Tales from a Metalhead: Chapter 28: Them Promos

Tales from a Metalhead logo

This chapter is part of a book called Tales from a Metalhead written by Metal Express Radio’s President Stig G. Nordahl. The chapters will be posted one at the time and you can find them all here.

Promos; I have no idea how many thousands of promo albums I have received since the 80s. The label or the band sends the music to the media in order to have it reviewed, to set up an interview with the band, or to get airplay. When I first started working at a local FM radio station we received promo albums and singles (vinyl only back then), but very little or none of it was Hard Rock. For the first period I brought my own records, borrowed and even bought some in order to have proper music for my show. I learned a bit later that Hard Rock promos were only sent to radio stations that had a particular show for that kind of music.

I had no idea about labels or distribution companies back then, so I looked in the yellow pages and called everyone that looked like they were releasing or distributing music. I failed most of the time and the person at the other end of the line had no idea what I was talking about when I asked if they could send me Hard Rock promos. Luckily, I did get ahold of the folks I needed, to put me on the promo lists of some big labels like Polygram, EMI, and BMG and smaller labels/distributors that don’t exist anymore. Most seemed very excited to have another Hard Rock show on the list and it didn’t take long before my mailbox was full of new LPs. What a deal! I got most new albums, even before the release date, for free, just by doing my hobby as a Rock DJ on the radio.

Not all bands releasing albums would fill arenas.

After a while I started doing label tours every week, driving to all of their offices to get brand new releases in case they ran out of promos. My show, Ruff Stuff, was mostly comprised of new music every week, and most albums only got played once or twice. There were exceptions if I thought the albums were extremely good. The other guys at the station, who played pop music, could obviously not bring the albums home, but I was the only one playing Hard Rock music so nobody cared. Most of the time that is. When Guns N’ Roses released Appetite for Destruction they got so popular that they were even played on daytime radio. We had the singles from the album as well, but one time someone asked for the rest of the album and got mad because I had left it at home. Well, I was reviewing the albums so I had to listen to them repeatedly. I told him to play the singles. I still have the album at home.

I got my first CD player in 1986 which was cool, but it took a while before the labels started sending promo CDs. Some labels sent us forms where we had to fill in what kind of equipment we used to play music on air. I believe they were curious to know if we had CD players so they could send promo CDs. CD players were expensive at the time so I was really happy receiving music in the new format. Today, I believe I value the old vinyl a bit more though. The CDs were obviously easier to pack and ship for the labels and they even fit into a regular mailbox.

After a few years, I had huge piles of CDs and LPs. After moving a couple of times I figured I couldn’t keep all of them. Most of them were hardly even played, so I got rid of a lot. Today, I regret not keeping some of them. I think a few would be quite valuable, being first pressing with the promo sheet still inside. Say no more…

Packs small, plays big!

The promo CDs were shipped in regular jewel cases for some years into the 90s before they were sent in all kinds of variations. The labels wanted to save money on shipping so they started sending the CDs without the jewel case. Only the CD was sent along with the booklet and back cover. I very rarely bought jewel cases myself and I still have loads of CDs in an album with the loose CDs and booklets. After a while, someone got the bright idea that it would be less expensive to send the CDs even without the booklet, only the CD in a flat paper case. The tracklists were usually just attached to the back of the case, and sometimes just printed on the CD itself. It was not the same feeling looking through flat-packed CDs on the shelf. It was a hassle! I can imagine this was also done to prevent promos from being sold, which is a good point.

When the internet came along and people started sharing files, further action needed to be taken in order to prevent file sharing. Quite understandable! Unrippable CDs were made. I only got a few of those before they disappeared. It would have worked some years earlier, but when all tracks played on the radio are mp3 files and you can’t extract these files then the CDs are unusable for airplay. You could still use them for reviews, but it took time and cost money to ship the CDs to reviewers. That didn’t happen, so no review for you sir!

Xeroxed b/w album cover glued to the card board case.

Another example of steps made to prevent file sharing was to divide the songs into multiple tracks. The first time I put one of those “chapped up” CDs is in my player it showed 99 tracks! One song would typically be about ten individual tracks. It goes without saying that you can’t play that on the radio without a lot of work. I actually spliced all the different parts into one track on very few occasions just to have certain songs played on the radio. These promos obvioulsy did not get a lot of airplay.

The next attempt at avoiding file sharing was to fade the tracks prematurely or even fade the music for a couple of seconds in the middle of the tracks. Of course, we couldn’t use this for radio play either. It was even more annoying when they added a voice-over in the middle of the track with a recording by the artist “Hi, this is [band member’s name], from the band [band name] and you are listening to our new album [album title].” This also pissed off the reviewers so the promos didn’t get airplay nor reviews.

13 songs, 2 tracks on CD

Another version ruining the listening experience was to have one or two tracks for airplay in the beginning of the album and then mix together the rest of the songs as one track. That means you would have 2-3 tracks for a whole album on the CD. Imagine the nightmare to locate a spesific song among 8 other songs mixed together as one track with 40 minutes duration. Thanks Annihilator!

Some labels stuck with the cheap package version until digital downloads become the new standard. At first, I felt like: “Argh, when we play their music they could at least send us the CD. That is our salary!” Back then, in order to play it again, the CD should be in your collection. A few years later it was a full 180: “Argh, why are they still shipping CDs? Now I have to rip it before we can play it on the radio!” Some labels still ship CDs, but more than 90% of the time we have already received the digital downloads.

Nowadays we receive links for digital promos, and the files get a watermark when you download them. That means the music can be traced back to you if you share it. After the Queensrÿche incident that I told you about earlier, I am always a bit worried that any of our promos shall get in the wrong hands, be shared, and traced back to us. When we download a promo it is available for our crew members, we send the files to reviewers and screeners. I trust them all of course, but what if a PC filled with our watermarked files got stolen?

Time to buy some jewel cases…

When I started Metal Express Radio I only had an old PC to use as server for the radio stream. The hard drive had limited space so when I ripped music from my CD collection (and most of my friend’s collections) I only ripped 2-3 tracks from each, maybe a couple more if the CD was outstanding. I wanted most bands to be on the radio stream, but I had to keep the number of tracks from each to a minimum. I spent hours and hours ripping tracks. At the time 128 kbps was considered a decent bitrate for music. That would of course change later as the hard drives got bigger and internet connections got faster. So, most of it has been ripped again now that our stream is at 192 kbps. This time with all good tracks from each album.

99% of the promos are digital downloads these days. The bands or labels send us an email with the link to download the music from a promo pool, Dropbox, Google Drive etc. Some bands even attach the songs in the email. It is always a nightmare when they send 6-7 emails to send an entire album without zipping the data first.

8 out of 11 tracks with faded out versions

Most promos have bad mp3 tags. That means if we play the songs on the stream without correcting the tags it will be displayed 01-Like_this_-_on_the_radio_stream. It takes a lot of work to get it right. I have no idea why the underscores are added, but there is probably a good reason for it.

Back in the day, our goal was to have tracks from all the good Heavy Metal bands on the planet on the radio stream. That is still our goal, but it is virtually impossible. We screen every single promo sent to us to pick the tracks to put on rotation. The amount of promos we receive every week is enormous and it is getting harder to find the gems among the gravel. In the digital age, it’s easier for bands to do things themselves. More and more bands are distributing the music themselves and there are tons of small labels out there that want to spread the word of their bands and releases. We have always been “all about the albums” to quote Michael Romeo from Symphony X, but these days more and more bands are releasing singles instead of full albums. That means the amount of promos increases even more. We do as many singles as we can, but the full albums get the most attention.

3 playable songs is better than none.

As soon as you get on someone’s promo list many will send you all kinds of uninteresting crap. It’s obvious that we’re not interested in new rap or britpop tracks, but we also get emails when bands release lyric videos; a cheap and popular way of promoting tracks. Unless there is a download link for the music, those emails are considered spam as we cannot play lyric videos on the radio anyway. We don’t have time to watch them either. Some of the press releases are just as funny as they are uninteresting. “[Add band name you’ve never heard of] reveal the tracklist of their forthcoming album”, or “[add the name of a musician you never heard of] quits [add band you’ve never heard of] before releasing their new album [add album title you will never hear about again].”

We send all the promos that sound like a match for Metal Express Radio to our screeners to pick the tracks. The first screening is actually email filters that automatically delete emails that deal with genres we don’t cover. Our email filters delete close to 500 emails a month, and without them, the screening situation would be hopeless. The second screening consists of deleting 90% of the emails that deal with lineup changes, tour announcements, lyric videos, etc., and forwarding the remaining 10% to our screeners. The second screening is not listening to the music but considering how the music and genre are described. Some labels can write several paragraphs without even explaining what kind of music the band is playing. Delete!

Sometimes this was all you got. Excellent music though!

We also receive a lot of demo tapes. What is a demo these days anyway? It is certainly not tapes anymore. It seems like the difference between a demo and a self-release is that the demo has a really crappy production. Delete! Even though I feel sorry for the youngsters begging to get their music played on the radio.

We get a lot of messages via Facebook from bands that want to send us their material. We have set up automated responses explaining how to submit the music to us. Even though it is thoroughly explained that we need information about the band and the music, some just send an email with their recordings writing: “As we agreed on FB, here is our album.” Who’s album? Delete!

These days it seems like every band must have its own genre. Over the years I learned to live with a lot of subgenres, but some I have no idea about. If it just sounds too alternative or brutal… Delete! Would you like us to play bands promoting their music as the following?

Swiss Cinematic Post-Rock
Synth Doom
Black Sludge
Funeral Death
Noise Powerwave Grunge Shoegaze
Ambient Cinematographical Post Rock
Norwegian Romantic Black Metal
Bubblegum Doom…


Every now and then I take my turn screening promos. If you dig deep enough you can find some gold. I am always pleased when I find a quality album by an unknown band. We work hard to keep the music on the radio stream at a certain quality level. We actually screen the promos three times; first the emails, then by the screeners, and then again before uploading to the server. There is of course quality music that we won’t play simply because the genres do not fit the radio. We are diverse but within limits. Personal taste does of course matter. Right now I am totally fed up with Symphonic Metal, especially containing operatic vocals. Delete! We have tons of it on the server and we just don’t need more of it, especially if it all sounds the same.

Sometimes I hear a track on the stream that I consider crap, just to notice I uploaded it myself. When you listen through a pile of promos within various genres the quality standard drops after a while, because you start getting tunnel vision (or tunnel hearing if there is such a thing). So when the track has finished playing. Delete! We actually have a jingle we can use if we want to fade a track before it’s finished, if it’s so bad we have to abort: “Oooh, I am sorry you had to go through that! That was one crappy track. Here is another one, but this one rocks! Enjoy!”

Do I miss the days when dropping by the labels once a week to pick up the latest releases was the norm? Absolutely!

It costs a lot to keep Metal Express Radio running. Let’s face it, we’re a grassroots web radio and we do this because we love Metal. Any contributions that helps keeping us afloat are highly welcomed. We gladly accept donations on our donate page.


  • Stig G. Nordahl

    Stig is the founder and the president of Metal Express Radio, based out of Oslo, Norway. He has been around doing Metal radio since the mid-eighties. In fact, running Metal Express Radio takes almost all of his time. Is it worth it...? "Most times, yes," Stig says. "My philosophy is to try to give all Metal releases a fair chance to get promoted in one way or another. As you can imagine, it can be an arduous task to listen through about 20 albums every week! Still, I know we have the best METAL dedicated radio on this planet, and that is a reward in and of itself. I hope one day the whole Metal community can and will make listening to Metal Express Radio part of their daily rituals! Yeah, right..."

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