The Supreme Court has ruled that file sharing networks can be sued for copyright infringement if they induce or encourage illegal downloads. Grokster was the example. Acquisition, for example, was not.
At the same time, a study in U.K. was made public and it showed that music file sharers buy more CDs. Indeed, as argued, the access to free music seems to simply deepen the knowledge and appetite for recordings.
Eliot Spitzer, the New York State Attorney General, indicted some major labels for payola… Sony BMG settled out of court. Some say Sony was caught because another major label tipped Spitzer’s office. Corporate infighting and backstabbing. But they all do it, so won’t they all be under surveillance now? At least temporarily. So who ultimately benefits if one told on the other?
An Op-Ed piece in the Times [link] points out that payola has always been with us, but that laws and indictments have merely driven the practice higher up the corporate chain of command, leaving the upstart and indie labels out in the cold.
My own experience with payola is limited and of course subjective. I’d heard of payola as I entered the music business professionally in the mid seventies, but naïvely thought it would never apply to me. I figured that it was a practice that was dying out and existed mainly around the disco, country music and R'nB worlds — which seemed not to be mainstream in those days.
Soon enough I began to hear stories, but still these didn’t apply to the circle of musicians I moved in. We could pretend that we were immune.
By the mid eighties, when Talking Heads had had some hit singles, the biggest of which was “Burning Down the House”, I got the news. “Burning Down The House” had some serious “indie” promotion money behind it. It got played on some college and other stations without financial prompting, but the jump to “commercial FM”, as I think it is called, was helped by cash and whatever else was used at the time — probably coke and women.
The band was in the midst of a tour, the one that was eventually filmed as Stop Making Sense. As we crisscrossed the continent (due to technical miscalculations this tour never really went to Europe) I could see that audiences were reacting more and more vociferously and positively to this relatively new song. How exciting! But as I began to hear rumors about the promo money being spent to help the song on radio all sorts of thoughts ran through my head.
I wondered if every pop song that had moved me on the radio, from when I was in my teens, had been paid for. Oh jeez! Therefore, other than a few free-form stations around at that time I was being treated like a Pavlovian dog — what I had believed were my subjective passions and discoveries were actually the result of a concerted program to pound certain tunes into my innocent brain. I had been totally manipulated! What I thought were decisions and loves that were mine and mine alone had been planted in my head by sleazy characters I could barely imagine. Free will? Hah! My entire past was called into question. Who am I? Am I not partly what I like? And if those things I like were not completely of my own choosing, then what am I?
Obviously, this insight applied to our audiences as well. And now, with the success of this single, to our own songs! I caught myself thinking to myself, “they APPEAR to be loving this song, but little do they know they’ve simply been manipulated to like it, just like I was manipulated to like the stuff I like!” They don’t REALLY like it all THAT much, I shouldn’t believe what I see. In fact, I began to doubt whether the song was as good as its reception seemed to imply. As a songwriter and musician I of course would like to believe that when an audience shouts for a song it’s because we’ve written something pretty good that touches them in some significant way. The implication is that my fellow musicians and I are pretty talented. We should pat ourselves on the back, be proud, we deserved some of the perks that were coming our way.
Knowing that the song was partly paid for throws all that ego boost material out the window. Ooops, maybe the song is just O.K., and we’re all so easily manipulated that it doesn’t really matter if it’s good or not. And, as well as thinking less of myself, I began to think a whole lot less of our audience. When people would come up to me and say “boy is that a great song, I LOVE that song!” I would be tempted to tell them, “no you don’t, you’ve just been saturated with it and manipulated like the rest of us. You like it because your soul, your likes and dislikes, are up for sale to the highest bidder.”
In case some of you think this only applies to rap or mainstream pop or dance music or whatever you and your friends don’t listen to, think again. Alt rock, the symbol of “integrity” and “authenticity”, along with hip hop, is just as guilty of payola and promotion as the songs of Madonna and J.Lo. There’s a reason you think so-and-so is cool, and the reason has nothing to do with how good it actually is. There’s a reason writers write about certain artists, etc. etc. (The writers and magazines may not have been paid off, but the popularity of something makes it a valid subject, for example.)
It’s not all bad news, though. There’s another side to it. As has been pointed out many times, you can’t make people like a BAD song. You can only get a song across if it really truly does connect to people, if they really truly do like it. What the payola does, from a very very skewed perspective, is simply reinforce what is already desired. What is already good. It weeds out the lame and the sick and dying and helps the strong and healthy. Eugenic cultural filtering, sort of.
That’s a somewhat benign view of it. But it is true that the indie promoters say they won’t take the money unless the song proves it has at least a shot. They can’t promote a total piece of crap — or so they claim. So you can only get away with shoving a couple of lame singles down the public’s throat, and then the radio programmers themselves will probably react — “keep your money, we won’t play it — it will hurt our listenership, they’ll tune out if we play too many lousy songs.” Well, maybe, up to a point. Over time you can get an audience to accept less and less. They bar gets lowered and it’s easier to break songs that are pure bullshit. But let’s believe there are limits below which the marketplace will not sink.
The other problem with the payola system is that it bankrupts the artist. Not always, but very often, these costs — hundreds of thousands of dollars — are recoupable against the artist’s share of the record royalties. If the song clicks and the record sells millions, then no one complains, as money eventually trickles into the artist’s account. But if other things happen — if the song gets plenty of play maybe everyone really likes it too, but no one buys the CD — then the artist will be unlikely to recoup those costs. So maybe the record company tries a second single, with more indie promotion expenses, which indeed may be the one… or it may simply put the poor artist even further in the hole.
So, what to do? I agree with the Times writer that if payola is going to always be with us then at least let’s level the playing field a little. The harm the present arrangement does is that it locks out artists and labels whose songs are just as good, if not better, than what is getting played, but can’t afford the payments. Things succeed partly on worth, but partly on cold hard cash. It would be nice if worth had a chance on its own every once in a while.
It would also be nice if these hidden costs were less hidden — if the artist were apprised of what was going on in his or her name and had to sign off before incurring substantial debt.