Friday, November 6, 2009

CMJ 2009 College Day Part Two: Music Directors' Summit

Music Directors' Summit at CMJ's College Day 2009

So, if College Day was a big draw for me at the 2009 CMJ Music Marathon this year, then the annual Music Directors' Summit on that day could be considered the icing on the cake. Last year's MD Summit was a real eye-opener for me and this year's was even better.

Moderated by Chad Reich of KBUT (a community radio station in Crested Butte, Colorado), the panel also consisted of Joni Sadler from CHUO (University of Ottawa, Canada), Chris Payne from WTSR (The College of New Jersey), Kayla Morrison of KUPS (University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA), and Nick Inzucchi from WVKR (Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY). Everyone on the panel was a Music Director or Specialty Music Director at a college radio station.

Role of the Music Director
Chad began things by talking about the job of Music Director (MD) to "sort through the clutter" while receiving "very little pay or none" and having to "deal with a lot of issues." He said that he typically gets between 20 and 50 records a week.

Picking the Music
Jodi from Canadian station CHUO said that she strives to be diverse in her music adds, while avoiding "the mainstream top 40 songs." Kayla added that KUPS is the only independent station in Tacoma, Washington, so they try not to add major labels and try to focus on local music. Nick from WVKR said that at his station they are "trying to help emerging artists." He's a genre-director, so in his role he's only adding maybe 2 CDs every week.

Community DJ at KSJS

Playing Music by Established Artists and the Role of Community DJs ("Ancient Old Dudes") at College Stations
Chad asked the panel how they handle new music from older artists like Radiohead and Built to Spill. Nick (whose emphasis is on electronic music) replied that there are not "too many old electronic dudes who are still touring," so it wasn't much of an issue for his genre-area. Wow! I'm not sure that I believe that....and certainly there are reissues by established electronic acts.

From there the conversation turned to us oldsters who are still in college radio after all these years. Nick mentioned that community DJs, aka "the ancient old dudes...know music like the back of your hand" and added that they are the ones who "bring a lot of history to the station" as well as older music.

Chad concurred, saying that at his station they have DJs who've been at the station for 25 years and that those DJs are "not exactly breaking new [music]."

I find this perception of older DJs to be quite interesting, especially since I'm at a station with lots of long-time DJs who are still really devoted to exploring new sounds. I wonder if this is a real departure from the norm?

Reviews, Rotation, and Getting DJs to Play New Artists
Next the conversation turned to methods for reviewing new music and rotating it through the station. Chris said he tapes a review on every album that he adds to the station. Joni mentioned that she also puts reviews on every CD and also talks to individual DJs in order to recommend certain releases to them. Kayla creates a mixtape for DJs every week, where she pulls a track from each new CD and sends it along so that people are checking out the new music. She also has instituted a rotation system in order to get DJs to play a more diverse mix of music. Music is color-coded as yellow, green, or blue and DJs must play at least one track from each color category every hour. Nick said that at his station DJs have to play 5 rotation tracks every hour.

Playlist Requirements or Freeform?
Kayla said she interviews all prospective DJs and choses the ones who are interested in new music. Chris's station is not freeform and DJs must play a certain number of tracks from various rotation categories every hour during dayside programs (5 heavy, ? light, 3 back library, 1 local).
Jodi said that all Canadian stations must play 35% Canadian content, but other than that, her station is freeform.

Vintage Adds Lists from KZSU

Coming up with Top Five Adds
Chad asked the Music Directors to describe how they come up with their "Top 5 Adds" list to share with promoters. Kayla said, "I listen to every least one song...That is my job." She picks her top 5 adds based on what she and her assistant like and she spreads them out among promoters "to be fair." She added that she only adds stuff that will get played or will chart with her DJs.

Chris concurred that he likes to spread his adds across promoters.

Jodi shocked the moderator when she said, "We don't do Top 5 adds." She explained, "We are notoriously slow for getting mail" and argued that they don't want to do a "popularity contest" between promoters. Additionally, since they are a freeform station, it's impossible for her to even guess what the top 5 adds might be.

Chad said that he adds the best 5 records every week and also does charts weekly.

MD Job as Balancing Act of Being DJs' Friend and Boss
The panel talked about the tough job of being MD, where on the one hand you need to be friends with your DJs, but you also need to sometimes be "the boss." Kayla said that she's lucky in that her DJs are all students, so it's not as "awkward" as it might be at a station with older community volunteers where you're telling someone "my dad's can't play the Rolling Stones." She acknowledged that she is at a small school, so people still may hate her, but that's OK.

KSCU Music Department Wall

Digital Revolution
Chad pointed out that the digital revolution is "happening," but that it's a lot of work for Music Directors. On the plus side, the movement toward digital music "can solve a lot of problems" like overflowing shelves and drawers. Nick said his station has a lot of space issues and as a result they have cleared out jewel cases and are using plastic sleeves instead for CDs. They also have a "sweet robot" that can digitize 400 CDs at a time. Even with that, he said it will take 4 years to digitize the whole library. He argued that the conversion process is still a "huge pain" and that "getting a CD in the mail is so much easier at this point."

On the downside, Chad said that when you go digital, you're "missing out" by losing the physical copy of the music, with liner notes and "'ll never be able to replace with digital music." Nick also argued that although "it's true that you save money" with digital releases, he wondered if the promotional effort has the same effect.

Monitoring DJs' Playlists and Making Sure they Aren't Just Playing iPod
The panel offered up suggestions on how to monitor DJs. Chris recommended listening to peoples' shows and said that his station makes DJs keep a log of what they've played. Kayla said that at her station DJs are not allowed to plug in iPods. DJs must keep track of their playlists using an online program and they have playlists going back for a decade. She looks through those lists and will send warnings out to DJs playing mainstream material (she gave the example of Destiny's Child) and those DJs won't get shows the next semester if they continue.

Making Sure You Aren't Too Influenced by Promoters
During the Q&A a Music Director asked how other MDs make sure their new adds aren't too influenced by the promoters sending the music to the station. Chris mentioned that there are plenty of good CDs "not being worked by promoters" and also emphasized the importance of adding local music. Kayla gets around this by having an assistant who does not talk to promoters so that she can be "an inpartial judge" of the music. She also gets second opinions from DJs when deciding on what to add.

Playlist at KCPR from Fall 2008

Lazy DJs Not Tracking Their Playlists
There was talk during the Q&A about lazy DJs who don't input their playlists during their shows and how to get them to keep track of what they are playing, especially when it's a small staff and they can't afford to lose DJs. Chad agreed that this can be a challenge, saying that at his station there are DJs in their 60s and 70s who "refuse to deal with technology." He suggested talking to the DJs to get a sense of what they like and are playing, adding, "they're can't fire them." Nick added, "I sympathize with the's really tedious to chart your show" and it sounded like he wanted a more automatic tool to help him do so. In terms of learning what DJs play, he said that what works for him is direct communication with DJs.

What was most surprising to me about this discussion was the acceptance of DJs not keeping track of plays and the sympathy for how difficult it is. I'm kind of floored to hear that DJs and MDs think it's hard to keep a playlist, especially when most of these stations have a digital method for tracking plays. I'm guessing that the lazy DJs are the ones who are mainly playing digital music from their own collections and/or are creating their playlists in advance of their shows on iPods. For them, perhaps, it's a challenge to have to go back and figure out what they played when. I find this really really alarming and see it as part of a broader trend of radio becoming a less active task. Selecting and playing an mp3 takes less work than choosing and playing CDs and playing a CD takes less work than playing a piece of vinyl and with all of that the DJ's job becomes more and more sedentary.

Record Library at KALX

Valuing the Library
In a discussion about the how music libraries are valued at college radio stations, Chad argued that the music "library is your lifeblood" and that people should "feel really bad...[if they] mess with" it. Chris said that his station is working to digitize their back library of material dating back to the early '90s and late '80s (that's old?!). They keep music that was in high rotation or that charted on CMJ on their "back wall" and move other material to an accessible back room.

Nick said his station doesn't really have a problem with theft and that people tend to just burn things instead. He said "taking pride in your station" is important. Joni mentioned that they used to let people borrow music, but soon that became problematic. DJs are allowed to rip CDs and theft has been reduced dramatically. They additionally deface all of their music.

Getting Mainstream DJs Interested in Newer Music
Suggestions for getting DJs to check out new music included having one-on-one conversations with them and inviting them to review new music.

Box at WNYU

Role of Vinyl
The MD of KVCU (Boulder) asked about the role of vinyl at various stations. She said her station loves vinyl and has 4 turntables in the studio. Chad said that "everything sounds better on vinyl" and argued that stations "should keep that stuff." He mentioned that he's seen MDs try to purge vinyl and he's against that, adding, "we have DJs who play cassettes and DATs still." Chris said that at his station he led a seminar on how to use turntables and added that in their library they have a lot of great bands, like Talking Heads, where they only have vinyl.

Joni said that vinyl actually does better at her station than CDs "by a long shot." She added that she wants to make turntables part of the on-air training since "vinyl is huge with us." Joni also pointed out that many local bands are issuing material on vinyl. Nick said he really likes getting sent vinyl and that the station's vinyl library has "a lot of history" and is "more personal."

Doing a Digital Show vs. Playing CDs and Vinyl
I asked the panel if they saw a difference in the DJ experience and airsound of shows where the DJ is playing solely digital vs. physical music. The comments that I got back were strongly in favor of physical music, with terms like "soul-less" and "lazy DJ syndrome" used to describe DJs who come in and do a show that's pre-planned on their iPod. Chad said that the iPod "eliminates the need" for a DJ and argued that if you're "not working the board" then it's "not DJing to me."

Joni concurred, saying, "you have to avoid...pre-recording large segments of your show." Chris added that playing pre-recorded material isn't that much different from automation and it "sucks the life out" of one's show. Chad agreed, saying making playlists in advance, pre-recording shows, and "not using the shelves...undermines" the goals of the station.

It was really refreshing to hear that this group of Music Directors still believes in DJs doing more active radio shows.

Previous Posts about the 2009 CMJ Music Marathon:

CMJ 2009 Band Name Trends Revealed
Radio is Alive and Well at the CMJ Music Marathon (for Radio Survivor)
Radio's Presence at CMJ
CMJ 2009 Music Marathon Recap Part Two (10/20/09)
Social Networking, Metal Radio & Digital Music, and Miles Davis in 1959 (10/21/09)
CMJ 2009 College Day Part One- College Radio and Competition

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