They say that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. The world, and even the highest trends in fashion and music, are often cyclical, fading and then repeating after years spent dormant. Now you know who to blame - or credit, depending on your point of view - for the reintroduction of bell-bottoms and garage rock. The only constant through the decades has been the pursuit of the almighty dollar, and inventing ways to control more of it.
In 1959, the United States Senate began what would be a lengthy investigation into "payola," a term coined to represent money being given to radio stations and DJs in exchange for priority placement of songs and albums. These payments, made by major labels to secure prime slots for their artists, started a controversy that claimed the career of famed rock & roll DJ Alan Freed. Freed had not only taken payments from labels to play their records, but also bumped the number of plays of specific songs - such as Chuck Berry's "Maybellene" - where he had been given writing credit. By forcing more plays, he increased the amount of royalties he was entitled to.
Of course, it wasn't always as simple as handing a check to a DJ and instructing him to play your newest artists' track, nor was it always a rogue DJ accepting payments on his own behalf. It often ran deeper. Guarantees of advertising money in exchange for repeated plays, promises of appearances at station sponsored events and concerts, or even the occasional writing credit, were all used to gain the promotional advantage. It wasn't exactly the most sophisticated system, leading to its inevitable downfall in the dace that followed, with the FCC adopting new regulations to curb payola, albeit a halfhearted effort.
DJs now longer held programming power, with playlists being taken out of their hands and into those of station managers. What seemed like a smart evolution only opened the door for further corruption, with major labels needing to sway only one man at any given station, rather than specific and numerous disc jockeys. Third party, "independent" promoters were brought in by the majors, essentially becoming a middle man between their money and the stations. The floodgates were open again, and, despite numerous exposés from major news outlets, have never truly been shut.
Early in this millennium, New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer launched an investigation that uncovered deals between label executives at Song BMG and several major radio chains. The subsequent fallout saw not only Sony, but Warner and Universal pay fines that ranged from $5 million to $12 million. A mere two years later, four of the giants of the radio waves did the same, paying fines in pay-for-play settlements. You see, the flow of money never truly stops.
Fast forward to the year 2015, where radio airplay holds less power than it has in a century, and streaming music services dominate the music industry. But the practices of the old school still have a place in our new, digital world, and the same players are at the table again. Below, you'll find the full contract between Sony Music - a label that recently purchased Century Media for a sum of $17 million or so - and Spotify, which seems to point to some preferential treatment in exchange for monetary compensation. You can judge that for yourself.
It isn't just Sony, though. Universal Music Group and Warner have also been named in the newest revival of payola. Each label has been linked to practices many would consider shady, paying curators to include songs on their playlists, increasing its visibility on any given streaming service. Those payments according to a Billboard source, could range from $2,000 to $10,000, depending on the popularity of the playlist. Spotify's response was to update their terms of service which how prohibits selling accounts and playlists or “accepting any compensation, financial or otherwise, to influence ... the content included on an account or playlist.” But once again, the loopholes are open and glaring. Digmark, a digital consulting firm, pays $100 to $150 as a "consultancy" fee, not to place their song on a playlist, but just to ensure the curator hears it a few dozen times.
The long and short of it remains the same now as it did in the fifties: the system is stacked against independent artists, who can neither afford to pay to get through the back door, but are often unfairly separated from their money in some way. Remember, in the age of the expansive base of knowledge known as the internet, there are endless ways to promote yourself.
Social media, the most worthwhile, is a tremendous opportunity. But when conglomerates like Facebook restrict the reach of your posts and the access your fans have to your brand, it can lead to a different kind of payment. "Promoting" yourself through Facebook payments is an easy way to spend your money, and an easier way for Facebook to take it with little return for your investment. You'll get clicks, maybe even likes, but they'll be hollow. Alternatively, reviews of your album can generate buzz for your music. And while most sites accept submissions with no strings attached, some, like Lambgoat, require a payment (in this case, $30), for a staffer to review your work. They make no promises as to how they'll rate your album, which is the only positive to be found here, but you are assured a detailed review, which will sit on their reviews page for "several days."
Sixty years have passed since the payola scandal first began, and in that time many things have changed in the world around us. You've traded in your Walkman for an iPod, seen cars go green, and even been exposed to the organic food frenzy. But you've seen the resurgence of vinyl, a physical medium long thought dead, cassettes have started to regain their own niche popularity, and vintage clothes are more sought after now than when they were new. It all comes back around eventually. But payola, and the entire pay-for-play model, never left. And as long as there is money to be paid, and someone, somewhere than can offer exposure for that money, it never will.