Tuesday, July 26, 2005

In the New York payola case, Sony settles nothing

No doubt that major label haters are licking their lips over this: Radio Payoffs Are Described as Sony Settles. But the fact remains that this is going to be a temporary victory at best even though NY Attorney General Elliot Spitzer definitely had the right idea going after these industry leeches. A settlement of $10 million is a lot to you or me but pocket change for a huge corporation like Sony. They chopped off the head of a few scapegoats (i.e. Joel Klaiman, executive vice president of promotion at Epic Records) and shrug off a fine that will go to non-profit music education groups which means that they might be able to write this off on their taxes.

The L.A. Times' Paying a Price is the sharpest, most informative piece I've seen about this story. Some great quotes include Spitzer explain that this modern-day payola is "as widespread and "corrosive" as it was in the 1950s." And then there's the pathetic corporate flack who begs a radio station "What do I have to do to get Audioslave on WKSS this week?!!?" Not to the mention the elaborate way that Sony/BMG carefully got employees to call radio stations to request certain songs. Of course, Clear Channel says that it is shocked and dismayed at these practices and will make sure they'll punish anyone under their wing who do such naughty things (sounds like Bush admin and the Plume leak). Even the self-appointed moralists in the FCC have now decided that this is a problem and have promised to yank radio licenses if they find a station has been getting paid off but I'll believe that when I see it- they're much more interested in handing out fines for 'immoral' broadcasts since that gets a lot more political traction.

In the LAT article, note this tidbit:

"The settlement won't ban all gifts. Sony BMG may pay for listener giveaways and give station employees concert tickets, modest personal gifts and meals costing as much as $150 per person. The settlement also permits the company's artists to perform at radio-sponsored events, a practice some critics describe as "play-ola," because radio stations can sponsor huge concerts without having to pay the performing bands."

It's nice to know that the labels and stations won't have to go cold turkey. They can still do favors and pay-offs but guys, um... please just don't make it too blatant, OK? Which must be a relief to all involved that the gravy train is only temporarily slowing but not getting shut down.

OK, so this is small peanuts compared to all of the lobbying groups in Washington who buy and sell Congress for their votes but that's cold comfort to any real music fan. The fact of the matter is that payola is not going to end. There will always be ways around the laws.

I do wonder about a few things. What do the artists themselves who had their records paid-for-play think about this? I'm sure some will laugh to the bank but this doesn't exactly help their rep- to think that their labels have to pay someone to play their records doesn't exactly boost confidence. And while NY State can be proud of Spitzer, what about the other states? This involves stations across the country, right? Also, isn't it kind of interesting that Sony honcho Andrew Lack is supposed to be chummy with Spitzer? What's up with that...?

Maybe this is all going to be irrelevant anyway since ads are so ubiquitous nowadays- instead of getting radio to constantly play paid-for hits, we'll have to hear a preview of them on our dial tone before we can make a call or turn on our computer. But it is strange to think that if payola is so widespread that the labels are not getting the sales figures or chart positions they claim, hoping that the placing they buy will get them real sales later, hoping that the more lemming-ish members of the record buying public support a winning horse or that they'll actually like a song that's on auto-repeat. It would be interesting to find out just how effective this scheme actually is.

So what's the long-term answer to this problem? For one thing, the labels and stations would have to have some kind of incentive to not engage in this kind of trickery. Easier said than done but the obvious finger pointing would be at the greedy multi-national companies who own the majors. But the fact of the matter is that the original payola scandal of the 50's involved smaller labels too: see the History of Rock site for more details. That's not to say that all (or some, or a few) indies today would stoop to this practice but obviously, this kind of problem is so endemic that fines and rulings aren't going to wipe it out. Basically, you'd have to restructure the entire industry and hope that the basest of human nature doesn't surface again (which is wishful thinking of course). Thing is, the whole entertainment industry is in such a topsy-turvy mode anyway, we may see that scenario played out.


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