By Lilli Kuzma, host of “Folk Festival”
“How do you pick songs for your show?” is a question I’ve heard many times, usually asked in a soft, somewhat breathless tone, accompanied by a quizzical look. I always get the impression that the expected answer is one that discloses a mysterious process carried out in conjunction with scented candles, chanting, and a certain planetary alignment.
But it’s actually much simpler: as new CDs come in, I stack them alphabetically, then pick up handfuls and shuffle them like a deck of cards. I deal out hands of five from each bunch, then take the titles and write them on ping pong balls, which are then placed in a rolling bingo cage. I crank the handle to turn the cage, remove the ping pong balls that emerge, and gather the winning titles for my playlist.
Of course that’s NOT how I choose songs for my show! But I did manage to keep a poker face while writing the above paragraph.
The best songs are chosen for airplay on the show, and by ‘best’ I mean those with a combination of excellent songwriting and arranging, vocals, musicianship, and production quality. Timeliness factors in with picks for themed shows, holidays, and current events. Of course, the word ‘best’ is partly relative and certainly my own tastes influence some of the songs played on the show.
“But you get more music than you can play, so how do you pick,” you’re saying right about now.
And of course you’d be correct. I receive more music than I can possibly play on my show, and even the ‘best’ CDs are limited in airplay received due to time constraints on the show.
For me, the choices are like putting a mosaic or a puzzle together. I outline the hours for my show, blocking out time for the live studio spots, then building playlists for the other times from new and old recordings. As I receive new CDs and listen to them, I make notes about which songs I intend to play, which will be sooner or later depending on thematic needs and the timeliness of the material, and also incorporate older titles as it fits the show. For example, for a recent theme for Arbor Day, I was obviously looking for songs about trees. I already had a list of some songs I would be using, from CDs I was very familiar with, like Tim Grimm’s The Turning Point, with his, “The Tree,” and Jonathan Byrd’s “I was an Oak Tree.” I recalled Chicago-based Emily Hurd had a song referencing trees on her fine new CD, Landmark, and her “Trees” was added. Soon I had a trunkful of songs, and then began the process of whittling down the playlist to fit the time available.
I like to present an eclectic mix of styles, along with varied tempos, keys, and qualities of voices and instrumentation, so all of this will factor in as I narrow the playlist yet more. So, sometimes, one artist getting picked over another is pure luck, in the sense that I might be looking for a clear female voice to follow a rough-timbered male voice, or want an up tempo instrumental to follow a ballad.
The first thing any artist should be concerned about is the quality of the material and the production quality of the CD. If you have excellent songs that are recorded in an excellent manner, you should get airplay sooner or later. I can’t always give airplay immediately to all the excellent material received, but will often highlight a CD weeks or months following its release, often tied to thematic needs or when the artist comes to town for a concert.
After your excellent CD is finished, the process of communicating this to folk radio becomes another important step, and you should provide the music in an attractive and ‘user-friendly’ form for the DJ. Those of you who have attended folk conferences and heard the DJs talk about this should already know that we expect easy-to-read fonts and large enough type for your song titles, lyric sheets if possible, the time-lengths of the songs, and other salient information: songwriter(s) for each song, names of musicians and vocalists on the tracks, your contact information, and ideally a ‘one-sheet’ that describes the new CD and a little about your music and career. Inclusion of a small card insert with the CD that lists the tracks, times, and basic info is another thing applauded by folk radio. I would actually describe this as “thunderous” applause – seriously, we love these little info cards tucked into the CD!
In short, do great music and get the word out in a professional manner, become known through fine recordings, performances, and conferences, and you should have a ‘presence’ on the radio!
Attending folk conferences like FARM is a great way to expose your music to a big group of people immersed in the genre, including folk DJs and venue presenters, and a wonderful opportunity to introduce yourself to a folk DJ musically through your showcase or other performances, or at the Folk DJ Reception event.
Another way to become known to a folk DJ is through a more established artist who thinks you are wonderful. Their recommendations and testimonials will sometimes influence my checking into another’s music. Such mentors in the folk community can be a huge boost to a career. And, of course, the DJs influence each other too, with airplay choices and comments about artists and their material. The Folk DJ site at www.folkradio.org is a tremendous asset to me as a folk DJ, and likewise an incredible resource to artists and others involved in folk music.
So, as you can see, picking songs for Folk Festival isn’t random in any way, but a careful and deliberate process that hopefully results in an interesting show that reflects back to the listeners the best of what’s new in folk music and related styles, while revisiting old chestnuts and favorites that honor tradition and which continue to be influential.
I am honored to be involved with folk radio and all of the amazing talent and great people that comprise our unique and important community. Contact me at LKupbeat@aol.com. And I hope to see you this fall at FARM in Iowa City!