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Payola by Any Other Name

Payola never goes away, it just mutates. And we wonder why the major labels still dominate the radio waves?

    During a single week in May, Canadian pop rocker Avril Lavigne’s new song “Don’t Tell Me” aired no fewer than 109 times on Nashville radio station WQZQ-FM.

    The heaviest rotation came between midnight and 6 a.m., an on-air no man’s land visited largely by insomniacs, truckers and graveyard shift workers. One Sunday morning, the 3-minute, 24-second song aired 18 times, sometimes as little as 11 minutes apart.

    Those plays, or “spins,” helped “Don’t Tell Me” vault into the elite top 10 on Billboard magazine’s national pop radio chart, which radio program directors across the country use to spot hot new tunes.

    But what many chart watchers may not know is that the predawn saturation in Nashville – and elsewhere – occurred largely because Arista Records paid the station to play the song as an advertisement. In all, sources said, WQZQ aired “Don’t Tell Me” as an ad at least 40 times the week ending May 23, accounting for more than one-third of the song’s airplay on the station.

    The “Don’t Tell Me” campaign is part of the latest craze in record promotion, a high-pressure part of the music business in which the labels try to influence which songs reach the air.

    In the late 1950s, rock’s earliest days, the industry was hit by a series of payola scandals in which cash bribes were paid to disc jockeys who agreed to play certain songs. That practice was subsequently outlawed, prompting record companies to find more subtle means of currying favor with radio programmers, be it sending them on junkets or handing them concert tickets.

    In the latest twist, it’s the radio stations themselves that have been reaching out to the labels, offering to play songs in the form of ads, often in the early morning hours when there tends to be an excess inventory of airtime. The practice is legal as long as the station makes an on-air disclosure of the label’s sponsorship – typically with an introduction such as “And now, Avril Lavigne’s ‘Don’t Tell Me,’ presented by Arista Records.” [LA Times]

Labels paying for a song to be played AS AN AD is flipping genius in its one-hand-washing-the-other ruthless collusive efficiency.

    All five major record corporations have at least dabbled in the sales programs, industry sources said, with some reportedly paying as much as $60,000 in advertising fees to promote a single song.

    Interscope Records has purchased spins for the Black Eyed Peas’ song “Hey Mama” in recent weeks, as well as for Sheryl Crow’s “The First Cut Is the Deepest” and Sugababes’ “Hole in the Head,” sources said. Virgin Records has bought advertising time for rock band A Perfect Circle. Lava Records has purchased airplay for singer Cherie, and V2 Records has done the same for Katy Rose.

    Representatives for the labels declined to comment.

No shit.

    But one label executive who has purchased airplay, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the idea was clearly to prop up songs long enough for them to attract genuine fans.

    “In our business, perception is reality,” he said. “The minute you’re down in spins, these program directors drop the record.”

    Michael Ellis, associate publisher of Billboard and sister publication Airplay Monitor, acknowledged his concern about the “legal but nevertheless questionable practice.”

    “We take great pride in the accuracy and credibility of our radio charts,” Ellis said. “We are carefully studying this situation and consulting with the industry to determine the proper course of action.”

    ….For their part, the radio stations are unapologetic. Whether the charts are a real reflection of a song’s standing with programmers “is not our concern,” said Bud Walters, president of Cromwell Group Inc., which owns WQZQ and 19 other stations. “We’re in the advertising business.”

    Al Vicente, president of Archway Broadcasting, which owns 13 stations, took a similar stand: “The labels are an advertiser like anyone else, and they have the right to advertise their product.”

But not advertising that the listener – and the charts – would confuse as something else: editorial content. This is “pay to play” and clearly violates the spirit if not the letter of anti-payola laws.

The one simple question the story does not answer is, “Are the paid-for spins identified as ads?” If not, it’s deceptive advertising – I can see a class action suit brought by listeners.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014.Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: [email protected], Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America's Most Haunted.Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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