How non-commercial radio stations like WXPN plan to stay relevant in the YouTube age

Five songs. Twenty minutes of stage time. Free eats. No pay. That’s the "deal" for the retro song and dance team of Nancy and Beth (alter egos for “Will and Grace” costar Megan Mullally and Stephanie Hunt of “Friday Night Lights” fame  to “work”  the Non-Comm radio convention holding forth this week in the showrooms of  World Café Live.

Still,  it was enough to spirit the duo, plus their band, backing singer Petra Haden and road crew to haul their collective selves from Austin, Texas and L.A. for a pricey, two-night stay, said group bassist Andrew Huffman.

And they were hardly the only musicians who felt compelled to court the Non-Comm crowd – ripe with nearly 300  radio program directors, air talent and music industry professionals from the “adult alternative” music world, represented locally by WXPN, the convention’s hosts.

Dan Auerbach – identified by XPN  air personality and conference organizer Dan Reed as “the #1 artist on the format”  - popped in to talk up his hit track “Shine on Me,” featuring a guitar cameo from Mark Knopfler “whom I still haven’t met” and the forthcoming album from whence it’s drawn.

A surprisingly robust Deborah Harry and Blondie kicked off their summer comeback tour on opening (Wednesday) night at Non-Comm with praise to the power brokers in the room. Earlier, during his set, heroic rocker Tommy Stinson of Bash & Pop (and the legendary Replacements) testified: “This is where it’s at. Without you people, we’d be nowhere.”

Well, not exactly. In today’s streaming and social media-driven music world, listeners have lots of new places to “self-select  their own media channels, make up their stations as they go along,” said David Macias of Thirty Tigers, a label which manages and distributes  music for the likes of Jason Isbell and Patty Griffin, ”though we don’t own any of it.” Thirty Tigers has to “organize and approach as many media as we can” and pitch them with an artist story “good enough to land on [NPR’s]  ‘Morning Edition.”  

Discussion sharer Bill Burrs of the indie label 300 Entertainment said “the curators who put together the playlists at Spotify and Apple Music have to be visited every week” as  they now have as much or more clout as pop radio programmers.

“The way hip hop blows up organically on the street, with mix tapes, is a whole other story,“ Burr added. “Blink and you’ve missed it.” (300 Entertainment has been highly successful in that realm with Fetty Wap, Migos and Young Thug.)  

YouTube -- with music operations now run by Burr’s former label boss Lyor Cohen -- is  yet another monster, he agreed. “My 15-year-old son, who finds all his music on YouTube, is constantly on me - ‘Dad, you really ought to sign this guy. He’s got three million hits.”

So how is non-commercial radio responding? Two years ago, a collective of stations used Non-Comm to kick start VuHaus, a co-op streaming video service with live performances captured mostly in the stations’ studios.  On Thursday, WXPN general manager and NPR Members Board Director Roger LaMay was joined by NPR Program Director Anya Grundman to announce another resource-pooling venture, called “the Emerging Artists Project” but “likely to change by the time we formally announce it in August, then launch in the fall,” said LaMay. 

With participation from “at least 19 stations, syndicated shows and the NPR Music streaming service,” the plan is to rally their resources behind “three up- and-coming artists that we all like – promoting their new music, sponsoring their live shows as special events," added LaMay. "Maybe we can even get them together for a few concert bills. But there won’t be a joint tour, everybody riding on the same bus. We want to have a positive impact on their careers. And demonstrate the clout we have.”

Read more by Jonathan Takiff

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