Payola’s Back. What’s Payola?

“Payola, in the music industry, is the illegal practice of payment or other inducement by record companies or individuals for the broadcast of recordings on commercial radio in which the song is presented as being part of the normal day’s broadcast.” Wikipedia

I haven’t heard the word payola in years. But then this headline caught my eye: “Big Broadcasters Ask FCC for Payola Waiver”. A recent post by David Lowery that brought back my own memories of dealing with payola back in the eighties when I was running an indie music label.

Just reading Lowery’s headline snapped me back thirty years. I remember, one of my promo guys calling from LA to give me his weekly radio report. We were having a good run, our record, Along for the Ride by Danny O’keefe was moving up the charts. Three of us were working the record, calling hundreds of stations every week. I was enjoying it, I believed in the record and the program directors at the stations were adding the record to their playlists.

I had just moved back to Northern California from Los Angeles living in Sausalito with my wife and our new born son, Trevor. Life was good. Then I got the call.

“Hello, how did we do?”

“You want the good news, first?”


“The records going top twenty next week.”

“That’s great news.”

After a slight pause, my promo guy said “but now it’s going to cost $50K to keep going.” I knew right away he was talking about payola. “And that doesn’t mean you’ve got a hit. All it means is the program directors at the major market stations like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles can listen to the record and decide if they want to add it to their playlist.” I didn’t know what to say, but I did know that the $50k would just be an ante into the game and the game would get very expensive, very fast. I didn’t have access to that kind of money.

It was my first encounter with payola and I was pretty bummed. I had intentionally chosen Adult Contemporary over Top Forty because it was less competitive. My plan had been to get a distribution deal with a label by creating interest with radio airplay. I hadn’t planned on getting this far without a distribution deal and I hadn’t counted on payola stopping us in our tracks.

I made a couple of calls, but $50k was a lot of money. I never did find out if they’d take a check or credit cards. I mean how does that work? You meet some guy in a trench coat with a suitcase in the alley? I called my promo guy back and told him I couldn’t do it.

But we kept making the station calls, Along for the Ride stalled at eighteen, then started to fade. We released a second single, Someday, and the same thing happened, this time we got to seventeen, but that was it. Not bad for a small indie label, but not enough to get us a deal.

I had moved to the Bay Area and wasn’t moving back to LA. The plan was to stay in Northern California and grow the indie label, but all of a sudden it felt like the odds were stacked against me. I decided after fifteen years I was going to leave the music business.

Then four years ago I decided to get back into the music business, as a blogger and commenter. I realized how much I had missed being around music people and how pissed I was at technology for diverting all the money away from the artists. Somehow everything had gotten turned around.

Instead of being the rallying call of a generation, music had become a cheap commodity supporting legal and illegal internet companies selling ads to listeners.

Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, I read Lowery’s article on the new payola, where broadcasters are petitioning the FCC to further relax their regulations on payola. I didn’t realize that after all these years that payola had actually been legalized, as long as the broadcasters made direct announcements to their listeners telling them who had paid to have a specific song played.

Now the stations are asking the FCC to change the ruling and allow them to lump all the pay for play announcements together in some obscure location once a day. At 3:00 A.M. in the morning.

What does this mean for you, the listener? Less variety and playlists created by the highest bidder. What does it mean for the musician/songwriter? Fewer opportunities to get your music heard and ultimately fewer chances at having a shot at success. As if it were ever easy to make it.

This time I’ve decided to stick around for the fight.

Photo Credit: iStock © megatronservizi

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