29 July 2005
Can we pay them not to play something?
Today's consumers have a variety of sources of music and a variety of media to store and play it.
Nevertheless, payola undermines consumer choice. Consumer choice isn't just about selecting a station whose programming you tend to like. The consumer should also be free to make an informed choice about the different services offered in the radio market.
The station that runs on payola is offering a fundamentally different service than a station whose DJs have creative control. An independent DJ is offering her expertise and aesthetic judgment. It's her job to listen to choose good stuff and to play it in aesthetically pleasing sequences.
As a consumer, I want independence from my DJ. In a payola system, I have no idea who's independent and who isn't. As a listener in a payola system, you don't know whether your DJ is taking bribes, or whose bribes she's taking.
I'm inclined to applaud this line of thinking, mostly because I like the idea of differentiating between stations which are completely ruled by the dollar and stations which are only partially so; but as a practical matter, so few DJs actually do have creative control even stations which refuse payola often have consultants and marketroids who set the playlists based on their "research" that they will stand out for their sheer rarity as much as for their presumably-good programming judgment.
Dave Marsh once said that the payola of the 1950s had scant effect, that any record that became a hit in those days probably would have become a hit even if no one had slipped anyone a few bills under the table, and while I think this might have been true back then, I'd find it hard to believe that the present-day pay-for-play system is similarly ineffective: for one thing, playlists have been shrinking steadily, Jack FM and its brothers notwithstanding, and the fewer the songs, the greater the impact of slightly-heavier-than-normal rotation.
Then again, I listen mostly to public radio, for which I write checks in the fall.Posted at 4:20 PM to Overmodulation