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July 28, 2005

Pay-For-Play: Bull Poop In Play

A few days ago the New York State Attorney General extorted a $10,000,000 settlement from the Sony/BMG music group for giving radio stations things of value in exchange for playing certain songs, usually by big name stars. He created the illusion that such actions are at the expense of new and small-time musicians who will never get out of the garage because JLo is hogging all the airtime.

What a load of bullshit. Here’s the reality.

The days when a small-timer could break into the play list started to wane when the anti-payola laws were passed about 45 years ago (yep, Alan Freed broke no laws). There were no national programmers back in those days and most radio stations were independently owned and the big players were limited to five AM and five FM stations each, maximum. There was no rock’n’roll on the FMers back then. Most record labels were independently owned as well, and many distributed to their local retailers and radio stations out of their car trunks until they got national play.

A newcomer or his/her label or producer stood an overwhelmingly great chance of getting heard by the program director or, more likely, by an individual disc jockey. That was considered part of the job. If they liked the tune, they’d play it. If they got a favorable response, they’d play it some more. If they continued to get a favorable response, they’d play it to the point where larger radio stations would add it to their playlists. Those critical radio stations in Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis and Nashville that had signals that could be picked up in upwards of 35 states and six providences would track the response and add the tune to their Top 40 or “all-hit” formats. And stars were born.

Occasionally – and I mean occasionally – somebody would slip a disc jockey a few bucks or maybe get him laid in exchange for listening to the tune. This was often at the request of the disc jockey. Rarely did the DJ play or overplay a song he thought his listeners wouldn’t like: there was way too much at stake to program a show full of loser tunes. But, still, neither the record labels nor the disc jockeys thought there was anything wrong with this practice, except maybe for the sex-for-trade element. Maybe.

In fact, this practice – or, at least the money part – is alive and well and perfectly legal in other areas of commerce. Do you really think the market demands 12 different types of Oreo cookies, 11 different types of Cheez-Its, and 38 different types of Pepsi and Coke? That whore Tony The Tiger is featured on the boxes of at least three different cereals as well as other related products. No, the manufacturers pay for those retail display favors.

You know those magazine pockets at the supermarkets and drug stores? Paid for by the publisher. If you’re an independent magazine publisher on a reasonable budget, you don’t get a taste. And don’t get me started on the bribes given to rich doctors by wealthy pharmaceutical houses. So when a disc jockey is given a free trip to the Bahamas in exchange for playing something his programmer would have had him play anyway, it’s standard operating procedure as far as the rest of the business world is concerned.

Is it fair? Not particularly. But compared to the fact that over 80% of the radio stations in this country are owned by one of six companies and maybe two dozen people program all those rock stations, it’s a gentle fart in a category four hurricane.

As for those kids in the garage, they’re getting their stuff on Internet radio and college radio, and they’re doing it the old-fashioned way: out of their proverbial car trunks.

And that New York State Attorney General? He’s running for governor next year.

Posted by Mike Gold at 10:21 AM | Comments (16) | TrackBack