“Payola is the practice of buying airtime for music. Its a common practice and it generates millions of dollars for the radio industry.
And its effective. A “spot buy pushed Avril Lavigne into the Top 10.
Surowiecki works up a righteous indignation in this weeks New Yorker, but Im not sure I see the problem.
How is this different from buying ad time? Payola means we are listening both to the song and an ad for the song. Why is this a bad thing?
Here are the standard objections to payola:
1) Consumers are mislead. The radio playlist does not represent what the nation wants to hear but what the label is prepared to pay for. But, really, do we regard the Top 10 as a voting system? More do the point, in a postmodernist age, do we care what other people like? Perhaps the teenager from 1958 wanted to know. These days, who cares?
2) Consumers are manipulated, taste is shaped. This presupposes that consumers like what you give them. This is a perilous assumption as every marketer now knows. Consumers have plenty of options and if they dont like what they hear, they can and will moveto other music and other media. It is perhaps not consumers, but radio stations that must fear payola. It can lead them to pursue a short term interest at the expense of their listener base.
3) Payola “unlevels the playing field. Little producers cant afford to compete against people with deep pockets. This was once a very good criticism, but now that the internet supports many radio stations and access to every labels website, the “gate keepers strangle hold has disappeared.
4) Payola turns radio stations into automatons, mere conduits for big business. The station that might have served as a exploration of local taste ends up “working for the man. This is a good criticism but it ignores the fact that there is quite a lot of “listener supported and college radio out there. If consumers want local, they can get local. (Jesse Walker, below, offers a more complaint treatment of this problem.)
5) Payola makes bad music flourish like the bay leaf tree. If the station is paid to play bad music, it will. But I think the radio station may be using payola as a sorting device. Payola allows them to pass along the risk. Without it, they are obliged to comb through the 700 or 800 new CDs released each week and find what their listeners want. Plus, the producer is highly incented to pay time only for the songs in which it is most confident. Its power of trend detection are probably better than those of the radio station and (because) it has more to lose. In effect, the radio station gets paid twice, once in better song selection and again with “spot buy revenue.
6) By giving advantage to big producers, payola penalizes the small players who are more inclined to take risk and to “push the boundaries of artistic license. Maybe. But if music adoption is classically distributed, the early adopters are relatively few. To ask mainstream radio to speak to them is unreasonable and again this is what college radio is for. It can play to 25 fans and congratulate itself on its integrity.
Actually, payola may work to increase risk taking, at least in the mainstream. How many times have you liked a song only the 8th or 9th time you heard it? The payola guarantee of exposure allows the label to try things that are not merely “hook heavy (studded with catchy lyrics and melody). With this confidence, it can now try things that might not ‘take on first or second hearing.
People love to hate payola. They say its a confusion of culture and commerce. But if we think about payola as advertising, does it not offer an answer to every culture critics hatred of advertising? The payola song is, after all, the cleanest form of advertising. All the hype is stripped away. We are given the product and nothing else. (And this in a medium that specializes in the noisiest advertising in the commercial world.) And radio, lest we forget, is given away for free to the consumer. With payola, they would be obliged to listen many, much noisier, ads.
I am not Dr. Pangloss. I dont think payola is a necessary thing or a good thing. But unless I am missing something, its not clear to me that its such a terrible thing. Radio has always been an imperfect, highly constrained channel, and someday it will be swept away by less mediating mediators. And then we will suffer an embarrassment of riches and a new set of problems. We may even look back on payola with affection.
Ok, I am on the road again, this time for 3 weeks, (New York, Boston, Seattle and Kansas City). If I can blog, I will blog. Please forgive intermittent blogging, if this occurs. And watch this space for ethnographic notes of life in the American city.
Lavigne, Avril. 2004. Dont Tell Me. See the video on line here http://www.blastro.com/player/avrillavignedonttellme.html&artist=Avril+Lavigne
Surowiecki, James. 2004. The Financial Page: Paying to Play. The New Yorker. July 12 & 19, 2004.
Voltaire, Francois. 1990. Candide. New York: Penguin Classics.
Walker, Jesse. 2001. Rebels on the Air. New York: New York University Press.