Payola has always been a “problem.” The reason why I quoted it as such is because it’s lingered about for years. Yup, even when rap dominated airwaves during its heyday in the 90’s. Heads just didn’t complain as much since they liked what they heard. Anyway I digress. I strongly suggest reading George Howard’s article on modern day payola if you haven’t already. He basically breaks down the channels radio stations and major labels use to avoid obvious signs of payola.
“Indies,” sort of like consultants, get money from labels to fund radio contests and buy promo items. The stations in turn pay indies to advise them on their playlists. Radio gets money from indies, major labels reap huge benefits if the song is a hit nationwide, and indies get paid from both labels and stations. Everyone’s happy on the low because each party gets cash. Meanwhile listeners get to hear the same playlists, aside from a few regional acts here and there, from coast to coast. Let’s not forget radio’s still a huge machine for promotion.
Keep in mind this is only one stream of money and goods under the table. The article doesn’t mention the gifts and free meals PD’s and the like receive by labels and other sponsors to play music. Those other avenues were mentioned in brief in another article I wrote based on an NPR report.
So where does this leave the indie rappers hip-hop nerds such as myself know and love? Well…off the radio of course. Plus it’s not like only everyday hobby rappers with no following go unnoticed. Notable independent artists from Tech N9ne to Lil B don’t get played nationwide despite their large fan bases. Their labels don’t have the pockets to pay indies regularly so big stations see no money from giving their records shine. And remember, the radio business is a business like any other i.e. not a charity. Thus explaining why you don’t hear them during top 40 time let alone at all.
The only caveat overlooked in all of this is the fate of fringe major label artists. They’re signed and have loyal supporters but their total base gets dwarfed by more popular label mates. I can only speculate so I think label’s either know where these acts stand in terms of potential revenue and led their grassroots campaigns slide: somewhat like Curren$y or Big K.R.I.T. Or they don’t give them much attention for whatever reason which, to me, is far more prevalent.
You’re probably reading this and wondering if there’s a solution to mainstream radio’s money carousel. All I can say is I’m tapped. George paints a prettier outlook on the matter and I’d like to believe it wholeheartedly. However, given how systems like this work throughout history, I can’t.
“It’s not all doom and gloom however. Any time a system exists that is as corrupt as what I’ve outlined, it eventually falls under its own weight. Customers who have been fed a steady diet of music that is not being played because it impacts the market, but rather because it was the highest bidder, eventually lose interest and look for alternatives. Up until recently, there weren’t alternatives, but now with internet radio, satellite radio, subscription services, and your own playlists on your iPod/iPhone, the alternatives abound.”
That’s all well and good but crooked power structures always break only to give way to others with stronger foundations. The new standard may be more correct on the surface but the same nonsense will go down behind the scenes at varying degrees. The internet can be a beneficial promo tool as well as college/local radio but their reach only goes so far. And yes there are alternatives being utilized especially for the younger set since they like having more control over what they consume: partly explaining why Pandora worldwide and Spotify overseas became platforms of choice. Majors still flood those services since they have the most money and ultimately influence our personal playlists more or less. So even if labels finally “get it,” and play music we like, the people in charge of playing the music will get their payday all the same.
I’m probably being unreasonable when I say this. But the only definite way I can see this trend stopping momentarily is if the industry went flat out bankrupt. You can’t get airtime for your artists from radio to a Spotify playlist without a large bank account. Yet, like I said, whatever paradigm emerges from the old mainstream music model will likely nuance their practices to get more future proof results.