Will the end of payola spell doom for indie record labels?

Salon has an interesting article called Payola is dead! Now what will we listen to? that is sub-titled "The bizarre, sleazy system of independent radio promotion may have finally bitten the dust. But believe it or not, pop radio may get even worse."  In it the article hypothesizes that in some ways the greatest beneficiaries of the "independent record promoter" were the indie record labels and without them the major labels will further their icy grip on mainstream radio with the end result being that the already tightly formatted FM radio playlists will be even more restricted to major label only dreck.

"The indie promotion fallout could be especially tough on smaller, independently owned record labels, the very outlets many assumed would benefit if the costly radio promotion system ever collapsed. "It seems counterintuitive, but the weakening of indie promotion is not a good thing," says the owner of a small, successful label. "It further cements the hegemony of the major labels and will definitely narrow what’s heard on the radio. The short-term effect is not good for independent music."

The fear is that the indie labels will basically have nobody in their corner promoting their artists to the commercial FM radio program directors and thus will be shut out of mainstream FM radio to the detriment of their artistic and financial success.

"How are we going to get anybody at Clear Channel or Infinity stations to listen to our records? We can’t get those programmers on the phone," says the head of one independently owned label that has produced, with the help of indies, top 10 hits in the past. "A lot of people look at indie promotion as a cancerous thing. Ultimately it’s not that simple. There was a lot of corruption but there was also a legitimate function. They’ve been a way for independent music, if they could scrape together the money, to be on equal playing field as the majors are."

The last thing that the Clear Channels and Infinitys of the broadcast world will want to do it is feared, is take the chance on new labels and bands thus further entrenching their playlists into "hit, hits and still more hits."

The fear is that without indies, radio programmers, paid first and foremost to secure high ratings for stations that in some markets now carry price tags in excess of $100 million, will rely more and more on proven hit singles as well as older, already-familiar songs, leaving less airtime for new acts. "Radio stations don’t get ratings through playing a lot of new music, they get ratings through repetition and familiarity," says one indie veteran. "You think Infinity [in the wake of its indie ban] will all of a sudden say, ‘Hey, let’s play lots of new music!’? It doesn’t work that way. I think the playlists will get tighter."

The thing is that this could all be a short-term problem. The alternatives to terrestrial radio are growing daily with satellite and Internet radio, iPods and podcasts. The question is whether the indie labels can tough it out until then. As the article points out:

Already facing a shrinking audience, as fans of new and adventurous music continue to flee radio in search of freewheeling — and commercial-free — alternatives like the Internet and satellite radio to hear their favorite artists, pop music stations, with their increasingly tight playlists, may finally be writing their own doom. If so, this time indies won’t be around to take the blame.

It’s a crazy, mixed up new world out there where sometimes the good and the bad are not neccesarily so clear cut. The only thing we can be sure about is that the next 5 years will bring massive change to the music biz, hopefully for the better. Time will tell.

1 Comment

  1. Payola interests me and a number of other artists from early eras of the charts. ou are welcomme to send me an email and I will return you my speech on the that and other music subjects that I ga/e to the EU in January 2005

    Roger Bunn
    Hon chief ANC. Director – Music Industry Human Rights Association. Director – the promotion of a European Union and UK DCMS Select Committee investigation into monitoring, collection and reward conduits of the European music industry,
    A single standard on sport, drugs and apartheid
    Sydney 2000 – Athens 2004 – Beijing 2008 – Burma Out!
    http://busca.baja.com/stream/up4grabs2.rm – RealPlayer

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