a certain song,” Chris says. “It’s a constant flow now. With so much music coming out, if you have a good song, release it. I don’t think there’s a good or a bad time anymore, because of how long it takes to get on a station. It takes so much longer for a song to get processed through a playlist these days. Obviously, if you have a Christmas song in the Christian world it might be a good opportunity, especially as a new artist, to get a chance on a playlist where maybe you wouldn’t before. Let’s say you release a single and it’s pretty good, but there’s a slew of core artist stuff that comes out. You’re probably not going to get the add because there’s so much in front of you, and it’s not better than what’s coming out. But let’s say you release an awesome Christmas single and these stations are looking for fresh Christmas content to put on their playlist, and as an unknown artist, you might have a greater opportunity to break onto that playlist or get put in front of that audience with a holiday song.”
4. Consider investing in radio promotions at some point in your career.
“The amount of music that is being released compared to 5-10 years ago is so much greater,” says Chris. “Your content has to be so intriguing and so emotionally connecting to the audience or it’s going to get lost, because there’s so much to choose from. It’s like being at a buffet. You want to eat everything but you can’t. So you have to be so picky about what you put in your mouth. Honestly, a good song doesn’t cut it anymore. It has to be great. My programmers are constantly telling me, ‘This song is really good, but it’s not great.’ It really has to compete, and it has to be the best of the best or it’s not going to get a chance.”
But even if you have an amazing song, it’s still one of the most difficult undertakings to achieve the radio cut. So how can you make it happen? “The honest answer is that [artists] need to have a radio promoter,” Chris advises. “There are so many singles released and so much stuff that’s being thrown at radio programmers, that unless you have a promoter that is talking to their programmers through their already-existing relationships, it’s going to get lost in the shuffle. It might get listened to once without a promoter, but then it’s going to get forgotten about. These guys need to constantly be reminded about a new artist and new music because they have core artists that they’re paying attention to and giving those open slots to. So unless you’re constantly fighting for that open slot for your independent artist without a promoter, it’s not going to happen.”
5. Don’t give up.
“Artists need to know if they take a chance at radio, it is a smart investment and it will eventually pay off,” Chris says. “They have to keep at it. Even major artists that are core artists now on radio – they kept going. They didn’t get discouraged. They didn’t throw in the towel after their first song didn’t do well, or even if their second song didn’t do well. BarlowGirl didn’t have a hit until their third single. If they had thrown in the towel after the first two singles, they never would have been BarlowGirl. Radio wants to know before they add your song, and before they invest in you and introduce you to their audience that you’re going to have some longevity. If you throw in the towel after your first two singles failing, you’re never going to make it. It’s a race, not a sprint. You have to look at it as an investment. It may seem like a lot of money at first up front to pay for radio promotion, but once you get a single that sticks and gets good radio play, you’re going to make that money back and so much more.”