Payola: Why Artists Pay for Play


    Justin Tamar Mariah TheLavaLizard
    Justin Timberlake, Tamar Braxton and Mariah Carey

    What we’re about to discuss is the ultimate taboo in the music industry. No, I’m not referring to Beyonce’s lip-syncing, Jay-Z’s current lack of lyrical depth or the Illumnati membership list. Rather, this article centres on the practices of payola as we develop an understanding of how and why artists use them today.

    Payola, in a traditional sense, refers to the activities of record labels and independent promoters who pay for radio airplay. However, this practice, which has existed since the dawn of the music industry, has since evolved to incorporate several other forms that all stem from Agenda-Setting Theory. To further explain this issue, let’s look closely at the three main types of payola on radio, television and of course, the internet.

    Since we’re tracing the timeline of payola’s development, we have to start with broadcast media, specifically radio. By the 1950s, it was a very common practice for record companies to pay radio stations and DJs to play music by their artists as they attempted to force public demand through the power of media manipulation. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a perfect example of Agenda-Setting Theory.

    Quite simply, Agenda-Setting Theory refers to the power of the media to determine who or what is culturally relevant. For example, headlines across radio, television, the internet and print during the last few days have all emphasised the significance of new addition to England’s royal family.

    Although most of us are no longer colonised by the British, the main topics of discussion on talk shows, magazine covers and even CNN have all highlighted the importance of this child who has absolutely no bearing on our lives. In fact, the possible colour of the young Prince’s hair suddenly became more important that the health of Nelson Mandela and the earthquake in China that killed dozens of people. Of course, what’s most interesting about this case is that many of us were so easily enthralled by the “news” of the royal birth and placed those other events on the back burners of our minds.

    “If a label controls the content to which people listen, the promoted artists will stay at the top of everyone’s agenda and their products, in theory, will sell.”

    The ability of the media to set the agenda of discussion stems from the power to both affect and reflect culture, and that power is highly prized by members of the music industry. Think about it: If a label controls the content to which people listen, watch and discuss, the promoted artists will stay at the top of everyone’s agenda and their products, in theory, will sell.

    This media manipulation is at the root of payola and it started on radio. The gatekeepers of the media – those who control the flow of information and hold the “keys” to various media vehicles – promote the material of sponsored artists and ensure that their music is given first preference. In the case of radio, those gatekeepers include DJs, managers and talk show hosts.

    Although payola became punishable law in the mid-1900s, a strangely similar practice still continues on radio today via various loopholes. Have you ever wondered why certain artists’ songs are played almost every hour on the hour? That’s called power rotation and several stations enter into agreements with labels so that those tunes get stuck in our heads by the end of the day. Additionally, there is the bonus effect of some people rushing to iTunes to purchase the music because they assume that the records are “real” hits and they refuse left out of the trend.

    A perfect example of this activity is observable in the activities of Clear Channel Communications. When Madonna launched her MDNA campaign with “Give Me All Your Luvin'”, she partnered with Clear Channel and was given top billing on most of the stations owned by the company. Similar partnerships were struck with Justin Timberlake (“Suit & Tie”) and Mariah Carey (“#Beautiful”), whose songs were immediately added to radio lineups and launched into power rotation across every format under the Clear Channel umbrella.

    An almost identical payola scheme is observable on television. This media vehicle is arguably more powerful than radio since visuals accompany sounds. Yes, the major channels have cut back on music airplay but dozens of spinoff stations were to compensate for that downturn, thus keeping payola for television spins a viable option.

    This is the point in our discussion where the use of the word ‘allegedly’ becomes crucial to my life as a free man. To ensure that I am not sued and/or thrown in prison where I will undoubtedly be raped by a large convict named Phil, I shall choose my following statements wisely.

    MTV’s former star show, TRL, and BET’s 106 & Park highlight the top ten videos as voted by viewers eager to see their favourite artists at the summit of the lineups. Yet, is that really the case or is there a secret agenda in play? Imagine how simple it would be for labels or artists’ representatives to allegedly paid to get their videos onto the 106 & Park chart for a few weeks. Such a ranking would provide a nifty boost in airplay and guarantee some visibility for the material.

    A curious case of alleged television payola occurred last year when Ciara released her video for “Got Me Good”. The clip played every morning at almost the same time during the MTV’s brief “we still kinda care about music” segment, AMTV, despite being a flop on radio. Why were network managers so determined to shove the video for a failed single in our faces every morning? Ask yourselves that question as I throw a few more ‘allegedly’ words around for good measure.

    Now, we’ve arrived at the third major avenue for payola, the internet. We live in the Digital Age and the younger generation demands information at a faster rate than traditional broadcast media can service. So, they have turned to the internet for their fixes and the blogs are their one-stop shops for entertainment.

    Label executives have slowly accepted this reality and many have struck agreements with blogs as a means of promoting their artists. In exchange for money, interviews, concert tickets, press passes, music, access to parties and more, several bloggers – the gatekeepers – give certain acts more attention than others.

    For instance, when Beyonce posts new pictures of herself on her public Tumblr page, some bloggers rush to publish them and hype her basic activities, such as walking down the street or breathing oxygen. Is there some incentive for keeping Beyonce’s name on their homepage instead of posting material by artists who actually have new music on the market?

    Those same bloggers also give an almost unfair level attention to almost every artist associated to Roc Nation – Rihanna, Kanye West (and Kim Kardashian), Jay-Z, Rita Ora and Bridget Kelly – even when they garner very little traffic in return. Now, I’m not accusing Roc Nation of alleged payola as many bloggers only post about those acts in a desperate bid to fit in with larger brands, but it is very odd that one site in particular attached a completely unrelated video, picture or song by Ellijah Blake to every article for months without any explanation.

    Another platform for alleged payola on the internet is iTunes. Many people have accused the digital retailer of manipulating the top charts to ensure that certain artists get visibility and the supposed success of Tamar Braxton of “Love & War” gave them ammunition.

    Braxton has always been the standout character on Braxton Family Values but the show is far from a blockbuster in the ratings and neither is her music career. Hence, when “Love & War” shot to the top of the main iTunes chart and dethroned Bruno Mars’ monster hit “Locked Out of Heaven”, it baffled many observant music fans.

    How on Earth, Mercury and Venus could a new song by an artist who never scored a major hit in her entire career outperform Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven”, which was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and commanded the highest airplay of any song in the US during that week? That was very puzzling indeed, especially since “Love & War” slipped out of the iTunes top thirty less than two days later and never returned to the top ten.

    We’ve reviewed several types of payola and the basic reasons for such practices but is it all bad? Allow me to provide a different perspective on the matter: Digital artists currently dominate the charts as a result of online streaming and paid downloads, therefore leaving little room for airplay acts. Hence, payola or any similar variations may be the only way for the latter group to survive.

    Most Urban artist, such as Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, Miguel, Kelly Rowland and Beyonce, primarily rely on airplay to score a hit and “sponsored” promotion from various media outlets may be their only chance. On the other hand, that may be just another excuse for artists who refuse to evolve and adapt to the changing tides of popular culture as well as the tastes of consumers.

    Labels use payola to promote artists on radio, television and even on the internet. By understanding the ability of the media to affect the patterns of popular culture and manipulate trends, they use that power to push their artists to the forefront of the charts. In this changing era of the Digital Age, such practices may be the only way for Urban artists to survive or else be exploited as just another crutch for those who fail to evolve.

    The boost of payola personified