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Pay to Play: How Indie Bands Get Songs on the Radio

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The music industry has undergone some intricate changes in the past two decades. Arguably, no industry has changed more when we consider the way we listen, digest and purchase music. It began with live shows, jukeboxes and record players,  then to cassette tapes, CDs, and now finally, streaming. With all this change there has really only been one constant: and that’s radio.

Even so, radio has changed enough to warrant being including in the conversation. But one thing still remains true for our AM-FM friends. Up and coming bands still want their music on the radio. And interestingly enough, they are eagerly willing to pay for it. Maybe not at the prices the radio stations levy on them; but nonetheless, radio is still a palpable platform to get your music heard. We at SommTable, wanted to take a closer look at the Pay to Play system being utilized in radio. A controversial system which has been steadily growing at a time when streaming and downloads dominant music listening.

It’s an interesting investigation that puts the spotlight onto where the power of the musician resides. It seems fat too often in the music industry, the musician has no power compared to the record label, the radio stations, and certainly the big boys like Spotify and Apple Music. So it’s important to consider before you pass judgement on if the Pay-to-Play radio format is something worth criticizing, if it actually adits or evades the musicians ability to have their song heard on the radio. Soon enough, everyone will have to pick a side as growing tensions escalate the situation.

Essentially, there exists a plethora of ‘starter stations’ or radio outlets willing to give a song a chance before it’s proven to be a hit. These radio stations are contacted by independent promoters of indie bands, known as “Indies.” From there it goes like this: you to go to pay to play; literally. As detailed by Rolling Stone: “Luke” a music industry sultan and expert on label radio campaigns described in an interview:

“Ever since, you have to pay $1,000 to $1,500 to get any work [on his stations],” Luke says. “They’re very steadfast about [discussing] nothing in an email. They call me up, like, ‘We can do $1,000 for this station. Do you want this [station] too for this amount?’ We’re working a campaign, so as much as it sucks, we have to pay the toll.”

It might sound simple enough: the indie promoter passes money or goods from the record label to the radio stations who influence airplay. Apparently, what’s really significant is the pay-for-play transactions are primarily handled by middle men, the people known as indies. These independent promoters form relationships with stations to administer these pay-to-play programs which in turn allow these labels to engage in pay-for-play without direct transfer of funds; concealing, blurring the true nature of these transactions.

Apparently, this has caused quite a fuss in the music industry and has led Rolling Stone into their own investigation, where several radio-industry veterans reached out to report that the number of indie promoters has been steadily growing for the past year.

“Enough time has passed [since the last payola lawsuits, in the mid-2000s], nobody’s gotten in trouble for a while, and nobody is scrutinizing this as tightly as they used to be,” says “Matthew,” a longtime alternative radio promoter. “Things are getting a little more lax.”

“Indies, in my perspective, have too much clout,” adds “Mark,” another program director with more than two decades of experience in radio.

According to the information gathered by Rolling Stone, an estimated 25% of all radio stations have a dedicated indie, with a serious five names that allegedly control the space. There is also reports of what is known as “Tripple-A-Format,” or when a promoter who controls several stations will give you an add just for promotional support, that comes in the form of an invoice for some random item you have never seen.

As reported by Rolling Stone, there are different factions of indie promoters, with many establishing exclusive relationships with specific stations. “If you want to get anything done at that station, the program director will say, ‘You have to go talk to [the indie],’ ” Luke says. “Then you end up getting an invoice — I’ve seen some total bullshit invoices — like, ‘This is $800 in water bottles, this is $1,500 in T-shirts.’ ” Luke believes these goods “are never actually made” — the invoices essentially serve to conceal the pay-for-play.

While artists and record labels are willing to pay these indie promoters, the benefit to the artist is far more ambiguous than the transaction appears on paper. Apparently, most of the songs that are pay-to-play are coming on in the graveyard shift. Luke spoke again to Rolling Stone: “There’s some stations if you pay the toll, you’re getting spins at two in the morning,” he notes. “It’s not even moving the needle.”

Not all radio veterans and personal agree on the effect the pay-to-play system is having on musicians and radio. After all, why would something that does not work be continuing to grow? It turns out, sometimes it has correlated into meaningful radio-play in the future. “When you have that budget to play with at the majors, it doesn’t matter if people actually hear [your song on the radio], as long as you can say you got the ‘most added’ [record that week] or whatever you need for a marketing push,” Luke says. That is to say, some spins that are spun at night, might catch something in the web in the morning or following afternoon. That is one of the great things about music. The proof is in the pudding. If people like your music they are going to listen to it.

In today’s world we have a type of competition for clout like never before. With every click and finger dab leading to a new site, a new artist, a new station, and music readily available like never before; it is both the hardest and easiest it has ever been for musicians. The profound forces at work make for an interesting debate arena in this ever changing landscape. It is always our hope at SommTable, that the artist gets their energy poured back to them. After all, it is music that has given us so much in our lives.

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