LOIC VENANCE / AFP/Getty Images –
Tank and the Bangas perform onstage at the Le Liberte Music Hall on Dec. 6, 2017 in Rennes, as part of the 39th edition of the Trans Musicales music festival.
NPR Music has solidified the public radio giant, once known mainly for delivering high-quality news and classical music, as a tastemaking, cutting-edge music platform for artist discovery, early releases and a wide variety of sounds. In its 10th year, the music division is busier than ever, with its new “Slingshot” series profiling up and comers throughout the year, and will host a showcase at South By Southwest in Austin on March 14.
The “Slingshot” series, in collaboration with 16 NPR member stations, has selected more than 20 artists so far in 2018, each at the beginning of their development cycles and likely to gain big from such as exposure. “We have such a tremendous platform to share with our listeners the music we’re passionate about and the music news we think is essential,” NPR Music senior director Lauren Onkey told Pollstar from the fourth floor of NPR’s Washington, D.C., headquarters.
“Listeners and readers of npr.org, they trust us. That brand is really built around trust.” She described the ‘Slingshot’ series as “a great collaboration between some of our tastemaking music stations across the country.”
At South by Southwest, NPR Music is taking over famed club and SXSW mainstay Stubb’s BBQ with an outdoor stage and 2,200-capacity showcasing artists such as Tiny Desk Contest winner Tank And The Bangas, whose profile has grown exponentially since gaining media exposure on the radio platform, and critically acclaimed indie group Okkervil River, which has a new album out April 20.
Inside Stubb’s is where the Slingshot series will have its showcase, with Slingshot stations coming together to present a series of performances that will include Gracie & Rachel, Liz Brasher, Hembree, WebsterX and Phily-bred folk band Mt. Joy, which has dates this year with Anderson East and headline dates in May.
Other artists to appear on the Slingshot series also includes Haley Heynderickx, who is heading out with The Low Anthem in late March, and Paradigm Nashville client Jade Bird, who is hitting the road in April in May as support for Colter Wall, then Anderson East, then First Aid Kit.
“NPR is synonymous with credibility,” Paradigm’s Jeffrey Hasson, booking agent for Jade Bird, told Pollstar. “As tastemakers, having NPR shine a light on Jade Bird’s artistry as a Slingshot artist and at their SXSW showcase allows the public discover that Jade is one of the most talented and exciting songwriters and performers today.”
Liz Brasher’s agent, Bruce Solar at APA, told Pollstar, “Immediately after the ‘Slingshot’ music list appeared, I started getting emails from around the world from people loving Liz, including a number of people who wanted to present her live. So it works!”
There’s also a South By Lullaby showcase from NPR, pairing stripped-down artist sets with intimate settings. Last year’s series featured performances by Phoebe Bridgers, Valerie June, and others.
Paradigm’s Tom Windish recently told Pollstar that South By Southwest as a whole is still a place for artist discovery, despite some complaints that it has become too big or commercial.
“I actually enjoyed South By more last year than I had maybe the year before, maybe two years before when there were more big bands, more big brands and more people because it was just easier to manage, easier to get into things,” he said, adding that the bigger bands often overshadow what he likes most about SXSW – artist discovery.
Paul A. Hebert / Invision / AP – Will Sheff of Okkervil River
The Wiltern, Los Angeles, Calif.
“If you’re trying to be discovered, I think now is a better time to go there than in the past,” Windish said.
While NPR Music is relatively new considering the network’s first broadcast went on the air in 1971, its musical roots run deep.
“Music has been part of NPR’s identity from the beginning really,” said Onkey, who was named to the role in October.
“But NPR Music really developed out of this idea of music discovery through the ‘All Songs Considered’ show and podcast and blog. That’s the root of it. Everything really grew from there.”
“Everything” being the other influential programs and series, such as the ‘First Listen’ feature that allows readers to stream albums from major artists before they even come out yet, and the “Turning The Tables” showcasing albums by women musicians.
The current hot topic of women in music , with the high-profile Grammy snubs and festivals pledging to have gender-neutral bills, is not new to NPR, either.
“It’s not like you hear women artists on NPR only on ‘Turning The Tables,’” Onkey said. “You’ll hear plenty of women on ‘All Songs Considered,’ the Tiny Desk Series and on our day-to-day coverage.
It’s a commitment to us, but we’re trying to keep a close eye on the [wider media coverage] on how it all unfolds.
“People are starting to really pay attention to how many women are on stages, behind the scenes, behind the recording desks, and starting to count them up. It’s going to be interesting to see what the reckoning is,” she added.
NPR music also just profiled women behind the scenes with the feature about women changing the face of engineering and recording.
And while conventional wisdom says the terrestrial radio business is on the way out, NPR is much more than just that.
“Our mission here is really serving beyond listeners,” Onkey said. “It’s serving music fans across platforms, keeping our focus on music discovery, breaking music news and those deep-dive music analyses and packages that we can do in a very special way at NPR no matter what new platform comes along.”