Want a gold record? Forget radio, go online

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Meet Cowboy Troy. He's a 6'5" black, rapping country singer-and he'll have a gold album by Christmas with hardly any airplay.

But while you won't hear this cowboy-born Troy Coleman-on the radio, his songs and videos have a big presence online and on music TV. He was also part of a CMT show that followed a group of country artists known as the "Muzik Mafia" as it went on tour. It's all part of his record label's plan to educate fans about an artist before bringing him to radio.

"We say to the radio groups, `I'm not going to ask you to [introduce this artist] on your own,"' said Bill Bennett, president of Warner Bros. Music Nashville, which represents Cowboy Troy. "We have an obligation to make it safe for radio. You'll see him on TV, out doing live appearances."

Cowboy Troy, estimates Mr. Bennett, has had only about 80 playings on radio so far. But his experience is becoming more typical.

Take Julie Roberts, another country singer whose self-titled debut album snared a gold record in February with little radio airplay. While it's hard to measure what actually moves CDs, said Luke Lewis, co-chairman of Universal Music Group Nashville, which produced Ms. Roberts' record, "it used to take a new artist with a hit record four months to go up the charts and now it's six and as many as 10 months." A lot of it, he said, is a shift in programming philosophy. "[Programmers] are more cautious, they watch records much longer."

Direct works best

While radio has long been and still is the main driver of music sales, more often than not labels supplement that publicity by launching their own sophisticated direct-to-consumer online marketing campaigns and public relations blitzes.

"The marked difference from the mid-1990s until now is we used to set up the community of our industry," said Phil Quartararo, exec VP, EMI Music North America. "Today we spend a lot more time, money and energy setting up consumers."

While Cowboy Troy is going nearly radio free, two decades ago emerging artists like Randy Travis spent their time actively courting DJs. (See chart below.)

"The radio conduits for new music have dried up a bit," said Brian Philips, a radio veteran who now heads CMT. "The old logic of just get something played a lot on the radio and it will sell seems less and less to be predictably true... The winners these days are people who can imagine beyond the narrow limitations of the old system."

The cost of marketing to radio stations can run a label $700,000 to $1 million to get it up the charts through a combination of trade advertising, tours to the top 100 media markets and free "listener appreciation" shows.

But things are changing. Last week Clear Channel Radio, the most targeted defendant against allegations of tight, vanilla play lists, added a major online initiative to offer emerging artists airplay across the company's 1,200 Web sites.

Clear Channel acknowledges that the Internet has become the destination for seeking out new artists, said Evan Harrison, exec VP-online music and radio. Mr. Harrison is a former record label veteran and prior to Clear Channel ran AOL Music. When hired by Clear Channel last December, he said one of his major goals was to promote new artists.

"Radio is typically the medium where people discover new music and while there has been a bad rap there've been a lot of success stories," he said.

Adds Mr. Lewis: "[Radio stations] are quick to remind us we're in different businesses and I don't run a radio station, so I can't speak to it... But we're having to compete with alt forms of entertainment just like they are."

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