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Modern Rock Acts Promote Music Outside Radio

Modern-rock promotion finds itself at a crossroads as a growing number of terrestrial radio broadcasters tune out the ratings-challenged format.

Record companies are attempting to adapt to modern rock’s recent marginalization on the airwaves in major markets like Philadelphia, Miami, New York and Washington, D.C. by emphasizing other options for building buzz.

In lieu of airplay, touring, blogs, ringtones, downloads, Internet and satellite radio, videogame tie-ins, alliances with brand marketers, film and TV exposure, sponsorships and placements in commercials all are growing in value.

The marketing strategies for a number of big-name rock artists with current or upcoming releases show that labels are reaching out to consumers through a variety of new channels:

  • In a nod to the growing importance of Web communities, Geffen Records’ Weezer has become the latest rock act to debut a new album on social networking site myspace.com. The band’s “Make Believe,” due May 10, is available on the site as a free on-demand stream through release date. Since launching in 2003, myspace.com has gained more than 14 million users, and in February it was the No. 7 Internet site in page views, according to Media Metrix. More than 200,000 bands have their own pages on the site, including major-label acts like Queens of the Stone Age and Oasis.
  • Capitol Records debuted the Coldplay single “Speed of Sound” as a ringtone through Cingular Wireless.
  • V2 Records rushed “Blue Orchid,” the first single from the White Stripes’ “Get Behind Me Satan,” to iTunes April 18 – just two weeks after the duo completed the album.

“It’s not too different from what already constitutes successful setup,” says Larry Mestel, COO/GM of Virgin Records, which is setting up a release from U.K. act Gorillaz. “But now it’s really important to build up as much around the band as possible – both in imaging and from a fan perspective.”

At stake for labels is a three-year upswing in modern rock sales. Despite the genre’s radio woes, Nielsen SoundScan reports that modern rock album sales totaled 132.1 million units last year – a 3% boost from 2003. That volume represents 19.9% of U.S. album sales, the genre’s largest market share in six years.

But with modern outlets WPLY (Y100) Philadelphia and WHFS Washington, D.C., and active rock WZTA (Zeta) Miami dropping the rock format and WXRK (K-Rock) New York radically reducing the number of current titles it spins, many in the industry are wondering if modern rock sales can sustain that momentum.

“It’s changing the artist-development process in a big way,” says Marc Geiger, a head of contemporary music for the William Morris Agency and co-founder of the Lollapalooza tour.

The audience for No. 1 modern rock songs, as tracked by Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems, is already shrinking. April 22 marked a new low for the format, as Audioslave’s “Be Yourself” led the pack with just 11.8 million weekly impressions. Compare that with the format’s high of 23.9 million impressions for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “By the Way” in the week of July 19, 2002.

Still, labels are not giving up on radio play for modern acts, even if they are doing their best to get by without it.

Virgin executive VP of promotion Hilary Shaev says labels just need to be more patient.

“Radio can’t be the starting gun,” she says. “It has to be timed along with other things or after other things.”

To that end, the industry is trying to use alternative exposure to build a “story” that it can ultimately use to win over radio. Such efforts are upping the value of support from digital programers like Yahoo, MSN, Music Choice, Fuse, XM, Sirius and AOL.

“We have a much deeper playlist,” AOL senior VP of programing Bill Wilson says. As stations exit the modern rock format, “it’s a huge opportunity that we are taking advantage of.”

Acts like Interscope’s Audioslave are using the Web to demonstrate demand to radio. The band teamed with radio station Web sites on a download giveaway of second single “Your Time Has Come.” Fans could not receive the track until 1 million consumers requested it.

Steve Berman, head of sales and marketing for Interscope Geffen A&M, says: “When you look at the amount of music that’s moving around the Internet, you know that people are out there.”

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