MUSIC BUSINESS INSIDER: Q&A: Heidi Elgaard - EMusician

MUSIC BUSINESS INSIDER: Q&A: Heidi Elgaard

airSpun opens up the radio world to all musicians.
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Getting radio play has always been an important part of “breaking” a new act. Yet even in these days of democratized distribution of music through the Web, it's still tough to get played on over-the-air radio. A company called AirSpun (www.airspun.com) has come up with a clever approach to this problem, which allows artists to get their music into many radio markets around the country through the purchase of 60-second “showcase” ads featuring up to 45 seconds of the band's music, along with a voice-over at the beginning and end. The ad directs listeners to the AirSpun site, where artists are provided a free profile page from which they can link to sites where their CDs are sold.

Once you've booked radio time through AirSpun's site, the company will help you produce your ad. Depending on which option you choose, you can either upload an MP3 of your song to AirSpun's production department or produce the spot yourself. In the latter case, AirSpun will provide you with audio templates containing required voice-over copy. When your ad is finished, you can upload your spot to the radio station and check on scheduling status through the AirSpun site.

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Heidi Elgaard, AirSpun''s CEO.

To find out more about this innovative service, I spoke with AirSpun's CEO, Heidi Elgaard.

What's AirSpun's basic mission?

We provide a cost-effective, global marketing and promotion opportunity for any serious original recording artist, regardless of genre and label affiliation. We're trying to really take that next step; there was kind of the democratization of production with [Digidesign] Pro Tools and [Apple] Logic and so forth, and the democratization of distribution with the Internet, and now we're trying to take that last step, which is to democratize marketing and promotion, which really hasn't been an even playing field.

Those are the areas where you need to have the most money behind you to get anything done.

Right. So we're doing what we can to work within the existing reality that airtime costs money. We're also trying to give as much extra value in the Internet world as we can.

You're more than just a vehicle for people to get airtime? You have a larger marketing mission?

Yes, absolutely. We started with commercial radio because it's responsible for turning more unknown artists into superstars than any other medium. But we definitely have been building on the original vision: we recognize the power of other media, including the Internet and all the viral-distribution stuff that's going on. The first thing we've done is to try to bridge the offline and the online world, so with every traditional radio spot that we run for an artist, we offer a free artist profile page on our Web site that's searchable by when and where people heard the radio spot, and by genre. We're going to expand the search so that visitors can search by all kinds of other criteria and find out more about these artists and where they are selling their music online.

Getting artists airplay through purchasing ads is an unconventional approach.

Purchasing broadcast airtime for a full-length play of a song is illegal, called payola — as many of us have read about in the last couple of years. That was not something that we wanted to do, because our goal is to have a viable business that's also legal. But what we did recognize is that 60 seconds, which is a traditional ad length for a business, is a pretty good length of time to showcase a song. And our goal was to do something that's a little bit different, which was not to have a big talky ad, but to use that length of time to the best benefit we could for musicians, with potentially an artist intro and a song name intro — really whatever they want. But make a very short intro and allow as much of the song to play as possible — about 45 seconds or so — and then put an end tag on there that will make the FCC happy, announce it as a paid showcase, and direct the listeners back to the site where the artist can be found. [For an example of an AirSpun ad, see Web Clip 1.]

And the stations are okay with running these showcase ads?

Yes. We weren't sure what kind of resistance we might meet by doing something that nobody was really doing at the time. So far, the response has been really good. We had initial support early on from two significant networks in the U.S.: one was Clear Channel and the other one was Entercom. When we went to Entercom, we had to go through their corporate attorney because this was the same time they were all getting slammed with payola lawsuits. So we did a lot of due diligence ourselves to make sure that what we were doing was in fact fair and legal.

When did you actually start the service?

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FIG. 1: You can book your own radio ads through AirSpun''s site, choosing by both genre and location.

I believe it was in July of '06, in what was a limited test-market capacity. Since then, we've added some stations, we've added some markets, and we've added partners. We continue to develop the business around the concept of technology-enabled music marketing and promotion. For example, this month we've added mobile-phone music placements through a partnership with VoiceIndigo.

So if a band comes to you and wants to get on the radio in, say, Austin, Texas, what would it cost them?

Right now it's pretty different per market. We're bound by the realities of what radio airtime costs in each market. Basically, artists come to our site and they go into the section called Get Discovered. Then if they click Get Started, they can browse our station options, including broadcast, Internet radio, and now mobile phone placements. If they select broadcast, then they get the most options right now. You can search by your genre or you can search by location (see Fig. 1). You mentioned Austin, so if I select Austin and submit, I can see there's three radio stations in Austin and can see their price ranges. Austin is not one of the cheapest; it's $75 to $200 or so for a one-minute spot. Our cheapest option is Internet radio placement bundles for as little as $1 per spot.

Do you get to choose the time of day it will air?

You do; once you select the range, it breaks it out. And that's where the prices vary, between “Weekend” or “Monday through Friday Evening” or “Best Available.” Each station decides which options they're willing to do, but so far, most of them are providing a few different “dayparts,” which is radio lingo for time of day.

Can the band specify the date that their spot will air?

It varies per station. But for the most part right now, the artist doesn't have a ton of control over that.

So it's a little harder to use the service for tour support because you're not sure when the ad will run — it might run after you've played in the town.

Right. I would say that with the “no-touch” version [self-serve on the Web site], that's going to be hard. But what we are also starting to do is to really push that info@airspun email and our phone number and everything else there to say to the artists, “Contact us if you have questions.” And we are willing to do a lot more things at this stage [for example, manually purchasing and producing spots], as we're getting up and ramped to do some custom programs. So if someone says, “On this day, what are my odds I can do this?” we'd be happy to call the station and put in a special request.

What kind of results have the bands and artists that have used your service gotten?

That is a very good question. One of the biggest challenges of broadcast radio is doing a direct tie to how much return on investment you're getting. So we are starting to do a couple of things to make that connection more clear. One, we're showing people the number of hits they're getting for their profile pages. And then the other thing is that we're tracking our version of “spins,” which will be the number of times a track plays in the AirSpun online audio player. Those things are going to help artists see how many people actually came and checked them out from the ad. We've seen the most positive results in terms of page views and AirSpun player spins from the artists we've featured in our AirGods new-music polls each month. Our ultimate goal is to show our artist clients how many song sales are tied to their AirSpun promotional efforts. Right now we're working with partners such as Broadjam, E-junkie, and others to do that.

Mike Levine is an EM senior editor.