My songs haven’t been on a radio playlist in 20 years, so I have to admit I’m punching the air

It never stops being exciting hearing yourself on the radio. 

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It never stops being exciting hearing yourself on the radio. Often, for me, that means walking into a shoe shop where “Missing” is playing. I don’t notice at first, as I’m too busy concentrating on looking for an ankle boot with a zip, but then I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and I’m metaphorically sniffing the air, thinking, “What is it? I detect something, but what? Where? Oh, it’s me.”

At the moment, though, I’m having the joyful experience of hearing something new on the radio. My single, “Queen”, was recently added to the BBC Radio 6 Music playlist. To put that in perspective, I haven’t been on a playlist in probably 20 years, so I’d be lying if I said I didn’t punch the air.

Many aspects of the music business have changed over the last two decades, but airplay still matters. Video didn’t kill the radio star after all, and even the internet hasn’t, quite. You can do as many interviews as you like, tweet till your thumbs are sore, but often you’re still only talking to the people who’ll buy your record anyway, whereas radio play means reaching out beyond that crowd, catching the ear of the casual listener who has never heard of you before but hopefully likes the sound of your voice.

So at promo time, artists dream of getting on playlists, and nowadays that also means the ones that are created on sites such as Spotify, and which people use so much to filter and curate their listening. There’s a list to suit every mood – allowing listeners to hear individual tracks rather than full albums from artists, flitting from voice to voice, revelling in the variety – and their popularity makes me wonder whether people ever liked albums as much as the music industry thought they did.

Still, I know from bitter experience that, while playlists are a help, they are no guarantee. In 1986, our single “Come On Home” was played incessantly on BBC Radio 1 for a couple of weeks, but stalled at number 45 in the singles chart, and for a while after that the deciding committees looked askance at us, and we’d get rejected on any number of grounds – told that a song was too fast, too slow, too obscure or just plain wrong in some unspecified way.

And it used to be the case that if you wanted to check whether your record was being played you had to put in the hours, listening to the radio all day long, which could sometimes be gruelling. In 1987, when our single “These Early Days” came out – a track that had been rewritten, reworked, and re-recorded to within an inch of its life, in an under-pressure attempt to have a hit – I spent days glued to Radio 1, only to hear Kylie Minogue’s “I Should Be So Lucky” on the hour, every hour.

Things were different when we recorded a cover of Rod Stewart’s “I Don’t Want To Talk About It”. I wrote about the moment in my book, Bedsit Disco Queen, describing how, “on its release, the record leaped out of our hands and on to the Radio 1 playlist as if magnetically attracted. This was something we had never achieved before”. It worked and we made the charts, proving that sometimes the equation worked: song + radio = hit. Even on those occasions when it didn’t, I was still grateful for any airplay. At least it made you feel heard.

People often ask, “Who do you make your records for?” and the cliché answer has always been, “We just please ourselves and if anyone else likes it that’s a bonus.” Which is sort of true. But honestly, you don’t make records solely for your own amusement, and you do want people to hear them. Whatever happens after that – whether people buy them or not – it at least feels fair, like you were given your chance.

So I’m happy that I’m being played. And in some respects things are easier now. On Twitter, little bots pop up and kindly tell you every time you’re on the radio and so you can mentally add another tick to the scorecard. Although, in a bizarre example of musical déjà vu, here I am with a new single out at exactly the same time as Kylie. Hers is called “Dancing”, and mine is called “Queen”. I honestly think someone, somewhere, must have fixed this. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article appears in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia