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Wednesday, July 27, 2005
The results of the payola investigation have come out and are being discussed in this place and that; I'll link to Nate's thing on it mostly because I am lazy, but also check out this discussion in addition to the one Nate links to. Everyone makes good points, but I have a few to make as well.

The whole thing is very weird for me, partially because the music nerds I used to discuss things with online were music-industry nerds for whom indie promo was just a given, and partially because indie promoters are an inextricable part of my day-to-day life; the thing I did immediately before writing this entry was leave a message for someone in an indie promoter's office. Of course there's indie promo, and of course it has a large influence on radio play, especially for songs with a huge major-label push. To present this as some sort of "aha!" moment is like saying, "Aha, you actually used overdubbing in the course of making this recording!" Well, sure. It's a tool in your arsenal, and the whole thing's a sham. (And saying "it forces the popists to face an uncomfortable truth--what gets played on the radio and makes the charts doesn't have much to do with the 'quality' of the song or even how popular it is with the masses, but has everything to do with marketing, business relationships and cold hard $$$" is like saying--in 1995--"You college football fans are so deluded, the college board rankings are a sham!"[1] Well, yeah, but it's a game, dude, it's always been a game, no matter what arena you move it to.)

So what I'm going to give you here is less a cohesive argument and more of a series of points I think people are overlooking.

One is that the music business has changed from the wild-west days of yore. Specificially, it's become much more corporate, and what that means is that every cost needs to be accounted for. Thus, indie promo becomes institutionalized because it needs to be a line item on your division's budget sheet. You can't send a bunch of hookers to a radio station because a bunch of hookers won't give you a receipt, and then when the artist on whose behalf you sent the hookers comes to you two years later and wants to audit the promotion costs that need to be recouped before she gets paid royalties, she'll say, "Hey, what's this $10,000 for? Where's the documentation?" And you will say, if you are witty, "In a condom somewhere outside WUBI!" And then your ass will be sued.

So indie promo is created because it needs to be formalized and corporatized, and they are presented abstractly in the model of any other outside consultant, which is acceptable to investors.

Indie promo continues to exist because, basically, no one has any fucking clue what you can do to get people to buy records. Radio audiences have been falling off for years, and given the bevy of options people now have to hear new music (including music video channels, who don't bother with indie promoters, they just take their cut directly from the label) it's unclear how much getting your song on the radio actually gets people to buy your album; although there are certainly lotsa cases where more exposure would have definitely helped a record's sales, given the fact that under the indie promo system that would have upped your promotion costs by a few hundred thousand, the cost-benefit analysis may not work out. Plus, once the Billboard charts started using Soundscan figures[2], it revealed what seems to me like a much more realistic pattern of consumption: every three months, there will be about ten albums lots of people will buy, and in part they will buy them because lots of other people have already bought them, so a few records tend to get inside the top 50 and stay there for long stretches of time. But did radio play make the early adopters buy? Who knows? No one has any fucking clue.

But, if you're a record company, the main justification for your existence at this point is to market and promote a record, so you have to do something, and coming up with a whole new inventive marketing plan for yet another pop-rock or crunk or R&B album (even though said pop-rock/crunk/R&B album may be a fantastic album that everyone should hear) is difficult. So what do you do? Give some money to indie promoters and hope. Because it's so institutionalized--it's "standard industry practice," to invoke a phrase I myself have used a few times to do blaringly unfair things to artists--no one's going to question spending the money. To break a record, you have to get on the radio; to get on the radio, you have to pay indie promoters.

And yes, in this sense, the indie promoters do have the labels over a barrel, although as I've hopefully demonstrated above, in the corporate environment of the record business, having something be reliable, even if it's reliably ineffective, is a huge benefit. What will happen is that you get charged for "spins," so even if the record's getting played more on a particular station due soley to what the label's marketing team or the artist herself has been doing, the label still has to pay the indie promoter for every spin. Once a record takes off, you start to get into this dangerous, nebulous area of success somewhere between gold and platinum, where the money you spend to keep the record going, much of which is money you have to spend based on agreements made back when you were trying to break the record, won't get recouped unless you see a pretty massive boost in sales. But that's a lesson for another time. The point here is that just because a label laid out hundreds of thousands of dollars in indie promo costs doesn't necessarily mean the radio play was bought or forced; it might simply have been an unintended consequence of people actually liking the song and wanting to hear it more.

The indie promo system is useful to indie promoters not only because they make--and I can't emphasize this enough--an ungodly amount of money (although admittedly nowhere near as much as they were before), but also because it preserves the insularity of their racket. Under the old payola system, there didn't need to be a conduit; the rock radio promo guy for the Northeast would just whip out the company checkbook and sent goodies to the program directors of all the stations where he wanted adds, and then he would spend his days calling them up and sweet-talking them into putting the record on. But because of the payola laws, this relationship became considerably more legal and considerably more arm's-length. The reason you hire an indie promoter is not because they're particular good at promotion, but because they have a relationship--based on friendship, based on graft, based on coercion, whatever--with a given group of radio stations. Indie promo is, theoretically, like giving your resume to your brother's friend who works at ESPN in hopes of getting a production assistant job, or giving your manuscript to someone who has drinks with an editor at a publishing house in hopes of getting published, or whatever. The only difference is that you're given them your resume and a check for $10,000. That this still sometimes won't result in the song actually getting played very much is indicative of just how stupid the system is.

Certainly radio stations need to share a large part of the blame, too, as does media consolodation ClearChannel blah blah blah. Honestly, I used to care about this shit, but I've given up on the radio. ClearChannel's business model is self-destructive to a degree whiny emo singers can only dream of. There are enough alternatives now, and the whole thing is so fucked in a way that I don't think we can even regulate, that it's time to say good-night. If there's an problem with indie promo's continued existence, it's that it's bad for artists. And not even in terms of getting exposure--if program directors are only giving one of the 150 or so slots in their playlist to someone who gives them an iPod and a trip to the Bahamas, it's not like they're going to suddenly start playing Lightning Bolt once that system withers away. The problem isn't that music is a business, it's that it's a business filled with morons who won't admit that they have no fucking clue what they're doing. The music business is where investors go when they want to lose their shirt and look cool doing it, and if that's the people calling the shots, well, you can imagine.

Finally, it's worth noting that the majors announced they were cutting all ties with indie promo once Spitzer launched his investigation[3]; the practice continues among the indies, but as I understand it, the majors are scrambling to find some sort of replacement, which may or may not continue to be basically illegal. I'm unclear how some of the actions described in the NYT article are at all different from what, say, lobbyists do with politicians. Wait, did I say "some"? I meany "any." The fact is, this seems like an odd thing to be concerned about, how songs get on the radio, but people seem to get worked up about it, so good for them. I'm sure I had something more coherent to say about this all two years ago, but now? Eh.

[1] I haven't paid attention to college football for 10 years, so I may be using these terms wrong. But you know what I mean. The coach's poll, etc. Before the computer rankings.
[2] I'm stealing this all, perhaps innaccurately, from somewhere else; if you know where, please do tell me.
[3] It's also kind of funny that the only reason Spitzer's investigation was successful is because indie promo is a function of the corporate environment--the costs are right there on the books.