Pay-to-Play – Killing Music Faster Than Peer-to-Peer

Mass media would have you believe that peer-to-peer music-sharing is killing music. Napster (in it’s original form), eMule, Limewire – all are taking revenue from the artist, and limiting our choice in the long run. Bull. A practice that has existed for decades, is alive and well today, and is conducted by the record labels themselves, is killing music a lot faster than peer-to-peer ever will.

Pay-to-play is a phrase I hadn’t come across until a few months ago, and when discussing it with friends, I realised that not only was it a new concept to them, but they were genuinely shocked by the practice.

Did you ever wonder why so many hit songs sound the same? Why the latest Britney song sounds a lot like the new Christina one? Why the new 50 Cent song sounds like the old 50 Cent songs? Why Justin Timberlake seems to be releasing the same song again and again every few months?

Pay-to-play is the practice of a record company paying radio stations for the playing of specific songs. Disc jockeys were long ago removed from the decision-making process of the songs they can play – virtually all commercial radio airplay is now determined by program directors, constructing schedules of what and when to play. Often, not even the program directors have a say – further up the food chain, general managers, station owners or regional program directors make the calls.

And sitting in between the record companies & radio stations are independents, or indies – third party record promoters who “promote” songs to radio stations. Offering radio stations “promotion payments,” the independents get the songs that their clients, record companies, want on the playlists of radio stations. This is a legal form of “payola” – the illegal practice of payment or other inducement by record companies for the broadcast of recordings on music radio, in which the song is presented as being part of the normal day’s broadcast. Under US law, a radio station can play a specific song in exchange for money, but this must be disclosed on the air as being sponsored airtime, and that play of the song should not be counted as a “regular airplay.” So when is the last time your favourite radio station told you who paid for the song they just played? Let’s be honest – most disc jockeys want to maintain the illusion that they sift through stacks of records and pick out only the best ones for their listeners. Chances are, they don’t.

The indies go straight to the general managers or owners and make deals – typically guaranteeing a station in a medium-sized market approximately $75,000 to $100,000 annually in “promotional support” – the above-mentioned payment that makes the indie the first person its programmers will talk to about adding new singles. Once an indie has “claimed” a station, they let the record companies know that the indie will invoice them every time the station adds a song to its playlist. And the money involved is terrifying – in the United States, there are more than 10,000 commercial radio stations. Approximately 1,000 of the largest are the ones that create hits and sell records, due to their huge listenership. Each of those adds about three new songs to its playlist each week, and the indies get paid for every one: $1,000 on average for an “add” at a Top 40 or rock station, but as high as $6,000 or $8,000 in some circumstance.

Now, add in the fact that songs need to be hits very quickly in order to make a record companies investment back.If they’re not, it’s goodbye next single release, and more often that not, goodbye artist.The record company can’t afford to wait anymore for an artist to mature or develop. So the hits are produced in cookie-cutter fashion, and money is thrown to the indie to have it played on the radio stations, exposing the song to a wide audience, resulting in sales, which recoups the money the record company paid out in the first place.

The next time you wonder why all the songs sound the same, think about this. And the next time someone complains about peer-to-peer killing music, think about the fact that the above cycle guarantees that artists can only afford to think about producing a hit quickly, and so must concentrate on derivation of their peers & selves. How very, very sad.

Go read the article “Pay for play”, by Eric Boehlert.

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