NPR, Robin Rogers, 98 Rock & Pay To Play

Back in the mid 1990’s I produced and engineered three tracks for a cousin’s rock band. The tunes, aided in large part by the production, were good enough to get the band featured on a radio show on WRFX (Charlotte, NC) called “Local Licks”. What followed was, for me, an education in marketing, self-delusion and human psychology that I would never forget.

Long story short, another cousin, whose band I had been scheduled to record first but who hadn’t been ready when the time came, took exception to the fact that this other band had been recorded first and was already getting radio airplay (even if it was a one-shot deal on a show featuring local music). What followed was a competition, in which this other cousin’s band worked feverishly to get one of their pre-recorded tunes on the radio before the other band. They managed to do so, getting some of their music played on a rival radio station. But a lot of bad blood was created by that childish jealousy. A lot of relationships were permanently damaged. And all for what? So someone could brag about their music being played once or twice on a local radio station?

Well, I freely admit that it was cool hearing my work on the radio that day. While the songs and performances clearly belonged to the band, everyone present at the recording sessions agreed that it was my production that made the difference, and that I’d put in a lot more work than the band members (a lesson in the reality of production work that was never forgotten). So, yeah. When the band got played on the radio, I was sitting there listening to it. Hell, I recorded it on DAT tape to preserve the moment. It’s always going to be a thrill for any musician to have music he’s involved with played on the radio, even if you realize it’s sort of a one-shot deal.

Well, I’m writing about this because an area radio station here in the Tampa Bay area ran a promotion this weekend called “Pay to Play”, in which listeners were invited to donate money to benefit The Children’s Home charity in exchange for having music they selected played on the radio. Some local bands took advantage of this opportunity and, having already submitted their music to the radio station’s online local music archive, paid to have their own music played on the radio. That’s what started me thinking about my radio experience in the 1990’s.

I have no problem with bands taking advantage of a promotion to get their music played on the radio. Hell, that’s savvy marketing in my book. Most people aren’t going to know that those bands literally paid to have their music played on the radio. The bands certainly aren’t advertising that fact. So, the overall impression is that those bands are getting their due and receiving recognition on a local radio station. That’ll generate some mileage for them with their fans, and who knows what they might be able to build upon this minor sleight-of-hand?

But this is only one short moment in the sun. In the 1990’s I had a conversation with my cousin, who asked me “Is this it?”, wondering if getting his music played on the radio meant that he’d finally received his big break, and if he, and his band, was on his way. I cautioned him that it was a big step forward, but that it was only one of many. I told him that the band needed to make sure that the little bit of exposure didn’t go to their heads, that what they needed to do was capitalize on the moment and get out there and play as much as possible. People were patting them on the back for getting played on the radio, but they’d forget rather quickly once the moment faded. People have really short memories. Someone who is hot one week can be forgotten the next. The best way to be left behind is to rest on your laurels. The way you achieve success is to capitalize on every moment and keep pushing the ball forward. Each moment, such as having a song played on local radio, is just one small success in a string of them. You got to keep moving from moment to moment, like stepping across stones to get to the other side of the lake. You have to keep the momentum going.

My cousin didn’t listen to me. After his band got played on the radio, the egos immediately went wild. Every person in that band thought he was the reason they were being played on the radio. That small amount of exposure wound up killing the band. They broke up two weeks after being played on the radio, and didn’t listen to a word of my advice. The other cousin’s band burned a lot of bridges in their childish competition. Between the two of them I was left with such a bad taste in my mouth where the desperate scrambling of musicians were concerned that I lost interest in producing music for bands, and didn’t record seriously again until we laid down tracks for my own band, Systematic Chaos, in 2009.

I would offer the same advice to any band who got their music on 98 Rock last weekend. Use the moment to move forward, but don’t spend too much time patting yourself on the back, believing that this is a defining moment, and that everything else you desire will soon fall into your lap. It’s good marketing to bullshit your fans into believing that your music is polished enough to be played on the radio on its own merits. Just don’t bullshit yourself into forgetting that you paid for your music to be there.

Which brings me to Robin Rogers.

Another reason I’ve wound up pondering these issues is that juxtaposed with last weekend’s “Pay for Play” promotion on 98 Rocks was a genuine moment of an artist I know receiving due recognition (that was justly earned). On Saturday morning Blues singer Robin Rogers did a nationally syndicated interview with Scott Simon on NPR’s “Weekend Edition”. It was a stirring interview, and brought Robin, who is battling terminal cancer, to a whole new level with her career. She’s just released a great new album titled Back In The Fire and is eating up the Blues charts. This recognition is much over-due, and is heart breaking in that it comes late in the game after decades of struggle, to a woman who has to know that this level of success is likely to be the pinnacle of her life’s artistic ambitions. There’s simply no more time to push her career to the next level.

At the moment, I can’t stop contrasting Robin’s touching NPR interview on Saturday morning with the unseemly scrambling of our local bands for scraps of attention from the media machine. Robin Rogers has achieved her modest level of success due to a lot of hard work, making great music with her husband, Tony, and being a shining example to her friends and fans of how being warm and genuine allows great artists to leave a large wake behind them. In short, Robin Rogers didn’t manufacture her moment in the sun or pay to be interviewed by NPR. This latest recognition came to her because she deserves it, has worked hard for it, and because there are people realizing that she’s significant in the overall scheme of things.

However some people might take it, I’m not bashing local bands for paying to have their music played on 98 Rocks. Hell, I can appreciate a savvy marketing move when I see one. Kudos to those bands for thinking of it. I wish I had! I just hope that these local bands will not kid themselves into believing that this brief moment in the sun is something that came as a reward for hard work, and is something that was earned. In other words, just as I told my cousin almost 20 years ago, “Don’t let it go to your head. This is just an opportunity.” Nothing more. You build upon each moment to get to the next. The journey never really ends.

In closing, I just want to give a nod to Robin Rogers. Back In The Fire is a great CD. Adding to the tragedy of Robin having terminal cancer is the added tragedy of knowing that the treasures she may have given the world in the years and decades to come will never materialize. We’ll never get to see how she evolves as an artist. But I hope that it’s some small consolation for her to know that she’s certainly secured her place in the pantheon with the music she’s made thus far, and that she’s going to be remembered. In the end, that’s really what matters.

When I was a kid, we always had a plaque hanging on the wall in our kitchen that read “Live so that when you are gone, it will have mattered that you were here”. I would suggest that these local bands who have been scrambling for attention this weekend take that to heart, and take a long, hard look at the life and career of Robin Rogers. In the end, she didn’t make music for that quick adulation and the pats on the back. She made music because she loved music. That’s why she’s receiving the recognition she justly deserves. And when she is gone, that is why it will have mattered that she was here. We should all live by her example.

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