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NPR: Can Record Labels Have It Both Ways?

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For decades now National Public Radio, NPR, has been generally tagged as a bastion of elitist left-wing socialist media. It has never had the impact on the record industry that commercial radio has, having been the place on the dial for jazz, classical and some of your favorite Celtic music. Pretty tame stuff.

That is until a couple of years ago. Suddenly NPR has taken on a very significant role in modern music. It has become the place where people go to find new music, rock, blues, Americana—and they actually buy CD’s. The evidence was on display in Sunday night’s Grammy broadcast when acts like Arcade Fire, The Avett Brothers, and Mumford & Sons brought the house down. NPR had a huge influence on their success. And of course the many others who won awards or were nominated like Esperanza Spalding, Black Keys, Broken Bells, and Band of Horses.

NPR has become the place for music lovers to find and discover new music. Not only has it become a vital factor in breaking new artists, but is also a crucial platform in marketing new releases from legacy acts.

Columbia Records radio promotion VP Lisa Sonkin told me “Exposure on highly esteemed platforms is important to all artists whether they are just breaking or considered heritage. NPR’s reach both on air and online is extensive. The NPR audience is an engaged audience – not easy to find in an era of limited attention spans.”

Sonkin cited the upcoming Adele album, 21, as a prime example of NPR’s newfound clout. “We launched Exclusive First Listen, an online only platform, on Monday, February 7. When it launched the album was ranked at 27 on the iTunes (preorder) album chart and by the end of the business day it was ranked at 17. Amazon chart rank (preorder) rose from 6 early in the day to 3 by days end.”

Forthcoming Public Radio appearances for Adele include: NPR’s Music’s Tiny Desk Concert (online only), All Things Considered (on air and then archived online), World Cafe (on air and then archived online), KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic and WNYC’s Soundcheck.

NPR’s online component is equally important. Extremely. According to Compete, a digital metrics service, NPR Music had 9.3 million visits in Dec 2010. Sonkin says “Their endorsement has an impact and their audience trusts and respects their opinion.”

Even though the big national programs like Fresh Air and All Things Considered are very influential, every local affiliate has its own locally produced music shows, and that’s really where the rubber hits the road. Paul Shugrue is a veteran commercial radio personality who migrated to WHRV, my local NPR station, in 2004, launching his show Out Of The Box. Shugrue says that “the mission of the show is to keep people up to date on what’s new in music.” He has one strict rule for what gets played on the air: the music MUST be a new release. Absolutely no catalog.

Out Of The Box features rock, Americana, blues and a smattering of R&B, Raphael Saadiq-style. Shugrue takes great pride in the success of acts like Amos Lee and the Decembrists, having played their music on the show for many years. One of the benefits of working in non-commercial radio is that it is just that. He’s not constrained by research or consultants. He’s programs from his gut.

Shugrue’s audience is just like him: baby boomer music freaks who were raised on rock music and aren’t ready for the rest home just yet. They’re hard-core, they love music, and they like to discover new and unusual music. And it shows at the cash register.

Barry Friedman, proprietor of a local family owned and operated independent music store, said that “If Paul Shugrue plays it, or it’s featured on any of the national NPR shows, I sell it.” The NPR crowd is his customer base, as they can’t find these artists at Best Buy or Target. Friedman always stays on top of what is playing on NPR and orders his inventory accordingly. “There’s no doubt about it. Public radio sells CD’s.”

So why am I going on and on about how wonderful NPR has become? Well, it’s that I find a wonderful irony in this whole story. The very right-wing Republican jerk-off politicians that the recording industry is constantly sucking up to for tighter and tighter copyright laws (well, after all, Sen. Orin Hatch is a recording artist) are the very same politicians who are trying to put NPR out of business! With all of the upcoming budget cuts in the works, Republicans are consistently citing public broadcasting as the first to go.

So now what? Can the music industry stand by and let one of their most important sales drivers be thrown under the bus? Commercial radio doesn’t play these acts, so where would they get exposure? Are we destined to be condemned to a world of Britney, Justin and Gaga?
Or can the major record labels have it both ways? That is the way they like it, after all.

 

 

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