What do you want to become?
Alternate Career Titles:
Record Promoter, Radio Promoter
Career Overview: Works to get radio airplay for a label’s artists and sets up any on-air performances or promotional giveaways.
Career Salary Range: $27,000 to $65,000+
Become a Promotion Staffer
Joe Swank is the owner/operator behind full-service radio promo company Swank Promotions. Before striking out on his own, he served as a Promotion Staffer with some of the biggest indie labels in the US. In describing the job duties of a Radio Promoter, he says, “I work records as whole projects, so there are two elements [to the job]. At the beginning of a project, I select stations to receive hard copies of the CD, then produce stickers for the front of the disc with focus tracks, FCC info, and contact info. I follow the hard copy mailing with a digital blast to all my contacts who didn’t get a hard copy, offering a digital download of the record. The second element is the day-to-day. After the record has been received, I start sending emails and making calls on receipt and review of the disc. Radio people usually have a two to four hour window, one day a week in which they take calls, and I am usually trying to follow up with around 100 people per week, so each day begins with checking the call list for the day, and cross-checking to see if the station is already playing the record I am asking about. The rest of the day is scheduled calls and emails, interspersed with communications on bands that are touring and the specific cities they will be traveling to. That can mean on-air appearances by the band, show presents, CD/ticket giveaways, guest list for the station personnel — a variety of things — all of which I have to set up and get confirmed.
Ultimately, my job boils down to trying to get the person at the radio station who selects music for airplay to listen to the disc I send them and let me know if they will be playing it or not. If they add the record, my job becomes to get them as involved with the artist as possible.” Radio Promoters spend a good deal of their time interacting with station Music Directors and Program Directors. If they’re part of a large promotions department, they’ll work with Promotion Staffers under the supervision of the Promotion Manager. (Some record labels have Radio Promoters on staff whereas other labels have long-standing relationships with outside promotions companies who work on their releases.)
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Many Promotion Staffers begin their career as Interns before landing a job at a record label or promotions company. Others come from the world of radio, working as DJs or in the music department. Career advancement can mean anything from founding their own promotion company or getting hired to head the promotions department at a well-known record label with superstar artists and a big budget (and hence a higher salary.)
Education & Training
If you’re interested in a career as a Promotion Staffer, majoring in Music Business or a similar program can help you understand the industry and make valuable connections. Swank advises, “Education is not as important as experience, but knowing about the industry you are interested in, and specifically the genres, is extremely helpful. What happens in Americana music is a million miles away from what happens in heavy metal music, which is a million miles away from what happens in hip-hop. The way people conduct themselves and how they do business changes based on the culture. Know who the players are in the field you are interested in. Read all you can, see as many shows as possible. Read liner notes and biographies and take note of the names. The more you can speak about the industry, the more you can hold your own in conversations with people who might be beneficial to you.”
How can an aspiring radio promotions person acquire the necessary training to be competitive in this field? “Interning is the most direct way to get the attention of a potential employer,” Swank says. “Offer to work for free and then really put your all into it. They will take notice. I’ve worked with a ton of Interns and most people don’t last a week. The ones that do are given increasingly difficult projects, which are all learning experiences, even if they don’t seem like it. Packing and posting 200 packages may seem like grunt work, but if you are paying attention, you will absorb the people and locations. Keep your eyes and ears open. An interested and hard-working Intern has a good chance at a position when something relevant opens up.
Every bit of knowledge you can bring to the table is helpful. I know how to set up a stage for a band. Not something on the job description, but it has come in handy on multiple occasions when trying to set up bands for radio. I know the gear they will use and have a better idea of any issues that may come up. Having traveled in some of the more major cities in America, I can factor in additional drive time based on where they have to go. I know many of the venues and can often give them a heads up if there is anything funky about the place or the staff. All knowledge is valuable.”
Experience & Skills
Essential skills for a Radio Promoter include, first and foremost, “being comfortable on the phone” and “being able to write a business email properly.” Swank adds, “Know what different genres/formats are out there and know the stations. A lot of this job is research: looking up stations, going to the website to see what shows are available that might play your record. Do they have local programming? Do they support live music? Do they take chances on new bands or stick to major label tried-and-true artists? Do they carry outside programming (like NPR affiliates) and when? Do they work with any particular club(s) with any consistency? Everything you can know gives you a little leg up.”
Swank says successful Radio Promoters are “gregarious, outgoing. You rarely find timid people in this industry. [They’re] level-headed. You will be working with people you love and people you hate and they all have to be shown the same respect up to a certain point. You will be working with a lot of people who know way more than you do, and you try to learn as much as you can from them while understanding they are not here to teach you. You will be working with people who know way less than you and you have to help educate them without talking down to them or letting it deplete your time to a detriment.
Even the smallest of fish can end up in the biggest of ponds. Everyone gets respect up front. People who are difficult to work with rarely last — outside of the talent. Talent can and will be a pain in the ass often. However, they are ultimately making the money that pays your salary. If they are not as talented as they are annoying, they will go away soon enough. You are ultimately selling a product to people who don’t necessarily want to be sold anything so you have to keep the information coming at them, without overstepping the line of annoyance. It helps to be a meticulous note taker. Keep track of specifics about people.”
The work lifestyle of a Promotion Staffer varies depending on if he or she is employed by a record company or works independently as his or her own boss. “For fifteen years, I worked as part of a team,” Swank says. “In the record companies, you usually have the following: Radio, Press, Digital (encompasses social media, iTunes, Pandora/Spotify, music blogs, etc.), and Sales. Those four people/departments work together at different times. You keep all these people informed of anything big that is happening, so that they may utilize it to help further efforts on their end. A big press article is something Radio can use to solicit attention. A big radio appearance is something that needs to be shared on both the artist’s and the record label’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. The stations/publications expect you to push their event, as they are pushing your artist. Sometimes press and radio are working with the same person towards different goals, which requires a little discussion.
For the last two-plus years, I have been doing the same thing, only as an independent agent. I work at home, usually alone and very often I put in nights and weekends. The weekday workday is scheduled with contacting people at specific times and I have to be available for them to contact me. So, any non-contact/communication-related work (like proposals, gathering materials, printing materials, listening to projects for future work) has to be done after hours.”
What’s the best way to get involved in radio promotions? “Internships!” Swank says. “The more you can be involved with the business, the more you pick up. Plus, it gives you the opportunity to see what positions exist and what you might want to eventually aim for. I’ve worked with Interns who spent over two years interning without pay at publications, radio stations, [and] record labels, just looking for the best options and opportunities. You make contacts that will become valuable later in your career without even knowing it at the time. The crazy Warehouse Manager may end up booking the biggest club in town. The kid in accounting may end up owning his own label down the line. You never know, but every friend counts in this business. You will most likely be working for free, but often there are many perks like free records, concerts, t-shirts, invites to industry events. Most importantly, you are learning a skill. The more skills you have, the less time you will have to work for free. Plus, you are resume building.”
While Promotion Staffers employed by record companies are salaried, the payment structure works differently for independent Radio Promoters. Swank says, “In my current scenario, I am paid up front with an agreed upon amount to work a project for a specific amount of time, usually twelve weeks. Once I receive the check, I send the materials for the client to do the hard copy mailing. I am then engaged by them to work their record for the next twelve weeks. Occasionally a deal is worked out for a lower up-front rate, with bonuses paid per added station, but that isn’t very common and not always an ideal scenario. [I’m] mostly paid per project. My top end rate is $5,000 per project, but depending on the artist, the timing, the referral, and several other factors, I will occasionally lower that rate to get a project I really want.”
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
There are no unions or professional associations created specifically for radio promotions professionals. However, individuals can join organizations dedicated to their specific genre interests. Swank, for example, has been involved with the Radio Advisory Committee for the Americana Music Association.
For aspiring Promotion Staffers interested in online resources to help their careers, Swank recommends radio-locator.com. He says, “It is the most valuable site I use. You can plug in any town in the US and it will tell you what radio stations broadcast into that area, what kind of format they have, power, ownership, and it will show you where the station signal reaches. They also hyperlink the station website. Most of the information you would need about any station or area is on that site. You are limited to a couple dozen uses a day for free but it cleans the slate after twenty-four hours and you have free access once again.”
- “Get a job or internship at a radio station. Learn what happens in radio.
- Read as much as you can about the industry past and present, as well as the artists you are interested in.
- Talk to radio people about how their station operates and how they choose music.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Work in radio, even if it is only for a half-a-year free internship, just so you know what you are dealing with. Interning or part-time jobs at any industry-related business are helpful. (Entertainment publications, recording studios, record pressing plants, record stores, etc.)”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Being overly aggressive. Radio people hear from a dozen or more people like me every week…and we all have to call them every week on different titles. If they tell me they aren’t into something, I have to accept that. If I really feel strongly that they should be playing the record in question, I might ask them politely to check out one specific track for me (which I have to quickly evaluate based on what the station is playing at this time) and if they don’t dig it, no further questions about it. But if you berate someone for not liking something, or are constantly telling them their opinion is wrong, they don’t want to take your call next week. Radio people complain to me about other Radio Promoters that have done that. Word gets around quickly and makes it more difficult to work with those people moving forward. More flies with sugar. Always be polite, even if you disagree.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“What should my goals be with a new record?
Depending on what level an artist is at, they often have delusions of grandeur and assume if the tumblers all fall into place, they should see some obvious effect — a big step-up in quality of living. However, in this day and age, it is very much a building process. Two of the bigger artists I have worked with took several records to climb slowly and steadily to where they are today. The system isn’t designed for overnight stardom. There are still gatekeepers you have to impress by just hacking away at it. That’s why most of these TV stars on The Voice and American Idol don’t seem to last too long. They didn’t work the trenches and make all the friends that keep you moving forward.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“Is it fun?
Yes! If you have a good work ethic, it is a great job. Everyone who survives in this industry does so because they are willing to put in the hours. You have to believe that getting music out to people is worth doing and make every effort you can to make that happen. If you do believe that, it doesn’t seem like a job a lot of the time. I go to at least one show a week (usually more) under the guise of work. I go to conferences and big events and spend a lot of time behind the scenes. People who I admire and respected long before I got into this business are now plugged into my cell phone and they answer my calls. The more contacts you have, the more friends you make, the more information and knowledge you have, the wider that umbrella opens.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Amiability. Be nice, even if you don’t want to. Be helpful, even if it doesn’t benefit you directly. It will someday.”
Joe Swank is the owner/operator of Swank Promotions. Prior to striking out on his own, he served as the Radio Promotion and Regional Tour Press person at Bloodshot Records and the primary Radio Promotions person at Yep Roc Records/Redeye Distribution. He has worked on radio campaigns for Paul Weller, Los Straitjackets, Southern Culture on the Skids, Doyle Bramhall, Reverend Horton Heat, Billy Bragg, Nick Lowe, Lydia Loveless, and Justin Townes Earle, to name just a few.