How The National Got Their First Radio No. 1 (And Two Spins More Than Arcade Fire)

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Matt Berninger of The National performs on Day 3 of the Ottawa Folk Festival on Sept. 12, 2014 in Ottawa, Canada. 

The National's manager details the complex choreography that helped the band get its first Triple A topper.

“There were probably ten people in our organization sitting up at 1:00 a.m. Sunday into Monday morning -- because that’s when the charts close," says an especially ebullient Brandon Reid, manager of The National, who still sounds breathless two days later.

For Reid and his team, topping the Adult Alternative Songs airplay chart (Triple A) by just a whisker more than Arcade Fire's "Everything Now" single was the culmination of a year’s worth of work setting up the band’s first single “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness" off the band’s upcoming seventh studio album Sleep Well Beast (out Sept. 8 on 4AD/Beggars Group). Crowning the chart by a mere two spins underscored the importance of the team's concerted efforts.

The process began nearly a year ago, when the band booked the Glastonbury Festival's second headliner spot, sandwiched between Katy Perry and the Foo Fighters. “When we booked Glastonbury, they were still working on the record,” Reid explains. “Since we were targeting putting a record out the following summer or early fall, we knew it would behoove us to perform new music with the public being able to sing along. What was different about the set up of this process is that we had a much more communal dialogue going between management, the band and the label about what were the strong leading singles.”

This meant that Reid, 4AD's U.S. label manager Nabil Ayers, label president Simon Halliday and vp of radio promotion Risa Matsuki Lawrenson sat down and listened to the new music as the National's album was being finalized. “The four of us felt right away that "The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” was a great great National song that had potential to make an impact with listeners.”

Having chosen the song as the first single, singer Matt Berninger (singer, lyricist & co-producer), Aaron Dessner (songwriter & producer) and Peter Katis (mixer & co-producer) “tore this song apart and built it back up over eights days" of intense mixing at Dessner’s Long Pond Studio outside of Hudson, NY. "It was definitely an odyssey to get this song right,” says Reid. "They had known in the mixing that Simon, Nabil, Risa and I really believed in the song so the pressure was on."

Since the band's last album, 2013's Trouble Will Find Me, Reid noted that social media and streaming have completely "changed the game."  The National's manager attributes a more dynamic and fluid radio game in part to today's more quantifiable metrics which has had a major impact on the format's traditionally more stratified playlists.

“Because of streaming data and how accessible it is to everybody, there’s so much more tangible feedback as to what people are listening to,” Reid says, “which in turn is what they need to get people to listen to their stations.” He cites other indie acts like Kurt Vile, The xx and Arcade Fire as examples of indie artists having a greater presence on the airwaves.

Indeed the National’s ”System” hitting the top of the Aug. 12 Adult Alternative Songs airplay chart marks the sixth time in 2017 that an act has reached the top of the chart for the first time out of seven total No. 1s all year. If another artist earns a first No. 1 on the chart this year, it would be the largest sum outright since 2014.

Key to the single’s terrestrial radio success was Matsuki, who Reid credits with “hitting the pavement” early and playing rough mixes for program directors at stations before the song was even mastered. For ten weeks, Matsuki and her Beggars radio team, which includes Bri Aab and Brian Terranova fanned out across the country hitting almost every Triple A station and PD in the country.

Meanwhile, Reid and his Straight & Narrow management team of Julia Willinger, who comes from label A&R and worked with Courtney Barnett and Shaun Gibson, a creative online expert, worked the streaming services' artists reps. "Since we mastered the record  there hasn’t been a week where I haven’t talked to somebody at Spotify, Apple Music or Tidal," Reid says.

While his team interacted with Spotify’s Alison Hagensdorf and Sam Berger (who works with Troy Carter) and Janet Rubin at Apple Music among other streaming artist reps; Nabil and his 4AD team worked the streaming platforms’ label services personnel in a coordinated effort.

Since its release, "System" has had 7 million track streams globally with 4.4 million coming from Spotify, 2 million from Apple Music, 200K on Deezer and some 400K from Google, Napster and Tidal and others. In the U.S., the totals are more than 3 million streams with 1.7 million at Spotify and 1 million at Apple Music.

But it’s not only audio streaming metrics that can bolster a terrestrial radio campaign. A video for “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness” by visual artist Casey Reas, a longtime collaborator and UCLA professor who specializes in art and technology, dropped on May 10, the same day as the single. The color-processed video is now up to 1.6 million views.

Reid also mentioned the importance of getting traction at Sirius XM. "Sirius has become a legitimate metric now and is seen more and more as a taste maker. If you can get your artist’s songs played on Sirius, there’s a decent chance these days that it can influence commercial radio rotation," Reid says.

With the single's release, the band announced a global tour which included two dozen North American shows which further gave the band opportunities to build radio relationships. Reid worked strategically with Paradigm booking agent Kevin French as well as Sam Alpert in the agency’s marketing department in regions that were going to influence chart movement. Radio stations were given ticket allotments for promotional give aways in exchange for running spots on the show which also helped with getting rotations.

An accompanying media narrative for The National was led by Grandstand Media's PR’s Kate Jackson as well as Dana Erickson, Meghan Helsel and Lisa Gottheil who supported the project by landing press at all of the major music outlets. Larger features are set to roll-out for the album's September week of release.

Meanwhile, knowing they were in a tight race with Arcade Fire, who are also friends of the band (Richard Reed Perry is close friends with Bryce Dessner) and perhaps have something of a friendly rivalry, Reid and Gibson undertook a robust social media campaign. “The Thursday before Matsuki and my team were monitoring the spins,” Reid says. “So we’re seeing, now we’re up by three, now we’re down by two, now we’re up by nine.” 

With a million Facebook followers, 300,000 Twitter followers and 300,000 Instagram followers, the strategy was to target fans within a 50 mile radius of Triple A markets and ask them to call the radio stations and request songs. “The response was excellent,” says Reid. "At the end of the day and throughout radio's history, the public calling in and requesting songs is the most organic way that a radio station is going to start spinning the tune.

In the end, The National's 672 spins barely eked past Arcade Fire's 670 rotations by two spins and knocked out the band, which has traditionally had greater commercial success. The National did it on the same weekend as Arcade Fire's album release, complete with high-profile Apple-Muisc-sponsored shows (their album Everything Now dropped the same week and topped this week's Billboard 200).

“Because it came down to not two rotations,” says Reid, “it's interesting looking back and thinking, ‘Oh my god, literally everything we did stacked up to make a difference'. I can’t state it enough with how close the win was: everybody had a role in every piece of the roll-out from publicists to creatives and leadership at label, the radio team, the booking agents, the social media team, video -- all of these things are interwoven."