Why I Support Payola

payola |pāˈōlə|


the practice of bribing someone to use their influence or position to promote a particular product or interest : if a record company spends enough money on payola, it can make any record a hit.

A tweet-link from the prolific, intelligent, and fine-looking independent music revolutionary Ariel Hyatt caught my attention today, linking to an article by Bobby Owsinski about Payola. In a nutshell, the fact that 60 million people have watched that godawful Rebecca Black “Friday” music video and yet radio stations aren’t running with that ball into the endzone pretty much proves how out of touch they are with what music consumers actually consume.

Owsinski also links to (and quotes) another article where a radio Program Director admits that a song doesn’t make it to radio unless a major record label “brings all of its resources to get it played.” Having interned at a well-known label, I heard all kinds of stories about non-payola payola. Even a decade ago the industry was rife with “this big-screen TV is totally just a gift and has nothing to do with the new single we just sent you (*wink wink*).”

Slimy? Of course. Illegal? Nope. Promotional expenses are as tricky to control as campaign financing; the line between legitimate contribution and vote-buying is purely subjective. Payola is still alive and well despite the laws against it.

And I’m all for it.

Competition Is Good

Payola might have been bad when no competition existed for music radio. Now we have terrestrial radio, satellite radio, podcasts, internet streams, and the vial of liquid awesome that is Pandora. Rumor has it iTunes and Amazon will be duking it out for market share in this field soon.

With all these venues gaining traction to compete with terrestrial radio, record labels could go broke bribing (or totally-not-a-bribing) all of them, if they even can. Pandora’s playlists are picked by algorithm, not by meat-based decision makers. It’s hard to bribe a robot, I’ve tried. At the end of the day it will be the consumers that drive the industry, not the program directors. The days of dictating taste from on high are over.

I say Payola should not only be legal, it should be encouraged. Let the stupid record labels funnel so much money into radio that they bankrupt themselves and flood the airwaves with mediocre over-compressed crap (*cough* Nickleback *cough*). People have options now- I can listen to Pandora through my refrigerator, for shit’s sake. I’ve already abandoned everything but NPR on the airwaves because half the artists I’ve fallen in love with lately (see my recommendations below) don’t get played.

The smart record labels (yes, they exist, somewhere) will focus on helping good artists develop their craft into music that stands on its own. Or they’ll spend money outside the music stream, promoting the artists where it makes more sense. Who knows, they may even come up with creative marketing ideas. If the airwaves are a known paid-for entity, the public at large will gravitate towards the organic sources of good ideas.

Payola on the Internet

Oh yeah, and it’s not like Payola isn’t thriving on the internet either. A new music site seems to pop up, function, and die about every month or so, nearly all of them taking bribes- sorry, Premium Artist Payments -for better playlist positioning. Nothing ever changes.

Anyone remember MP3.com? Anyone? Beuller? At the turn of the millennium they were big- so big, in fact, they couldn’t cover their bandwidth costs. So they opened up a pay-for-a-promoted-chart-position system that didn’t actually move your songs up in the charts, but placed your song just below the legitimate #1 spot. Payola? Maybe, but as you can imagine it guaranteed that the people with the most money got more plays.

A decade later we have the shitty music service Jango. If you’re a consumer, it’s totally free. If you’re a band, you have to pay for guaranteed plays on their service. Wait, let me get this straight… musicians that are most likely barely paying their bills are providing your website with thousands of hours of content and not only are you not paying them anything for it, you’re asking them to pay you? Count me out.

Robots (and humans) to the Rescue

With the explosion of new media, the signal-to-noise ratio of bad music versus shining stars has grown almost unbearable. Radio once functioned as the sole taste-maker, but everyone knew the system was corrupt. As the industry’s adolescence catches up with it, two new taste-makers will arise: Robots and humans.

Like I said, robots can’t be bribed. Services like Pandora force the listeners to decide what they like based on a complex algorithm. It also forces musicians to produce material that can survive on its own merit. On the human side, there are disc jockeys everywhere. Not the talking heads that sit in broadcast booths playing a pre-set playlist, I’m talking about your BFF on Facebook that puts up a link to a track. That podcaster whose show you like and whose taste you trust. That artist you’re already listening to that recommends another artist she’s fond of.

I believe that opening the floodgates of Payola will simply accelerate a process that’s already happening: Corporate douchebags will blow all their money promoting tepid product while smart consumers move on to greener pastures. The situation’s like a boil that needs to be lanced.

Let the money flow, let the system devour itself, and let the music live or die on more level playing fields.

The Democratically Elected Best of Matthew Ebel Join the Robot Army, get a FREE album!

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