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for August 2, 2005


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Pay-For-Lame
by Sean Carolan

Recently, Sony BMG Music reacted to NY Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's investigation by coming clean - yes, they have been giving lavish gifts to radio programmers in return for airplay. While news reports on the admission have been fairly even-handed, some opinion columns, like that of Robert Hillburn in the LA Times, were shockingly underwhelmed. He questions whether this is the blow that will "save radio" and gets off completely on the wrong foot:
 

It's going to take more than Eliot Spitzer to stop the commercial juggernaut of hip-hop and R&B.
Last I checked, the goal wasn't to take R&B and Hip-Hop off the air. With that initial line, Hillburn completely misses the point of the issue.
 
Nobody's arguing that the R&B/Hip-Hop styles aren't popular. Unless a Casablanca Records-like buyback scheme is going on, where "sales" are booked and immediately turned into bargain-bin cutouts just to get on the charts, people actually do buy a lot of R&B/Hip-Hop. It sells ... to actual people ... who actually buy it, freely and of their own will. So far, so good.
 
But we know a few things about radio:

  • There's no entrance exam to listen to it (and there shouldn't be)
  • Many who listen to it use it as a guide to purchasing.

For Pop records at least, most of that purchasing happens in a record's first week of release.
 
So we know there's a listening audience, big enough to drive the charts, whose active music buying pattern is to buy popular music as soon as it's available. I think it's safe to say they're often doing it for reasons other than actual musical quality - more for the "hip" factor and the desire to make sure they have whatever's "hot" coming out of their CD player.
 
Now, having constructed this argument, I can't say I know anyone who actually does this, at least not in relation to pop radio. But unless Spitzer expands his investigation to the sales arena, let's take it as given that the disc sales reported by SoundScan to the charting organizations are accurate, and that there really is a population that's ready to jump into the record store to buy a new release as soon as it hits the shelves, based on that release's play on pop radio.
 
Sony BMG has admitted to causing radio's playlists to be guided by something other than quality. Yes, the snarks out there will suggest that's always been the case for pop radio, but I'll stand by my assertion that there is such a thing as a good pop song. And Sony BMG's (and we suspect, the rest of the industry's) practices ensure that the good songs within the genre will not be considered for an open slot on station playlists if there's a pay-for-play candidate for that slot available.
 
Then when that pay-for-play song gets played, the hair-trigger music purchasers do their thing, catapulting questionable music to the top of the charts. I wish it didn't seem like such a mindless reaction to airplay, but that's what the empirical evidence is telling us.
 
That's what's bad about payola. It's not that R&B/Hip-Hop is invalid as a musical genre and doesn't belong on pop radio - it does - but that the playlist that includes it represents a hollowed-out version of the available music, honeycombed by unworthy entries that are only there because the label paid for them to be there.
 
So, mister programmer guy, you want to accept pay for play? Go right ahead - but advertise it as such, and let me tune it out with the other commercials. If it makes up an overwhelming proportion of your programming, I'll be happy to tune to a more ethically-programmed station, or else I'm just going to conclude that all commercial radio sucks.
 
Oh, wait...I already did.
 

 

©2005 Sean Carolan

All material ©2001-2014 Sean Carolan, except as noted.

 







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