How do you break a Dancehall record in the US mainstream? Part 1
Its the Holy Grail for any Dancehall/Reggae artist or producer – to find that elusive crossover hit that gets play-listed on mainstream US radio and finds itself on Billboard. Shifting units like never before, a welcome spike in performance fees, even a record deal are all possible outcomes. But its hard. Its always been hard and its been getting progressively harder in recent years due to a number of factors; some of our own making and some down to the rapidly changing face of mainstream radio and record labels in the US.
Everyone on the outside looking in has an opinion – you should go with this record or that riddim, but very few people understand the process and obstacles in the way for Jamaican music in the mainstream, so I thought I would share some thoughts and experiences.
How does it work?
Well, the records that have traditionally worked best are those already a huge smash in Jamaica, better still those that have also saturated the Caribbean and Dancehall scene in the US. No Games, Hold Yuh and Nobody Has To Know all broke in the core outside of Jamaica first. These records reach the ears, albeit somewhat delayed, of US Program Directors and DJs naturally. They grow organically and will always have the best shot at the title.
With assists from WZMX in Hartford, records that have crossed over in recent years have almost all started on New York’s HOT 97. New York is a huge diaspora market so the big Dancehall records will get picked up naturally and may get added at the lowest level of rotation first – in mix shows, without any lobbying. Then after a finite number of spins on-air the record will be tested with random listeners and if it comes back positive it will step up a notch or few, until you reach daytime rotation.
Your record is on air on the hottest radio station in the US, but you need it to grow and pretty rapidly too. Radio stations all like to see a story around the record/artist. Is there a video? Is the artist doing sold-out shows in the market? Is there a record label supporting the song? Is there strong, proactive management who are well-connected and well-respected? Is the artist on the right blogs? What are online analytics looking like? The Sound Cloud and You Tube plays, Spotify numbers, IG follower count, the list goes on.
Then the radio station will want to see other stations started playing it, which again may happen organically in one or two other markets for Dancehall/Reggae records; Hartford and Boston will most likely be next. Now’s a good time to get a dedicated radio promotion guy on your team. You, your manager and your radio guy need to be attacking PDs and DJs in markets such as Florida, DC, the Carolinas, upstate NY etc. The PDs at those stations will all pull up BDS to check spins, which will tell them who’s playing it where, how many times per week and if the record is growing or dying already. They will also want to see a masterplan for the record.
Dancehall only really ever has one slot on any US radio station and the majority of stations don’t even have that slot. The slot is also sometimes restricted; unfortunately it often feels like our genre is in a box marked “Summer Only” or “Novelty.” So the window is even smaller and harder to get through. It helps to open the window if a hot US act jumps on the record – Hold Yuh’s success and ability to get played on such a wide range of markets was undoubtedly helped by Nicki Minaj’s timely remix, which helped revitalize it and propel it above and beyond. But its also been a while since that has happened.
While his/her team are working on all of the above, the artist should be doing drops and dub plates round-the-clock for radio stations and their DJs. They should be calling in to or visiting as many stations as they can for interviews and also be jumping in the clubs with the station’s on-air personalities. Unfortunately work ethic and the short-sighted approach some of our artists have towards doing these things means the record may very well stall because they’re not out there fighting the cause. Shaggy, still the most dedicated and hardworking of all Jamaican acts, will take a plane at 5am just to go and do a free show for a radio station or an interview because he understands that’s what it takes and it will pay off in the long run. He’s an excellent mentor for any young act to learn from.
All of the above takes a lot of time, money and energy and unfortunately we have been our own worst enemy when it comes to putting in the work it takes to get where we should be. There’s no doubt that Dancehall artists are, rightly or wrongly, widely perceived as unprofessional, demanding and problematic. If you’re happy mashing up the 14 parishes, keep it up, if you want more then it takes a whole lot of work.
What I have also discovered is its very hard, nigh on impossible, to break a record by a Dancehall act that is NOT the biggest record in Jamaica or the core market. Its the first question you will be asked by a PD – “Is it hot in Jamaica?” If they are even asking you that, they know the answer already. Having built and leaned on great relationships over the years I have managed to get some records into rotation that haven’t been huge in Jamaica but they have all fallen pretty much at the first hurdle.
If you’re trying to break an artist or a record in the US, take my foolish advice and pay attention to getting that record hot in the core as well. This also goes for follow-up records – second singles. Elephant Man caught a break with Pon Di River and Jook Gal, but we had only modest success with Serani’s second single She Loves Me, the follow up to his 400k-selling No Games. We ended up only selling about 60k, got a decent number of spins but it faded from there. Gyptian’s follow-up to Hold Yuh didn’t even fair as well as that, so when your record is buzzing Stateside, you need to be working on getting your next record hot a Yard.
Why it got harder:
A few years ago, around the time Dancehall went all fusion and chasing a hybrid urban sound, I noticed Program Directors and DJs in the US were all asking me the same question:
“Why aren’t they making any good rhythms in Jamaica anymore?”
In my opinion, the effect that had caused those same PD’s and DJs and more importantly music lovers and radio listenership to tune-out of our genre. We stopped making those bone-knocking boof-baff records that grabbed their ears in the first place so they just listened to something else. We fell off the radio and are still trying to recover.
At the same time we fell off the FM dial radio became a business more than ever in the US, as internet and satellite radio threatened their monopoly. Owned by publicly-traded corporations, the advertising dollar and listener numbers/market share are the beginning and end for them. Some station bosses realized their Reggae and Dancehall specialist shows weren’t bringing in the numbers or dollars and have been re-formatted, moved to graveyard shifts or cut completely, narrowing our lane even further.
Simultaneously the radioscape in Jamaica changed dramatically too. With the accessibility of technology, quantity over quality mushroomed to levels never seen before. Its easy to become a producer or an artist now, so an already crowded space turned into a room where nobody could breathe. Payola rampaged and there were/are an infinite number of willing participants on both sides – some even paid disc jockeys and selectors to NOT play the records of rivals. Radio disc jockeys, selectors, dancers became producers and artists, which for the record I have no problem with, but they all want to hear their records being played too. Side-taking and bias also ballooned. Dancehall has thrived on rivalry but when we formed the Alliance and then the Gully/Gaza feud exploded, it fragmented the business even further. Wether they will admit it or not, some disc jockeys took sides, the feelings of which are still being carried. Jamaican radio arteries were getting blocked. Chaos ruled.
The worst outcome of all this disorder meant hits, real hits, weren’t getting the chance to be made anymore. The records and talent were there but weren’t getting a chance to stay on air or in the ears of anyone long enough to become a hit. When you visit the US and listen to FM radio the first thing you notice is it feels like the same set of records are being played over and over. It may get tiresome but thats how hits are made – persistence. Its genuinely hard to name a bonafide Record of the Year in Jamaica for many years now. The preeminent Dancehall radio promotion person in the US told me he thinks the last record that was the biggest song in Jamaica that worked at radio in the US was Dutty Whine. I would argue So Special but whatever it is, its been a while since it happened. As one record rises another one takes its place, this week this riddim is the hottest, next week its something else. Its also been reflected in the longevity of artists who are claimed to be “hot.” How many artists have managed to buss and maintain, much less take it to the highest level in recent years? Since Mavado and Kartel how many artists can claim icon status? I-Octane, Konshens, Demarco and others are all extremely talented and if the environment was different – where their talent had some elbow room, they probably would be even bigger.
Slow down people. Lets get back some quality control inna di ting.
How do you break a Dancehall record in the US mainstream? Part 2