Greensboro Singer Fights for Airtime
Lisa Dames possesses the kind of sultry voice that reaches back to a time when Nashville was producing torch and twang with restraint and class; she channels the spirits of Patsy Cline and unruly rockabilly cousins like Wanda Jackson and Janis Martin.
The Greensboro chanteuse’s song ‘“Getting Closer’” from her self-released CD If These Walls Could Talk is currently ranked No. 8 for most played adult contemporary song as judged by a trade magazine that measures radio airtime for small and medium-sized markets in the United States. So why can’t Lisa Dames get her song played on any local radio stations?
‘“I haven’t broken in yet,’” said Dames. ‘“The way it works is you can’t get developed without a label, but you can’t get on a label if you’re not developed. Right now local support from radio and the press is critical for me.’”
Dames, a 37-year old actor who works out of Greensboro’s Barn Dinner Theatre and Triad Stage, stepped into the music scene as one of a select few vocalists authorized by the late singer’s estate to impersonate Patsy Cline and by singing backup in a musical biography of Elvis. With some encouragement from her fans, she decided to forge her own musical identity.
To prove her seriousness, she recorded some songs written by Pennsylvania producer Mickey Dean along with some covers. Dean, who plays in one of the Patsy Cline tribute shows, recorded Dames’ vocals over one weekend and put together a backup band to record the instrumentation afterward.
Dames hired a professional photographer to shoot the cover of her CD. She paid to have CDs pressed. When it was released last September she hired a publicist. In January they launched a campaign to get airplay for ‘“Getting Closer’” on adult contemporary stations, whose eclectic format they thought would suit her music. The ‘hot country’ sound currently in vogue in Nashville seemed to stack the odds against much success on country radio.
As of April 6, ‘“Getting Closer’” was ranked No. 8 on FMQB’s adult contemporary charts. FMQB, which stands for ‘Friday morning quarterbacking’ counts the number of times a song is played in small and medium-sized markets ‘— in the case of ‘“Getting Closer,’” 1,262 times in one week. That’s one notch ahead of Green Day’s ‘“Boulevard of Broken Dreams’” and three notches ahead of Los Lonely Boys’ ‘“Heaven.’” Hers is the only self-released single in the Top 10, which is populated by the likes of the Goo Goo Dolls, Maroon 5 and Kelly Clarkson.
It might seem that a local artist with national exposure and a professional presentation would have a shot at local airplay. Not in Lisa Dames’ case.
The two top adult contemporary stations in Greensboro ‘— owned by Clear Channel Communications and Entercom ‘— aren’t biting. Neither are Clear Channel and Entercom’s country music stations. For that matter, the programmers at UNCG’s WUAG 103.1 FM and Guilford College’s WQFS 90.9 FM ‘— stations whose identity is built around independence from the major labels ‘— have also shunned Dames.
In fact, the only local airtime she’s gotten is from Dusty Dunn, who let her to do a live performance on his WGOS 1070 AM show. Without local airtime, she fears her music career will wither on the vine as she tries to land a record deal.
Dames, who herself once worked as a sales rep for a commercial station in Cincinnati, now finds herself pushing up against a seemingly impenetrable system of inside contacts and economies of massive scale that seems to keep new artists locked out. One of the first stops on her quest for airplay was WMAG 99.5 FM, a Clear Channel station that markets itself as ‘continuous soft rock.’
‘“They said ‘no,’ mainly because I called them,’” Dames said. ‘“It’s all about the money and the contacts. If I took this song to the next level, it would cost twenty thousand dollars per month to hire somebody to pitch my song to a radio station like WMAG.’”
The station’s hesitation with ‘“Getting Closer’” might have something to do with the fact that Greensboro is considered a major market, and FMQB only measures small and medium-sized markets ‘— making her No. 8 spot less than impressive.
But Dames also suspects that a prohibitive system of pay-for-play works to keep the field narrowed to a handful of superstars and free of aspiring artists like her. And she’s not the only one with suspicions.
Clear Channel’s 2004 annual report notes that the company received a subpoena from New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer requesting information on policies and practices for record promotion in New York State. The annual report also states that Clear Channel no longer works with independent promoters. These industry middlemen, reporter Eric Boehlert has written in a series of articles for Salon.com, have traditionally been paid by record labels to place songs on the radio. Boehlert reports that independent promoters would, in turn, promise radio stations hundreds of thousands of dollars to place songs on their play list.
By pestering Bill Flynn, a host of WMAG’s ‘“Morning Show,’” Dames got the station to post a link to ‘“Getting Closer’” on its website. Listeners can vote on whether they like it or not ‘— so far they favor it 3-1 ‘— but according to Dames, the station has made no promises to play it if it gets a favorable hearing.
‘“Bill Flynn said he didn’t think the song was what their listeners were looking for,’” Dames said.
Scott Keith, the station’s program director, told me he thinks Dames’ music doesn’t fit the adult contemporary format.
‘“She’s an okay artist from what I’ve heard,’” he said. ‘“I haven’t listened to her music. She’s a little more country leaning than us. We’re not a country station per se.’”
Later, I left messages for Cheryl Salamone, Clear Channel’s market manager for its four Greensboro stations. I wanted to ask her what criteria the stations use to determine which songs get included in their playlists. She didn’t return calls on April 6 and 8. Judging by the company’s annual report, she would seem to be the person to talk to.
The company’s annual report states: ‘“Our local radio markets are run by local management teams who control the formats selected for programming.’”
Irene Dente, a spokeswoman reached at the company’s headquarters in San Antonio, told me: ‘“There’s no corporate policy on what gets played and what doesn’t. Each local station makes its own decision.’”
Dames’ overtures to Entercom’s 98.7 ‘The Zone’ also came to nothing ‘— save for a polite e-mail exchange with the station’s morning show personality, Jeff Wicker.
It might seem that college radio would provide an opening to an artist like Dames, given that her retro style more resembles the alternative country movement than the hot country sound that rules Nashville. Alternative country tends to suit the maverick sensibilities of college radio stations. Dames said she has sent her CD and followed up with phone calls to WUAG 103.1 FM and WQFS 90.9 FM.
Jack Bonney, general manager of WUAG, told me his station doesn’t have Dames’ CD in its library. A call to WQFS was not returned.
To give the music industry devil its due, Dames acknowledges it’s possible she’s just not good enough at her chosen vocation. She doesn’t write her own songs or play an instrument, which is a liability in an industry now looking for artists with the full package of musical talent, good looks and originality.
‘“The criticism I’ve gotten is that the production quality is terrible, the songs are poorly chosen, and the vocals fall flat,’” Dames said.
An October 2004 review on StreetBeat.com, a website devoted to reviews of unsigned, newly signed and independent artists, gives a sense of how Dames’ music is being received by the critics.
‘“Yes, she can sing all right,’” Bill Ribas writes. ‘“Unfortunately, the disc’s production and song selection work against her, and what should have been a showcase is, to my ears, a bit harsh in spots’… On ‘Getting Closer,’ there is so much reverb on everything that you feel as if you’re floating on a sonic pool’… You can hear the potential in her voice. That is, you know she can growl, purr, etc., but it’s hard to hear or not there. And that’s a shame, because I think she deserves much better.’”
Despite Dames’ abysmal success rate at garnering local airplay, all the money spent on recording, engineering, professional photography and publicity fees may yet prove to be a good investment.
She plans to start working with Los Angeles producer David Grow in July. Grow has produced Top 10 hits for Jim Brickman, and worked with artists ranging from the Blind Boys of Alabama to Collin Raye.
‘“David said: ‘The production sucks, the songs are mediocre, but there’s something to your voice,”” Dames said. ‘“That’s what I needed to hear.’”