Payola is the term given to the illegal practice of exchanging radio airplay for cash (or, uh, dodgy goods and services). In Canada, payola has never been an issue. Not once in my entire career have I seen any evidence of it. In the US, however, it’s a problem as old as rock’n’roll itself.
But now that we’re moving deeper into a digital realm, payola (or something perilously close to it) is evolving, too. Check out this article from Future of Music Coalition.
In the age of on-demand streaming, it’s common to hear people talk about music as “limitless”— something that flows forth endlessly like water. Indeed, musicians around the world release a huge volume of new music every day. But in practice, most consumers’ exposure to the world of new music is extremely limited. It’s one of the thorniest problems—if there’s so much music out there, why do consumers end up being exposed to so little of it? Why should the music marketplace be a winner-take-all system?
Of course, whether or not you view this as a problem to be solved could depend on whether you’re fortunate enough to be one of the “winners.” Still, media critics have long pointed to the role of gatekeepers who exercise considerable control what music reaches audiences. From radio programmers to retail managers to talent buyers to music reviewers and beyond, the most powerful labels do their best to keep their offerings front and center—often at the expense of independents.
Radio is the still the number one source of “music discovery,” but commercial AM/FM radio broadcasters in this era of ownership consolidation tend to be highly risk-averse in their programming choices. Playlists are narrow and repetitive, as our research has documented. It has been the strong hope of the independent sector that online music services would be more democratic, allowing more artists to find audiences than was possible in the old-school media world.
Continue reading. It’s worth it because we’ll need to have a frank discussion about this sooner or later.