Payola is Still a Thing in the Music Business. It’s Just Moved Online

Payola–the practice of paying someone to play your music on the radio–has been around since at least the 1950s. After the practice got way out of control, the US government stepped in made it illegal, saying that not only was it unethical but that it distorted the music marketplace by giving pay-for-play songs an unfair advantage when it came to being heard by the public.

From that point on payola went deep underground. New clever ways were used to accomplish the same thing. Loopholes were exploited. And every once in a while, things got crazy and more people were prosecuted, a few careers were ruined and a few fines were paid. Then repeat.

[I should point out that payola has never been a Canadian thing. In the 30+ years I’ve been in the business and having worked at the highest levels of the radio industry, I have never, ever been offered any kind of payola in exchange for playing a song on one of my radio stations. No cash, no incentives, no “presents,” no favours, no drugs, no hookers. Not. Even. Once.]

However, payola was only taboo for radio airplay. Record stores, for example, charged for special displays of specific releases, just like grocery stores charge for end-of-the-aisle displays for breakfast cereal or whatever. And now people are looking carefully at how songs get on influential playlists at streaming music companies. out of Australia takes a look at the situation.

As streaming services grow to scale, they steadily erode terrestrial radio’s monopoly on breaking artists. Diehard fans alongside a newer generation of listeners are increasingly discovering their music exclusively online. While terrestrial radio still commands a majority audience share, many suggest streaming services could very well become the preferred method for listening to new music.

As of 2017, market leader Spotify hosts playlists which are hitting into the millions of followers. Its Are & B list boasts a 3.6 million plus subscribership, while RapCaviar enjoys more than 8 million. These seemingly harmless collections of tunes dwarf the reach, scale, and engagement of humble domestic radio. To provide an example of scale, as of 2015 leading Aussie broadcaster triple j was dealing in a figure of around 2 million listeners per week across five capital cities.

Such playlists operate as simply as you might expect. Something appears on a popular list and listeners add it to their own. From here, friends of these listeners follow suit and it’s at this point that an artist can explode.

Lorde provides an enduring example. In 2012, Ella Yelich-O’Connor was virtual unknown outside of Australia and New Zealand. Her debut single, Royals, was uploaded to Spotify in March 2013. It languished in relative obscurity before cropping up on tech billionaire Sean Parker’s Hipster International Spotify playlist on April 2nd. Six days later it was jumping into the Spotify charts. By June, Royals had been picked up by commercial radio in the US. The streaming sparked a buzz, momentum and attention which paved the way for the 16-year-old’s debut album and global chart-topper Pure Heroine.

Lorde’s story is impressive but not unique. There are hosts of interested parties seeking to emulate this path to lucrative success. And in the cut-throat world of music industry megabucks, not everybody is content playing above the board.

Keep reading. You don’t want your musical tastes to be manipulated by money, do you?


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

One thought on “Payola is Still a Thing in the Music Business. It’s Just Moved Online

  • November 24, 2017 at 10:53 am

    Is it even worth bothering about anymore?
    The American music record industry is dead, ruined by commercial garbage as over exposed by crumby but successful radio stations. The people that run radio stations play as big a role in the demise as do the crumby label signings by dork-level A&R people – especially in America, where it really couldn’t get any worse.
    Musically North America is decades behind the UK. Everything no matter how alternative a genre it’s been labeled all boils down to what is Country music, be it electric, acoustic, fast or slow, but it’s still Country as that’s the only way 99% of north American singers know how to sing. You’ll never ever hear a David Bowie coming from north America. Closest would be the magnificent Scott Walker, but he left USA in the late 1960’s and sells about 3 records per album release there. I doubt whether the general record buying public could ever pronounce the band he made the recent “Soused” album with.

    In all fairness to Lorde, she’s very mature for her tender years and way, way ahead of anything coming from the Afro-American or Latino community. Could it get any worse?

    But isn’t it a dreadful state of affairs when it’s people like Sean Parker who become advocates of good public taste?
    Not on my watch.


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