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When is promoting really payola?

Sunday, March 10, 2002

By Adrian McCoy

In recent months, a music industry practice has been raising eyebrows. Independent promoters are paid by record companies to promote a song. These promoters, or "indies," in turn approach radio stations to get them to play certain releases. They're paid by the record company when the song is added to a station's list.

Here's where the arrangement gets complicated: The indie may in turn pay the radio station for promotional expenses, such as concerts.

Is it "promotion" or a new kind of payola?

Opponents of this practice say it shuts out artists and labels who aren't paying fees to promoters. In a recent Los Angeles Times interview, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said the FCC and the Justice Department need "to start paying attention to the citizen groups, community activists and musicians, who have all thrown up their hands in disgust. ... A lot of artists' careers get compromised after they get to the top because of these [payola] transactions. And many more never even get a chance to get near the top. They get squeezed out. In my opinion, it's not just the artist who loses. The culture loses."

Murky as the relationship is, the deals aren't as close to payola as they've been portrayed in the media, insiders here say. Clear Channel's Gene Romano: "We have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to pay for play in any form. Record companies and independents have a job to do and provide a service of promoting their artists. Our radio stations must sort though all of the available product to find the best available songs and artists for their targeted audience."

Keith Clark says promoters aren't part of the picture at Infinity stations "under any circumstance. Aside from the legal issues, music is the No. 1 reason people listen to FM stations. It doesn't make sense to have people outside the local market controlling the playlist. Eventually, the listeners will not be satisfied and will tune out."

A salon.com article published in 2001 claimed that most stations play only the songs the record companies pay them to. "That's simply not true," Ingram says. "I did Top 40 radio for over 20 years, and it's never happened that way."

Some of the larger radio companies are trying to cut out the middleman indie and develop new revenues by having the record labels pay them directly to play a song, which would include mentioning the artist, title and label -- a kind of paid ad, but also dangerously close to the pay-for-play exchange of money that sparked the payola controversy of the early days of Top 40 radio.

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