There was a time when Music Directors roamed the earth in great numbers. Some didn't even have airshifts. Many were hired to help programmers manage the music – special and weekend programming, record label relations, and music screening and discovery.
That last part of the job description was why many got into radio in the first place – to test their skills for picking hits. And some of the best in the business prided themselves on their “great ears” – their ability to hear a band in a bar or a song on an EP from Belfast or Sydney and believe there was something there.
Some were actually pretty good, and they became nearly as legendary as the programmers they worked for. Over the years, a number have gotten credit for discovering a new artist that went onto superstardom – better known as “breaking a band.”
The truly great stations had one of these talented “music discoverers” on staff, many of whom had no desire to ascend to being a PD. They loved plowing through that stack of vinyl each week, tasked with finding the true nuggets.
Those gold records on the wall weren't just decorative. They meant something, especially to the radio pros who had the intuition, the skill, and the knack for nailing hits.
Last year, I saluted Rush in this space on the 40th anniversary of their Permanent Waves album, and the release of an animated video tribute to their late drummer, Neil Peart, as well as some of the “radio heavies” who took a shot on that power trio from Canada.
Donna Halper was the Music Director at the influential WMMS/Cleveland back in the '70s. She “heard” Rush the first time she placed their album on the turntable. And she went to bat for a band that many overlooked or underestimated. These were not isolated stories in those days.
On FM rock stations, it was dedicated, dogged MDs like her that had an impact. At the mighty AM Top 40 stations – like WLS, WABC, KHJ, and the rest – discovery was the realm of powerful music directors – or more accurately, gatekeepers.
WAPP in New York used one of those “Homegrown” competitions to discover Jon Bongiovi, a 21 year-old kid from New Jersey. Bon Jovi's “Runaway” became a major rock radio hit in 1983, launching an amazing career.
Perhaps the most legendary ears belonged to CKLW's Rosalie Trombley who had the reputation for being the “toughest add.”
A young Bob Seger went so far as to write and record an ode to her, eponymously titled “Rosalie.” Part of the chorus is Bob repeating “She got the power.” It was all true.
But in modern-day radio, music discovery is a different world. Putting aside all of the criticism lobbed at radio companies today – they're too top-down, consolidated, conservative – and let's focus on perhaps the #1 problem: Where do you look for music that has a chance to truly break out if it makes its way on the airwaves?
Back in Donna and Rosalie's eras, pretty much everything being released by major and even independent labels made its way into the radio station. It was all sitting at the receptionist's desk.
Today, music directors of all platforms are tasked with finding “the next big thing.” We covered the music discovery challenge in a blog post last week, and we talked about the abundance of hi-tech sources where fledgling artists and little-known nuggets can be unearthed – streaming services, YouTube, Shazam, TikTok – and the list goes on.
One of our consultants, Mike Stern, recently introduced me to a very 2020s method of music discovery that mashes up crowd sourcing and competitive contesting in a new mobile app. And it fits snugly into our conversation about how new artists and songs can gain exposure using new tech tools.
DJooky is a new music startup, designed to identify emerging artists that have a shot to break through. Self-described as “the world's first global online music contest,” DJooky's discovery contests are open to any and all songwriters and performers in a contest format that runs quarterly.
Not surprisingly, the company was started by a team of music professionals, including American producer Brian Malouf (Madonna, Michael Jackson), along with another producer, former Universal Ukraine exec Andrew Dakhovsky.
The app's discovery feature is called HitHunter, and it's a place where the DJooky community can award points to aspiring new songs. The collective ears of actual music listeners is the feature that sets the search function apart.
Like so many other web-based applications these days (think Peloton) HitHunter has a competitive angle as well. There are leader boards, pitting would-be A&R professionals against each other.
And the cash prizes for having “great ears” can total up to $1,000 – not quite enough to become a full-time Music Director. But you can see the day when contest winners will pitch themselves to Spotify, Pandora, or broadcast radio based on their hit-picking abilities.
Obviously, a major motivator for the development of DJooky – and HitHunter, in particular – has been the hard road so many bubbling-under artists have endured this past year, not to mention the millions of music fans unable to attend shows, concerts, and clubs due to COVID.
As Dakhovsky explained to Music Business Worldwide's Murray Stassen, “(HitHunter) extends the principle of music recommendation by involving our community in the curation process.”
And Malouf adds, “Now HitHunter gives the non-musicians in our community a fun and unique opportunity to showcase their talent spotting prowess and more importantly, become recognized for it in the form of leaderboard and prizes.”
In other words, just as we have YouTube and TikTok stars, as well as thousands of online “influencers,” you can envision the day when the very best hit predictors will be compensated for their great ears. A reality TV show can't be far behind either.
In the meantime, analog music discovery is alive and well, albeit an increasing rarity in the broadcast radio industry. Relying heavily on young “shredders” on TikTok, KLOS PD Keith Cunningham has spent the last year or so looking for local talent in the Los Angeles environs.
Jasmine Star is a 17 year-old Southern California phenom who Keith discovered. One of five finalists in a global guitar competition, Keith contacted Jasmine's dad, booked an interview, and brought her into the studio to cut a few short videos.
Now, “Jasmine Jams” has seven “editions.” For KLOS, not only is there the joy, satisfaction, and pride of discovery, but some of Jasmine's video's have racked up more than a million views. That social media component didn't exist back when Donna Halper found Rush or WAPP bumped into Jon Bon Jovi.
You can watch (and listen to) all of Jasmine's KLOS videos here.
Radio has come a long way since the 1970s when Lee Abrams had his local music directors stuffing record store bags with little cards.
Or has it?