Payola deal won't change radio play

Record companies will find a way to promote their pop, shut out indie acts

Observations

August 07, 2005|By Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Lots of pop fans who detest what's become of mainstream radio seem to feel New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's recent settlement with Sony BMG over payola charges means "real" music will soon be back on the airwaves.

Don't hold your breath.

Critics of today's pop music falsely equate the corporate admission that millions were spent trying to alter radio station playlists as a sign that the sounds now dominating radio are being forced on us.

It's as if big, bad Sony BMG - which releases music by Maryland-based rockers Good Charlotte and R&B stars including Beyonce Knowles and Jennifer Lopez - used its vast resources to keep "real" music (rock 'n' roll, adult pop, jazz, what have you) off the air.

Trust me, Sony and other major labels aren't interested in keeping anything off the air. They are interested in selling records. They'd release an album of dog howls if they thought it would go platinum.

To think otherwise is as misguided as believing that all those heavy-metal albums years ago really had satanic messages woven into the music.

You knew it was nonsense because if the record industry really had such power, the message they would have slipped into the records would be, "Buy more of our albums."

The hip-hop revolution didn't start because record executives suddenly took a fancy to the renegade sound. Hip-hop artists sold millions of albums on indie labels before most major labels woke up to the music's potential. It was a repeat of what happened in the '50s, when rock 'n' roll was born on indie labels.

The power in determining hits rests with the public, and no one knows this better than radio programmers.

Radio executives respond more to ratings than a truckload of plasma TVs, the sexiest of the payola gifts revealed in e-mails released last week as part of the Spitzer settlement.

Good ratings, good bonus. Bad ratings, and you may be watching your TV at home while combing through the want ads.

That's not to say that promotion (including practices in violation of anti-payola laws) can't help an individual new record worm its way onto radio play lists; of course it can. But the record won't stay there unless listeners accept it. If you could guarantee a hit through payola, major labels wouldn't have to drop artists left and right because of poor sales.

My suspicion is many record company executives are privately pleased by the payola settlement because they see the practice as throwing money down a sinkhole, in many cases.

The only reason moguls haven't quit on their own is the fear of what might happen if their rivals continue to play the payola game - a risk they can't afford to take in today's ultra-cutthroat environment.

One better way to spend the promotion money would be greater tour support, which should help rock acts who have the most trouble getting mainstream airplay these days, or long-term career development. Many of the major rock acts of recent years, including Bruce Springsteen and U2, depended in their early days more on touring than on radio.

The more likely scenario is that executives will soon be back with new promotional schemes that again test the boundaries of payola.

Questionable practices won't stop, one executive said flatly, until someone goes to jail. That would be the ultimate deterrent, because it would shake the upper echelons of the corporate culture far more than a $10 million fine.

Indie-label representatives expressed hope last week that the payola settlement would enable their acts to get more mainstream airplay, but that, too, sounds a lot like wishful thinking. Major labels will still employ huge promotion teams that will work day and night to persuade radio programmers to play their latest releases. Indie labels can't compete with that firepower.

And there's no reason to think mainstream programmers are going to be more open to indie rock sounds as long as research shows today's hit music is what gets the ratings.

If radio programmers were more adventurous, you might hear mainstream stations playing the best music of the day, regardless of musical genre - a playlist that might include 50 Cent and Bright Eyes, Alicia Keys and the White Stripes.

It would take a major shift in listener tastes to make that possible - and that's one change that's most certainly beyond the power of the New York attorney general's office.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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