2019 Year End Charts

Unsigned & Indie Bands Are Increasingly Loud at Mainstream Rock Radio, But Are They Being Heard?

Richie Davis
Dirty Honey

Bands on the format are facing a crisis between airplay and streaming consumption.

What would you rather have: a No. 1 single at radio or a streaming smash that's scoring a million weekly Spotify plays? 

In the rock world, the question has been laid out starkly: Los Angeles' Dirty Honey recently became the first unsigned rock band to top Billboard's Mainstream Rock Songs chart when the new band's Zeppelin-indebted single "When I'm Gone" racked up 1,675 spins on the tally dated Oct. 5. While out on tour with Alter Bridge and Skillet, frontman Marc Labelle reflected, "At the end of the day, it's a good win for rock 'n' roll."

"When I'm Gone" was indeed noteworthy, but not in all ways encouraging; that same week, according to Nielsen Music, it totaled just 172,000 cross-platform streams -- an astonishingly low figure for a No. 1 song. Over the weeks since, it has cleared that figure just twice. So far, the single has totaled a little more than 3 million Spotify streams and Billboard estimates that the 1.14 million U.S. on-demand streams for all services including Spotify has generated approximately $5,100 to date.

 

Recently, other bands have topped Mainstream Rock Songs with comparatively meager streaming numbers: The Glorious Sons' "Panic Attack" failed to clear 200,000 cross-platform streams during its two No. 1 weeks last month, same for Rival Sons' "Do Your Worst" back in February. Even veterans like Disturbed, who hold 10 No. 1s on the format, didn't break 250,000 in any of the four weeks the band's single "No More" led the chart this September. 

"There are a lot of expenses in getting bands to radio stations, doing the right things at the right times to keep songs alive," cautions Hopeless Records GM Ian Harrison. "We are typically investing at least $15,000 to $20,000 to run a full rock radio campaign. Those costs can easily double or triple if things are successful, but in those instances we are also very happy that we have a song connecting.” 

Adds Allen Kovac, founder-CEO of the indie Better Noise Music (until recently known as Eleven Seven): "I hope radio and managers in the future don’t try to use spins to manufacture a No. 1 single... We use social media, YouTube and touring to build a fanbase before we ever go to radio [with new artists]." 

Does the Mainstream Rock format have a crisis between airplay and consumption? What is the actual value of pushing a song to No. 1 on radio, particularly for an unsigned band or one on an indie label? Because of this disconnect, leading rock indies are increasingly concerned with establishing grassroots fan bases and alternate sources of income before considering taking a new act to radio. 

In recent years, Harrison and Hopeless founder-president Louis Posen have excelled at nurturing punk bands like The Wonder Years and Neck Deep through touring and fan engagement. While neither act has appeared on a Billboard airplay chart, each of their past five studio albums, collectively, has debuted in the top 20 of the Billboard 200. The Wonder Years routinely sell out 2,000-cap venues and Neck Deep's most recent album, 2017's The Peace and the Panic, debuted at No. 4 and moved 32,000 units in its first week. “Rock is a pretty diverse world, so sometimes we have significant artists who just don’t line up with where radio’s head is at. We do a lot of early work internally to connect with stations to see if we have the right song for the moment. That is key in keeping costs down and understanding if radio is the right investment for the artist."

When Hopeless does invest in radio campaigns, making smart, selective investments has paid off. "We've got artists like Sum 41 who have a huge radio legacy and it's a part of the conversation from the very beginning," Harrison says. With the veteran pop-punk band prepping its latest album, Order in Decline, earlier this year, Hopeless hired former Razor & Tie promoter Kurt Steffek to head a radio campaign for lead single "Out For Blood." It spent 20 weeks on the Mainstream Rock songs chart, earning the band healthy exposure as it toured throughout the summer. 

Better Noise has also discovered that radio play is not essential to breaking a new band and can be much more meaningful once an artist is already established. “I don’t make records for radio, I make records for fans," Kovac insists. "If you make records for fans, you get engagement.”

After The Hu -- a Mongolian metal band featuring their country's traditional throat singing and folk instruments -- went viral via a Facebook video in early 2019, Kovac moved quickly, offering them a contract the same day he discovered them through a January NPR profile. Despite the hype, Kovac was patient with radio. "Once we got their base audience with [The Gereg] their debut album [sung in] Mongolian, I felt features would be special." He commissioned a more radio-friendly version of one of The Hu's original viral tracks, "Yuve Yuve Yu," featuring English vocals from fellow Better Noise metal act From Ashes To New. Patience paid off: It was the highest debuting song at Mainstream Rock for the week of Oct. 26 and has risen each week since. 

Once an act is well-established at radio over several album cycles, the results of a well-timed promo campaign can be striking. Five Finger Death Punch's seventh studio album And Justice For None had been out almost a year -- and spawned two Mainstream Rock Songs No. 1s -- before Kovac's team chose to promote its cover of Kenny Wayne Shepherd's "Blue on Black" as a single at radio. That was the fourth and last -- so far at least -- single from the album and included Shepherd, country star Brantley Gilbert and Queen's Brian May as featured artists on a new remix version. It topped Mainstream Rock Songs for five weeks this summer, clearing 3 million cross-platform streams each time. None of the format's other No. 1s this year have cleared 3 million once. 

"With so many major labels chasing after pop artists, it's giving independent labels an opportunity to find rock artists with great songs and give them a competitive edge on the charts," says Warren Christensen, executive vp promotion & GM West Coast at Q Prime. He notes that more than half of the 40 entrants on this week's Mainstream Rock Songs chart didn't come from major labels. "Great songs bring fans, streams, T-shirt sales, album sales and talented people from our industry who want to amplify that song's success." 

For Dirty Honey, that crucial connection was Red Light Management's Mark DiDia, who'd met Labelle years earlier playing rec league hockey (he'd declined to take on several other bands Labelle previously fronted). He signed them in 2018 after being wowed by "When I'm Gone" and an in-house radio campaign headed by Mark Gorlick eventually brought the song to to No. 1. As clients of United Talent Agency, the band secured slots at festivals like Aftershock and Sonic Temple and openings gigs for Guns 'N Roses and The Who. DiDia estimates they're currently selling between $2,500 and $3,000 of merch per night. "When I'm Gone" lasted just one week at No. 1, but its follow-up single "Rolling 7s" quickly also entered the chart four weeks ago, so far reaching No. 29. Still, it's yet to clear 500,000 Spotify spins. "We've already done so much groundwork," says Labelle. "What can a label do now, other than take some of your touring and merch [earnings] and your masters?" 

Time will tell if Dirty Honey can continue thriving as an unsigned band and if their Mainstream Rock peers can grow, too, despite comparatively low streaming numbers.

And while radio is just one path towards a rock band's sustained success -- many see it as a gateway to increased streaming. Unfortunately, it's a dilemma that goes both ways. 

"It's really hard nowadays to have radio success without some level of streaming success," Harrison says, noting that placements on important stations like Sirius XM's Octane and key Spotify playlists like Rock This, often go hand-in-hand. "It's hard to have conversations at mainstream streaming formats without some kind of radio activity to back it up." 

Additional reporting by Kevin Rutherford and Ed Christman


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