Payola: It's good for the soul (at least Slate.com thinks so)

Not music day. I know. Sorry. But there are so many flaws in this defense of payola from Slate.com it’s hard to not pick apart its logic. It’s also hard to figure out where to begin a dissection of it. (However, before getting to that, can I say God bless Eliot Spitzer? And not only for going after Sony, but for pretty much everything he’s done over the past four years. Is there another prominent, activist, government official who so obviously puts the pursuit of justice above pleasing corporations? None that I can think of.)

At any rate, here we go on Danny Gross’s piece. He starts his defense by stating:

“It's a truth universally acknowledged that manufacturers of everything from soap to computers pay the folks who control crucial distribution channels to display their wares prominently. It's legal, and no one minds.”

Of course it’s legal—however, I don’t agree with his assertion that no one minds—because the people who accept money to prominently display items like soap and computers own the space where those things will be displayed. They can use the space anyway they want; they can sell it to whomever they like--it belongs to them. It’s kind of like the store is their apartment, allowing them to arrange the furniture how ever they like, even if it’s by selling the best spots to the highest bidder. However, radios that accept money for playing certain songs don’t own the airwaves they use. You and I own them. Radio waves are public and regulated by the government, which ruled, as a result of the payola scams in the 1950s, that the practice of paying for play is a no go. So, unless you, me, and Uncle Sam are getting kick backs from the money pocketed by DJs, this shit simply ain’t cool. In fact, this logic is so obvious that Gross points it out later in the article. He counters by stating:

“How, precisely, are consumers harmed if a radio station in Toledo played Celine Dion more than it otherwise would have in the absence of payments… Fifty years ago, the prospect of a big record company like Sony and a big radio station owner conspiring to fix what got played could have threatened an important component of the economy and actually stifled musical creativity. But not today. With declining record sales, the rise of Internet and satellite radio, and the advent of iTunes, iPods, and podcasting, radio stations and record companies have become an object of pity more than fear.”

Once again, keep in mind that we as citizens of the United States own the airwaves. I don’t know that we are harmed by listening to Celine Dion—hell, from the sound of things I’ll be karaoking to her greatest hits on Saturday night—but I would venture that smaller, more interesting bands, despite the advent of new music technologies, are still adversely effected by the fact she is spun 10 times an hour when they can’t get a spot on most play lists. Despite new technologies, there are still places in the world, North East PA for instance, and Toledo OH I’d imagine, that still rely on main stream radio for cues on what music to purchase. Yes, Napster and itunes are great, but how would you know to download a Q and Not U song if you’ve never heard of Q and Not U? Word of mouth only travels so far outside of cities. What about the kid in Topeka, KS who hates country music, who hates Nelly, but buys those CDs because it's the only music he knows about? If radio was truly a service to the public stations would offer up different types of music, allow as many people as possible to get a piece of the pie, and appeal to a variety of tastes.

Finally, my absolute favorite point in Gross’s argument is the following:

“Entertainment payola is harmless because this is a consumer market that functions reasonably well. Books and movies backed by huge, ubiquitous promotional budgets won't gain market share and displace competitors if they suck.”

This comparison is completely senseless. When we talk about payola, we’re not talking about advertising. We’re not talking about buying thousands of ads in thousand of music magazines. We’re talking about record companies paying DJs to play albums the record company produced in order to sell more of them than they normally would. In terms of the marketing of movies, this would be the equivalent of studios paying theatres to play their movies, not spending millions on trailers and commercials that are often better produced than the movies themselves. What movie studios do is advertise. Advertisements are only suggestions. You don’t have to actually see the piece of shit being advertised. However, when every radio station in one market is accepting payola from the same record company, where do we turn the dial for relief? Well, I’ve got Celine Dion down here. Oh and I’ve got Sum 41 here. And I’ve got some great classic rock over here.


Not to get all hippie-ish, but the reason I get so bent out of shape about this is because I’d like to believe music is an art form first and a commodity second. Christ, at this rate, I’d be happy if commodity and art were at least on equal footing. I know it’s naive. I know record companies don’t spend a fuck load of money producing an album because they think their band is going to be the next Velvet Underground but because they want a return on their investment. And yes, I think they’re starting to pay the price for this in reduced record sales and fewer people listening to the radio, but part of me still wishes they’d learn their lesson and focus a little more on the art of things. It would be hard for them to lose more money then they have in the past ten years, so why not try it?


Mr. Steiner said...

Are you Joe Killiany? If so, I apologize for blowing your cover. Email me: marcavage@gmail.com I, too, live in our nation's capital.

Mike said...

I love that last quote from the article: "Books and movies backed by huge, ubiquitous promotional budgets won't gain market share and displace competitors if they suck."

Really? In what Bizzaro universe has this guy been reading books and watching movies?