Hot 97, Major Labels & The Big Money Truth Behind Mainstream Radio

Want mainstream radio to play your music? Sign to a major label. End of story.

Rapper Stro (formerly known as Astro) may not be hearing his songs on the radio, but he's making his voice heard on the airwaves after an argument he had with Hot 97 radio host Ebro Darden. The 18-year-old emcee and Brooklyn native stopped by the station's Ebro In The Morning show to discuss his past name changes and his career as an artist. That's when things took a turn towards the confrontational. 

A little after the nine minute mark, Stro mentions that as a lyrical rapper he needs the support of radio in order to truly get his music out to the world. Ebro wasn't having any of it, quickly hopping on the offensive. "Nah man, we can't support you yet, you ain't hot enough," Ebro said, later continuing, "This is that bullshit rapper cop-out...because my n*gga, you’re not doing the work.”

The "mainstream radio vs. indie rapper" debate now pops up again every year, like the California wildfires or herpes, because mainstream radio is unable or unwilling to tell the truth and indie rappers are unable or unwilling to hear the truth. Here's the truth. Hot 97 doesn't exist to "support" any artist, from anywhere. It exists to increase the value of Emmis Communications, Inc. stock, and it accomplishes this goal by playing music that convinces the most amount of people to listen to the radio for the most amount of time so that the most amount of advertising can be crammed into their ear holes. Period. 

That doesn't make (all) mainstream radio DJs and program directors terrible people, it makes them powerless, which is why most of the anger aimed at them is so misguided. In fact, most of their job is to absorb criticism, to take the hits, to act as human shields for Clear Channel, to be the face of the faceless, because when people think Ebro decides what music gets played they'll keep listening, keep debating, keep Hot 97's name relevant. But if indie rappers actually want anything to change they need to convince Emmis Communications CEO Jeff Smulyan, not Ebro, except indie rappers wouldn't know Jeff Smulyan if he spit on their backpacks and Jeff Smulyan certainly wouldn't even take the time to pretend to care what indie rappers think. Ebro's real job is to appear powerful, to engage with the public because the public would never listen to a radio station run by some guy named Jeff Smulyan, and Ebro's excellent at his job. 

If you want to know how music lands on the approved playlist that mainstream radio so loyally executes you don't need to hack their computers, you don't need to infiltrate Illuminati boardroom meetings, although if you did you might discover that they're really, actually, seriously consipiring to make Iggy Azalea famous. All you need to do is look at their playlists. Here's the most recent one posted from Hot 97. 

Fetty Wap - "679"
Jidenna - "Classic Man"
The Weeknd - "Can't Feel My Face"
Fetty Wap - "My Way"
DJ Snake - "You Know You Like It"
Big Sean - "Blessings"
Rihanna - "Bitch Better Have My Money"
Fetty Wap - "Trap Queen"
Drake - "Back to Back"
Wale - "The Matrimony" 

So this isn't just about Hot 97, let's also take a look at their New York City rival, Power 105 which is owned by the other giant, faceless media corporation that controls mainstream radio, iHeart Media, Inc (aka Clear Channel).

Missy Elliott - "Get Ur Freak On"
Jay Z - "Part II (On the Run)" 
Drake - "All Me"
Fetty Wap - "Trap Queen"
Jidenna - "Classic Man"
Drake - "Energy"
The Weeknd - "The Hills"
Meek Mill - "All Eyes On You"
Fetty Wap - "My Way"
Rich Homie Quan - "Flex"

Wow, what a difference. It's almost like the "rivalry" between their morning programs just distracts people from realizing they're essentially the exact same stations. But maybe this is too focused on New York. How about L.A.'s biggest hip-hop radio station Power 106 which, you guessed it, is owned and operated by Emmis Communications? Here's their most recent playlist

Fetty Wap - "Trap Queen"
Drake - "Energy"
Wiz Khalifa - "See You Again"
YG - "Twist My Fingaz"
Jidenna - "Classic Man"
Omarion - "Post To Be"
Trey Songz - "Slow Motion"
The Weeknd - "Can't Feel My Face"
DJ Snake & AlunaGeorge - "You Know You Like It"
Fetty Wap - "My Way"

For those keeping score at home, the sole difference between New York radio and L.A. radio is one YG song. Do I really need to keep going? Fine, one more, just to really hammer the point home. Chicago's a huge market, let's check out Power 92, which is owned by faceless media corporation Crawford Broadcasting.

Fetty Wap - "Trap Queen"
The Weekend - "Earned It"
Big Sean - "Blessings"
Rae Sremmurd - "Throw Some Mo" 
Omarion - "Post To Be"
Chedda da Connect - "Flicka Da Wrist"
K Camp - "Lil Bit"
Trey Songz "Slow Motion"
Drake - "How About Now"
Nicki Minaj "Truffle Butter"

Go ahead, check out every big radio station in the country, you're going to find the same playlist. Sure, there will be some minor differences, a T.I. track in Atlanta that doesn't get played in Chicago, apparently Chicago fucks with K Camp while New York doesn't, but that's just the same shit with different flies. It's not that New York radio doesn't support New York artists, it's that geography is essentially a complete non-factor in the music that gets played.

That's what makes Ebro's "We play Fetty Wap who's from New Jersey, that's basically supporting a New York rapper" defense so laughable, as if the reason they're playing Fetty 47 times an hour, just like every other station in the country, is because he's local. And it's also why I chuckled at Ebro's contention that Stro needed to be more like Action Bronson and Joey Bada$$, as if "doing the work" of touring and building a career had anything to do with the music Hot 97 plays either. (And for the record, Hot 97 doesn't really play Action Bronson or Joey Bada$$ outside of Rosenberg's "Real Late" show, which they allow to exist primarily to protect their hip-hop credibility and oh so generously give that coveted Mondays from midnight to 2 AM time slot.)

No, the simple truth about how music gets on the radio, the fundamental truth that no one seems willing to just say, is that if you want Hot 97 or any of the other Siamese twin stations in the country to play your music you need to sign to a major label. End of story. Again, there may be that one in 100 exception - who's the lone 'indie" rapper above, Chedda Da Connect? Fetty is signed to 300, whose ownership looks like a major label Hall of Fame - but come on. Any intelligent, reasonable person should be able to take a look at those playlists above and figure it out. Chance the Rapper is, without question, one of the most popular rappers in the country, radio won't play his songs. Mac Miller's albums outsold most major label albums, radio wouldn't play his songs and that's exactly why he left Rostrum to sign to Warner Brothers, and exactly why Macklemore hired Warner's radio promotion arm (ADA) to push "Thrift Shop." Because they faced the truth that so many other indie artists and fans are seemingly blind to, that the last real power major labels have (besides their pocketbook) are connections with the faceless media corporations that decide what music mainstream radio plays.  

So here, let's try that conversation between Ebro and Stro again, except this time let's strip away the bullshit. 

Stro: So what can I do to get played on Hot 97? 
Ebro: Sign to a major label. 
Stro: Ok, but check it, I hand you a song that's perfectly made for radio. 
Ebro: Are you signed to a major label? 
Stro: No. 
Ebro: Then you're fucked. 
Stro: What if I paid you? 
Ebro: Emmis Communications took in $58 million last year. You think I'm risking getting fired for some cash from a struggle rapper? 
Stro: But what if I get 'hot in the streets" and I....
Ebro: Major label.
Stro: But what if I get my 'buzz' up and...
Ebro: Major label major label major label. 
Stro: How about...


It's particularly odd to hear Ebro continue to redirect responsibility back at artists, as if there's really anything Stro can do to get on air except go back to Epic Records, because two years ago on the Combat Jack Show he came shockingly close to simply telling the truth, explaining that it was Neilsen ratings, Clear Channel, banks and labels that were controlling what music got played, not artists, and certainly not DJs. But maybe he realized that the truth was boring and complicated and on air he needed to boil down the truth to ratings-producing soundbites. That he could bring Stro on for an interview because he had that power, but he can't play his music because he doesn't have that power. Whatever the reason, Stro really should have just watched this the first time around. 

I'm not writing this because I take any joy in crushing the radio dreams of rappers, and I'm not even particularly angry at mainstream radio. Yes, there was a time not so long ago, before every major radio station was owned by data-driven corporations, when mainstream radio DJs had more freedom to play the music they wanted, and that was a better time, but that time is gone. That's a shame, but the bigger shame is continuing to watch indie artists put so much time, energy and money into chasing radio spins when that chase is nearly guaranteed to be a massive waste of time, energy and money, especially at a time when there are more ways to reach fans outside of mainstream radio than ever: Social media, YouTube, streaming services, independent radio (shameless plug) etc. etc. Watching these ongoing debates between rappers and Ebro is like watching someone bang their head repeatedly against the rock that is mainstream radio - who do you think is going to crack first, the head or the rock?

Should Hot 97 play more New York artists, and especially indie artists? This is business, there is no "should." There is only profit and loss, and make no mistake, radio is a business. Maybe if we all really accept that truth we can focus our collective energies on putting mainstream radio out of business, and hip-hop will be better off for it.  

[By Nathan Slavik. His beard is awesome, this is his Twitter. Additional writing and reporting by Brendan Varan. This is his Twitter.]



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