The New Corruption: Payola vs Playola

Payola is the age-old practice of paying money–bribing–people to play songs on the radio. Instead of a song reaching a playlist on its merits, its spot in the rotation is bought and paid for. This is illegal. (An important note: In 30+ years in the Canadian radio with more than 25 of them working at one of the biggest and most influential stations in North America, I have never ever been offered any form of payola. Not. Once. No cash, no presents, no hookers, no blow. In America, however, it’s been a different situation since the 1950s.)

Everyone once in a while, someone in the US government cracks down on payola, but it always manages to creep into the system again. And with the rise of streaming music services–each of which requires a separate user account and with each of them battling for market share by offering exclusives–we have a new issue: playola.  Billboard takes a look.

As the Internet has leveled many power blocs of the old music business, playlists have become valuable currency in streaming’s new world order, so much so that record companies now actively promote — and sometimes pay for — their songs to appear on such services as Spotify, Deezer and Apple Music.

Playlist promotion “is a very, very big deal,” says Daniel Glass, whose Glassnote Records (Mumford & Sons) began actively soliciting songs to streaming ­companies about two years ago. “It’s part of our company culture and our lingo in the hallways.”

And Glassnote isn’t alone. Labels are incorporating playlist ­promotion into their overall marketing strategies with the knowledge that discovery through a list favored by, say, music supervisors can lead to synch licenses for a new artist. Radio stations also often use streaming data to inform their own spin cycles, with the rock and pop formats in particular looking to “see what’s bubbling up and amplify it,” says one digital music executive. “Stations don’t want to be behind what’s online.”

Like social media, playlists are viral in nature: A track’s streams will spike after it’s added to a popular playlist; listeners will add the song to their playlists; their friends will do the same. Getting a song onto a hot playlist almost ensures awareness will spread from one social network to another.

The practice truly went aboveground on Aug. 5, when Universal Music Group named industry veteran Jay Frank senior vp global streaming marketing (reporting to Michele Anthony, executive vp recorded music, and Andrew Kronfeld, president of global marketing) and invested in his digital marketing firm DigMark (for an undisclosed amount), an innovator in playlist promotion that charges label clients $2,000 for a six-week campaign.

Frank, who has a reputation among his peers as a “data guru,” as one business associate described Frank, seems a logical hire for a ­corporation such as UMG. Yet sources tell Billboard that Frank’s company is among those that have adopted some of radio promotion’s ­unsavory ­practices, such as paying for placement on playlists, if not buying and thus controlling them outright. Multiple insiders allege that the major music groups — as well as DigMark and a playlist promoter — have paid influential curators to populate their playlists with their clients’ music. Some third-party users are known to request money to include songs on their playlists.

Oooo boy. Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ 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.

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