Payola and Avril Lavigne

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“Payola” is the practice of buying airtime for music. It’s a common practice and it generates millions of dollars for the radio industry.

And it’s effective. A “spot buy” pushed Avril Lavigne into the Top 10.

Surowiecki works up a righteous indignation in this week’s New Yorker, but I’m 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 don’t like what they hear, they can and will move—to 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 can’t 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 label’s website, the “gate keeper’s” 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 it’s a confusion of culture and commerce. But if we think about payola as advertising, does it not offer an answer to every culture critic’s 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 don’t think payola is a necessary thing or a good thing. But unless I am missing something, it’s not clear to me that it’s 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.

Last note:

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. Don’t Tell Me. See the video on line here

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.

16 thoughts on “Payola and Avril Lavigne

  1. Grant

    Steve and Independent George: new language, old news. Thanks and sorry! Will check out Tabbarock’s post. Grant

  2. steve

    I seem to recall that Moby, locked out of mainstream radio, got exposure and airplay by selling his songs to commercial advertisers on TV. The idea of being “not commercial enough” for mainstream radio but perfect for actual commercials is very amusing.

  3. Gabriel Rossman


    You’re not really doing justice to the Surowiecki piece. He acknowledges all the justifications for payola, but argues that spot buys are qualitatively different. The Lavigne adds weren’t in primetime, they were in the middle of the night. The reason is that the IRP wasn’t trying to influence consumers who happened to be listening in this damn cold night, but to influence the charts. One source of information radio stations use is record company signalling (ie payola) but another is peer behavior (ie charts). The problem with the Lavigne case is that the label’s agent is not sending an honest signal but distorting the field’s information exchange.
    However, radio stations are conscious of this sort of bias and many stations discount the charts accordingly. (See Ahlkvist and Fisher. 2002. “Will This Record Work For Us?: Managing Music Formats in Commercial Radio” Qualitative Sociology 25: 189-215.)
    I expect that in the long-run the system may be self correcting since charts are not a public good but a club good. To the extent that this bias devalues the charts, Radio and Records magazine will sell fewer subscriptions. Thus they have an incentive to clean the charts. For instance, they could base the charts only on 6am-midnight broadcasts (which would make spot buys prohibitively expensive) or they could use statistics to isolate or downweight outliers. Given the detail of the raw data on which charts are based both of these are technically feasible. And don’t get me started on how things will change once the Portable People Meter goes national.


  4. Grant

    Gabrielle, guilty as charged. I was on the very of leaving for a 3 week trip and preparing Molly, my new kitten, for international transport, and kind of breezed through the New Yorker piece. I should have listened to that little voice that said “you are not really paying attention here.” But two points: I think Surowiecki does role out a lot of the old argument, for which the post is an appropriate rejoinder, and the tone of umbrage, to which it was meant to be a corrective. He was, in short, coasting too. And I for one have come to expect better, less orthodox stuff. Second, there is as you point out a pretty easy fix for the abuse in question. In which case, the larger import of Surowiecki’s piece is unclear. Besides which, if the real issue here is the usefulness and accuracy of these numbers, for the purposes of keeping track of what and who is happening in contemporary culture, shouldn’t CD sales be the best measure, with charts that show radio play a poor second? I may not have got at the real issue. I am now in Connecticut, where everyone is so happy all the time, with Martha’s temporary exception, that thinking and reporting clearly is the least of our concerns. Thanks for the spot. Grant

  5. Gabriel Rossman

    Correction: the cite is Ahlkvist and Faulkner. my apologies.

    Album sales are an important piece of information, but even if you decide to start playing an artist, they don’t tell you which of the ten tracks on the album to play (although the label usually has a suggested single). Likewise, since albums are durable whereas airplay is ephemeral, album sales are really the first derivative of album ownership, which complicates the relationship with airplay. The other funny thing about that is that until the Soundscan revolution in 1991, record labels manipulated the hell out of album sales charts, just as badly as they still do with airplay charts (see Anand and Peterson. 2000. “When Market Information Constitutes Fields” Organization Science 11: 270-284).

    Radio stations do an enormous amount of research, much of it arguably much more informative than either payola or album sales. The main two kinds of original research they do are auditorium testing and callout. In the former they have a few dozen people sit in a room and fiddle with the knob of a “stantonmeter” to indicate whether they like the songs being tested. This is mostly to decide which songs to start playing. In callout research a panel of listeners listen to 5 second clips over the phone and use the pushbuttons to register their opinion of it. This is mostly to decide what songs to stop playing. When it goes national in a couple years, the PPM will probably make callout research obsolete.

    Also, I’m not offended, but FYI I’m an Anglophone man not a Francophone woman so there’s no “le” at the end of my name.

    Hope you and your kitten have a good trip and return safely from dodging traffic to post again.


  6. LK


    thanks for getting ‘granular’ with the details here. (and for chiding grant re feminizing your name). i worked in rock radio in the 80s and recal quite clearly the “independent reps and promoters” (obviously the payola posse) who would visit the music director, and were quite distinct from the local record company reps who would give us free concert tickets and tshirts and field our requests for artist interviews. what exactly was this man from afar they called “heavy lenny” doing in the music director’s office i said to myself. pay to play was pretty much taken for granted then. and then the cork was pulled, as chronicled in frederic dannen’s “the hit men” (1991). around the same time, as you point out, soundscan came into being and no longer could albums “ship gold” only to “return platinum”. with all the changes that have since taken place in the music industry (downloading, alternate access points for music, indie/underground chic, clear channel’s consolidation moves) i naively assumed that payola-like practices had seen their day…although i thought i read/heard something about “placed” singles (i.e. ones that have bought the airplay time) had to be tagged on air as “being brought to you by xxxxxx” (insert label name here).

  7. James Surowiecki

    Grant, I’m with Gabriel. (Of course, I would be, since he was defending my piece.) Not to pile on, but I’m a little perplexed by your critique of my piece. I don’t make any of the “standard objections” to payola that you cite, except the simple statement of fact that payola does mean that if you don’t have cash to promote your records, you’re out of luck. (In any case, in the online interview I did for the piece, I mention that if the capital markets are working well, any record that really does have a chance to become a hit should find someone willing to put up the money to promote it.)

    More to the point, there really isn’t any righteous indignation about payola in the piece, since I argue that the practice has historically fostered musical diversity, and actually helped outsiders get inside, rather than the other way around, and that it potentially helps stations filter hits from bombs. As Gabriel said, I’m indignant about the spot buys, because they’re a way of gaming a flawed system, and they yield no benefits to consumers. You’re right that there is a pretty easy fix for the abuse — Billboard should distinguish between spins that are paid for and spins that are chosen. But until they do, I thought it was worth making clear why it’s wrong not to — and, in the process, get people to see traditional payola in a new light.

  8. Steve Portigal

    The interview is excellent – it reads more like a great conversation than anything else and that’s always provocative and inspiring. And much of the interview seems relevant to Grant’s July 3 “Big Band” piece including a reference to collaborative filtering…

  9. Grant

    Gabriel, Leora, James and Steve,

    Clearly, there is no defense for bad exigetical work, not even the international transport of a defenseless kitten who can barely remain upright without my personal intervention. None. I have learned my lesson. Let’s treat this post as a rusting old fish boat sitting on the ocean floor, the scourge of the marine world now a host to some of its most brilliant denizens. Also, when I get home, I intend to get out the article and do thorough exigesis and determine whether I am guilty on all charges or just some of them. But this is just the poor loser speaking. Now, back to the defense of kittens and playing in the traffic! Grant

  10. Harold Akins

    Just having a toddy here. Avril looks hot. Is she still jail bait? Is she gay? Just wondering, of course.

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