When newly signed Roc Nation artist Rita Ora visited Clear Channel with label boss Jay-Z on Feb. 23, it was simply to present music and videos from her untitled debut. But in a rare move for rotation-based radio, executives were so moved by what they heard that they walked the Runners-produced single "How We Do (Party)" to New York's top hit music station WHTZ (Z100) to premiere the cut on DJ JJ's afternoon show, which is syndicated nationally through iHeartRadio and SiriusXM. Shortly after, it was moved into rotation on the station without a campaign for radio adds.
The premiere was unorthodox for Clear Channel and Roc Nation, whose roster includes J. Cole, Bridget Kelly and Willow Smith. Shortly after the single's debut, the label revved its marketing strategy, pushing up the single's rollout and capitalizing on the sudden attention surrounding the British singer.
"Z100 definitely raised the exposure level tenfold, which puts everything into the fast lane. We were in go mode before; now, we're speeding," Roc Nation publicist Jana Fleishman says. "I think Jay just knew it was the right time and how strong the music is, how it's such a perfect fit for the station."
Jay-Z is known for remaining at arm's length from artists signed to the label, making his presence highly unusual and possibly influential on radio execs. His appearance with Ora follows a similar experience in 2005 with then-unknown Rihanna. He introduced her and her debut single, "Pon De Replay," to Clear Channel personnel, who physically drove the single to Z100's studio to break the Caribbean-inspired jam.
"We're kind of seeing a similar pattern to what we saw in 2005," says Z100 PD Sharon Dastur, who estimates that JJ's show reaches 2 million listeners in New York. "[Jay] putting his seal of approval on something has meant a lot over the years. But we heard other songs in addition to that where we were like, 'This girl is going to be a superstar. There's actually something there and we want to be in on it from the ground floor.'"
Columbia Records senior VP of promotion Lee Leipsner credits Clear Channel for taking a chance. He says the company's artist integration program into radio and online properties was a driving factor for launching "How We Do (Party)," and that Columbia was prepared to shuffle marketing strategies to accommodate the publicity. "You want it to be radio's idea. Sometimes, when it comes from them, it makes it that much more credible," he says. "It hasn't happened in a while. It got so homogenized and so passive and safe that nobody was taking chances anymore. Now, they [are]."
For Tom Poleman, president of national programming platforms for Clear Channel Radio, Ora's music and presentation were convincing enough to break the radio mold. "It doesn't always need to be planned out perfectly, and spontaneity and the emotions is what makes our medium special," he says. "The planets aligned really nicely in this one because we had someone who was mentoring a new artist, and the mentor happens to be one of the biggest stars we put on the radio station. That was an opportunity for a great radio moment."
Whether the massive debut of "How We Do (Party)" guarantees future success, both Roc Nation and Clear Channel view the exposure that came from breaking the single on mainstream radio as capturing lightning in a bottle. (A Roc Nation rep confirms that Ora's "How We Do (Party)" was "loosely inspired" by the Notorious B.I.G.'s 1993 song of the same name; he doesn't receive a credit on the song.) "No one can predict the future," Dastur says, "but for the song to be world-premiered on Z100 in New York City, the No. 1 market in the country, it got a lot of attention from all sorts of media outlets."