What is payola – and is it back?

Many years ago record companies used a “payola” model offering money to radio station disc jockeys to play their artists. This was a powerful tool in the early years of radio and helped many — now legendary — artists pave the path to fortune and fame.

In the 1950s the practice became illegal. Since then, the game has shifted. Instead of paying money, it became gifts, expensive dinners, free trips and the like. The means became more subjective, making payola more difficult to spot.

While most radio stations do not play the payola game anymore for obvious reasons, it may not have disappeared completely.

Billboard Magazine recently sent out a press release stating that the Spanish Broadcasting System (SBS) is now offering artists who want airplay the opportunity by purchase infomercials which feature one of their tracks played in full. The “Monthly Rotating Infomercials” will be sold in packages with costs varying based on the number of spins per month.

SBS Entertainment senior vice president Lucas Pina stated, “The company wanted to open a space for new artists.”

If they are so concerned about providing new artist opportunities, why does it now come with a price tag?

U.S. airplay is dominated by the major labels. Smaller independents cannot easily break this cycle. Much of this reason is due to quality.

The American radio market will occasionally acknowledge a good independent artist. However, radio relies on the major labels because they are generally guaranteed a polished sound because of the large investment in a given artist. My great concern is that terrible songwriters will pay to have their music next to Brittney Spears and the like. This will push away the patrons of many stations and lessen the investment.

According to SBS, approximately one-third of the slots have been purchased by independents and two-thirds by major labels.

One huge misconception the public has is that airplay equates to success for an artist. There are many pieces to the pie in the music business, airplay alone, no longer equates to CD or online sales.

If the SBS is bright enough to screen for quality, it could be a great investment. However, if they are dumb enough to mix genres for the sake of money, it could be a great opportunity for Christian artists to spread the word of Christ by new means.

However, I hope this concept does not catch on with American radio markets. It would force independent artists with great songs to pay for play. Both the listeners and the artists will suffer.

One appealing option for independents in to go online. Since Internet radio has become so popular, some of them work completely from the “Buy Internet” feed time philosophy. The problem with the ones I have heard is that they mix too many styles and genres. This also runs up against the problem of sacrificing quality for quantity, a big drawback in the SBS model.

As an independent artist and record company, this is a great opportunity to overseas airplay. It is difficult to find the time and break the language barrier to solicit overseas radio.

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