Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Radio Robots to Help Indie Artists Get Airplay?

We found an interesting article in the latest edition of Wired about a new system for indie acts to deliver tracks to radio stations that rely on automation to manage their playlists. Well, it's not a new system, exactly — major labels and commercial radio have been using it for years.

As Wired scribe Eliot Van Buskirk writes, "indie musicians have been at a disadvantage when it comes to delivering music to larger stations. . . because the major labels use something called Digital Media Distribution System (DMDS) to send new tracks to stations digitally and securely (to minimize leaks)."

That's not the only reason indie musicians have had difficulty getting on the corporate airwaves. Payola, both institutional and in-your-face, has made it near-impossible for anyone but the best financed (and ethically compromised) musicians and labels to breach the commercial radio wall. Even when compelled by the FCC to air independent acts, massive radio conglomerates have tried to require artists to sign away their rights to digital royalties in exchange for airplay consideration. FMC exposed such behavior by Clear Channel in a series of blog posts last year.

According to Wired, a company called Yangaroo (which also services major labels) is now offering an indie-centric version of its DMDS technology. The general understanding is that most folks at commercial radio are loathe to open padded brown envelopes, so digital delivery could result in more spins for the indies.

That's the theory anyway.

FMC is working on a Payola Education Guide that will help musicians understand the historical context of this disingenuous practice, and offer advice about what can be done about it. We're also busy tracking playlists in order to determine which stations are playing indie music and how often. So stay, um, tuned.


Anonymous said...

anybody at FMC want to take a crack at why, exactly, payola is wrong? What serious moral principle does it contradict?
My ethics students would like to know.
ben maddox

Anonymous said...

I think that payola is wrong because it does not benifit the public. I think that by playing the same set of songs over and over it limits the choice of the listeners to decide what they want to hear. If a song is good it should be given air time. It only benifits a few people at the expence of many. This is why it is not ethical to continue the practice.
Wade Noble

FMC said...

The obvious thing is that payola is illegal, and violates regulations established by the FCC for broadcasters to do business on the public airwaves.

Payola creates a system in which music's value isn't based on artistic merit or even popularity, but rather capital enticements or other forms of bribery.

Payola and radio consolidation have turned commercial radio into a bland, homogenized format that largely ignores independent musicians and whole genres of music such as jazz and bluegrass.

Obviously, Clear Channel gets singled out a lot. Before the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Clear Channel owned the legal limit of 40 radio stations nationwide. They've been shedding some stations, but at one point, they had more than 1200.

So in addition to having incredible amounts of control over what went on the airwaves (with programming in service of mass advertising), they also were complicit in creating a system through which the major labels offered bribes to corporate radio managers in order to gain airplay for their artists. This was done through so-called "independent contractors," which helped insulate the labels from direct involvement.

It's not illegal to exchange money or gifts for airplay IF broadcasters announce such exchanges on-air. If they don't, they're in violation.

Just because corporate radio and the major labels believed they found a work-around doesn't mean they didn’t break the law, as investigations have proved.

Lastly, Payola has a chilling effect on the airing of varied, local and regional music on the airwaves, which the FCC long ago declared to be part of the public trust. The FCC is mandated to protect localism, competition and diversity on the dial; payola violates these very principles.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the thoughtful answer.
As you know, illegality usually comes after immorality and so we are concerned mainly with principles upon which the law is based.

So the FMC objection from a utilitarian point of view would be that the overall negative aesthetic effect would result in a general loss of happiness that would outweigh any pleasure the DJs and Labels would derive from this pratice?
Is there a non-utilitarian argument against payola that might have something to do with autonomy, promise keeping, or some other non aesthetic principle?

thanks for your time.

FMC said...

The ethical implications are probably outside of our area of expertise, but the premise is that payola violates an implied agreement between broadcasters on the public airwaves and listeners who assume that the songs being played are chosen on meritocratic or aesthetic principles.

Which is why it's legal to exchange cash and goods for airplay ONLY if the exchange is disclosed on-air.

It may not fit a traditional ethical frame, but the practice of payola certainly affects the variety of art available to the greater public good.

Anonymous said...

The restrictions that Payola and other conglomerate radio broadcast groups put on the artists they play is an anti libertarian way of operating. They restrict the artist's ability to play a variety of songs and thus restrict the publics' access to choose. Additionally, this practice ends up promoting really sucky music, which is of coarse lame and leads to general unhappiness a consequence that is by definition morally wrong.