I Learned About How To Do Payola At Lunch Today
I had lunch today with a couple of old friends from the music biz, both promotion men. People inside-- even presidents-- and outside-- like state attorneys general-- the business sometimes, though not often enough, wonder how exactly the record companies pay off the radio stations to play their songs. I know there are a lot of ways. I learned one today. And it's legal. When I asked if it was ethical, they both looked at me as though I had just landed from Jupiter. Here's the scam. Well, first the background since none of this crap is intuitive. To get a song played on the radio you need... to have the song being played on the radio. That's right, in places that have actual stores where people buy significant numbers of CDs you have stations that don't "add" records to their playlists and "spin" them until lots of other stations are already doing that. Gone are the days when a programer-- let alone a dj-- hears a song and thinks, "WOW!!! That is hot and I have to get it on the airwaves N-O-W!" No, now they want to see research that proves a song is a "hit." (That's why commercial radio playlists sound so sterile and predictable and utterly unchallenging-- which is why record companies sign so many bland, uncreative, uninspiring and uninspired "artists.) This is a tangent I'll have to get into some other time. My friend Peter the blog expert says I'm too verbose for blogging-world. So back to the background about the scam. OK, the promo people need lots of "spins" so the song starts climbing the airplay charts. In the days before one could track actual airplay-- real spins-- you could just pay the guy at the station who reported the airplay to exaggerate (or plain lie) about what was being played. But now the airplay charts are based on actual airplay. So if you're looking for a chart position (be it #40 so you're on the chart or #1 so you're ON FIRE!) you have to have actual play on the air. And here's one way they do it: between 12 midnight and 6AM "no one" cares what gets played. But stations, in all formats, have learned they can turn those sleepy hours into BIG MONEY by selling the spins. It won't effect the stations' ratings to play iffy songs because "no one" listens then anyway. So you can buy a dozen or two dozen spins for your song a night. Do that on 3 or 4 stations and it looks like your record has momentum. "No one," outside of the arcane little world of promo men, realizes that people aren't really hearing the songs. And the stations that do this aren't just in Squeal-Like-A-Pig, Tennessee; they're in real cities too-- even in blue states! There are even stations that will play your song over and over and over-- for hours-- to help you run up the spin-count! This is legal? Sure, as long as there's an announcement that "this time is being presented by XYZ Record Company and ABC 'Artist,'" it's all legal. And the hell with the audience and all that. Ethical? Are you from Jupiter?