With so many music options available to listeners at any given moment, breaking a new act is more challenging than ever. Even the perfect alignment of mainstream press and promo - say, a Rolling Stone feature, a performance on Conan or a video in rotation on one of the MTV channels - won't necessarily add to an artist's bottom line.
But during the past decade, one media outlet has proved to be incredibly effective in connecting a band with its target audience, prompting an instant sales bump and, most important, spreading the word: National Public Radio. Arcade Fire, Florence + the Machine and Vampire Weekend are just some of the indie acts that owe much of their crossover success to the member-supported network, which boasts an audience of 34 million, according to Arbitron, along with a devoted online following. All nabbed Grammy nominations this year, one played for the president (Arcade Fire) and another on the VMAs (Florence), and each has graduated to the opposite end of the dial: mainstream alt-rock stations such as Los Angeles' KROQ.
"Go down the list," boasts Jason Bentley, music director for L.A. NPR affiliate KCRW and host of its popular program Morning Becomes Eclectic. "Florence, Phoenix, Miike Snow … pick a band that's a hot commodity, your best of 2010 - they all started here. Whether it's getting their earliest airplay or first radio performance, we take chances."
It's true, and NPR moves more albums and downloads proportionately than the commercial big boys, yet labels spend millions trying to penetrate those markets. Call it "Yindie Rock," as in yuppie indie rock, modern music for boomers with loads of disposable income.
"Open fandom on commercial radio seems to be waning," says Keith Berman of industry tipsheet RAMP (Radio and Music Pros). "NPR is appointment listening. The devotion and engagement level is higher."
Indeed, research shows that 59 percent of NPR listeners consider themselves active music fans, 68 percent are more likely to attend a concert and 83 percent more likely to purchase "alternative" music. Bob Boilen, host of All Songs Considered and NPR's main curator of new music, says the bands see the effect firsthand. "Artists tell me an appearance on NPR changes the amount of people that come see them live, and they find that, all of a sudden, people in the audience are singing along to their songs."
"A booking on Morning Edition or All Things Considered is one of the most vital contributions to any press campaign," says publicist Ken Weinstein, whose firm Big Hassle represents Kings of Leon and Regina Spektor. "Not only do they discuss the artists in depth, putting the music into context, they give sonic examples. If listeners like it, they'll buy it."
It's almost as enticing as a late-night TV booking, and for good reason: Nearly a third of the audience for a show like Late Night With Jimmy Fallon will drop off before the band appears. "You have depth and consistency with the NPR audience, there's something to sink your teeth into," says Cole Wilson, former booker for the Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, which no longer features musical acts. "In late-night, the artist gets no face time or interaction with the host."
It's also expensive. A band in a van can incur costs of $10,000 for a TV appearance, an act like Bon Jovi can run $100,000. But an NPR feature only requires showing up at the station with CD in hand. It's no wonder tastemakers like Boilen are inundated with pitches: "It's like someone turned on the spigot. The amount of e-mail and calls is overwhelming. But if you're going to be flooded with something, let it be music."