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Jeff Regan, program director for SiriusXM's Alt Nation channel, in New York, Dec. 20, 2012.

, New York Times

SiriusXM is a new player in the hit-making machine

  • Article by: JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.
  • New York Times
  • January 24, 2013 - 9:44 AM

 

Jeff Regan took a break from announcing his top 18 alternative-rock songs on SiriusXM’s Alt Nation, lifted off his headphones and summed up the conundrum facing most radio programmers who want to introduce new bands.

“Radio has traditionally been that game where you say: ‘What’s on the charts? That’s what we play,’ ” he said. “And: ‘What do you play? What’s on the charts!’ ”

But Sirius is satellite radio, which relies on subscriptions rather than advertising, and that gives programmers like Regan more freedom to take chances on obscure bands than their counterparts in FM radio. SiriusXM has labored in recent years to position itself as a leader in presenting new music.

“We can try things,” Regan said. “We swing and miss, and that’s fine. At least we were given the opportunity to swing.”

These days Regan’s batting average is pretty high, several label executives and band managers said. He has played a critical role in the rise of alt-rock success stories like Foster the People and Grouplove; more recently, he jump-started the careers of several groups, among them Atlas Genius, Blondfire and Capital Cities.

“Jeff Regan has had an incredible knack of picking talent and songs and bands for the last few years,” said Daniel Glass, the founder of Glassnote Records.

As SiriusXM approaches 24 million subscribers, this once-minor player in promoting songs has become a proving ground for new bands, a steppingstone between the Internet and breaking into the rotation at big FM radio stations.

Broadcast radio is still king when it comes to creating stars who can fill arenas and sell 500,000 records or more. Alternative-rock stations like KROQ in Los Angeles and WRFF in Philadelphia continue to have immense sway. There are also a few influential noncommercial stations, like WFUV in New York, with the power to anoint bands.

Some radio analysts say it remains to be seen if Sirius, even with its expanding audience, will ever rival FM radio’s ability to drive music sales.

“It’s not really about how many bands you break,” said Fred Jacobs, a media consultant. “There are a lot of broadcast stations in small markets that break a lot of bands, too, but they don’t reach lots of listeners. You have to look at it in terms of overall reach and impact.”

Still, Sirius appears to be staking a claim to being a tastemaker, especially on channels like Alt Nation and XMU that try to offer the programming of a small noncommercial or college station to a national audience. Some bands say airplay on those channels leads to significantly increased sales and can attract interest from major labels.

Programmers at FM stations have become more conservative about playing unfamiliar bands or new tunes over the past five years, as the tracking systems that determine ratings have become more sensitive, recording, for instance, when a listener switches channels midsong.

More adventurous and aggressive

At the same time, SiriusXM is becoming more adventurous.

“I tell my programmers if they are finding out and discovering music only through record label promotion people, then they are not doing their jobs,” said Steve Blatter, Sirius’ senior vice president for music programming. “We very strategically are more aggressive than terrestrial radio in the way we identify songs and push them.”

That strategy over the past two years has led to many successful bands receiving their first broad exposure. Sirius’ country channel was the first to play Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” which has topped the Billboard Country Songs chart for four weeks. After that early airplay on Sirius, the duo signed a recording contract with Republic Nashville.

Regan’s Alt Nation channel has also led the pack of FM alt-rock stations in several instances, band managers said. Foster the People’s hit “Pumped Up Kicks” played on SiriusXM’s Alt Nation three months before climbing the rock radio charts. Grouplove, a Los Angeles band on Atlantic Records, enjoyed heavy airplay with its first single, “Colours,” on Alt Nation in March 2011, five months before it broke through on broadcast radio.

“It’s kind of like the biggest alternative station in the country and it’s definitely a test bed for things,” said David Wolter, an executive for artists and repertory at RCA Records. “I certainly keep an eye on their playlist.”

Trolling for the right sound

Regan, 37, seems to relish plucking artists from obscurity. One example is Atlas Genius, from Adelaide, Australia, whose song “Trojans” ended up at No. 5 on Billboard’s 2012 year-end alternative-songs chart.

Regan said he first heard “Trojans” on the Neon Gold blog in August 2011. Not only did the band have no record contact, but its members were going to college and had never toured. The song had been recorded in a home studio and posted as a free download online.

Still, Regan championed the track, and by the end of October the group’s single had sold 7,000 copies online. A bidding war among several major labels followed, and Warner Bros. won, signing Atlas Genius in February.

Regan said he spends much of his day trolling music blogs and websites, listening to original songs on platforms like SoundCloud and Bandcamp.

“You put your hand up and catch a couple of the right ones,” he said. “It’s just clicking, clicking, clicking.” He also scours British and Australian charts and relies on a network of musicians with whom he has forged ties to recommend other bands.

If he likes a track by an obscure group, Regan will put it into heavy rotation for two weeks in what he calls “new music radar” spots. He usually gives the song at least 40 plays a week and introduces the band each time, before and after the track.

“You have to be real and commit and play it and introduce it and grab the hand of the listener and walk them up to the song,” he said.

One of Regan’s recent radar songs was “Believer,” by American Authors, a Brooklyn band he heard about through a Sirius employee who moonlights as a musician. He was also spinning an anthem another colleague had found on a music blog: “Dust and Bones” by an unsigned Los Angeles duo called Night Terrors of 1927.

“Hook up with them now,” he told his listeners as he announced the track. “They are going to get popular quick, and you knew about them early.”

 

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