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Is That a Song or A Sales Pitch?

5 minute read
David E. Thigpen

Last winter the southern California rap-metal quintet Limp Bizkit was just another scuffling young band that had probably spent too much time listening to its Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine albums. This summer Bizkit is basking in the kind of major exposure any new group would trade its nose rings for: a slot on the Ozzfest concert tour, an appearance on MTV’s Spring Break, airplay on tastemaking KROQ radio in Los Angeles and a debut album, Three Dollar Bill, Y’All, that cracked the Billboard Top 100.

Yet Limp Bizkit is attracting less attention for its music than for one way the group made its breakthrough. In April its label, Flip/Interscope, signed an unprecedented contract with radio station kufo of Portland, Ore., agreeing to pay $5,000 in exchange for 50 plays of Bizkit’s single Counterfeit. “Pay-for-play,” as this kind of arrangement is called, is a controversial new twist on the old, discredited practice known as payola: instead of letting songs rise or falter on their merits in the tough record marketplace, some labels are improving the odds by paying radio stations cash to play or mention their product.

Pay-for-play may conjure up images of gold-chain-draped record executives illegally buying off disc jockeys with envelopes full of money and drugs. Those days have mostly gone, along with the deejays who were caught taking under-the-turntable payoffs during the payola scandals of the 1960s and ’80s. (The Justice Department, however, recently began a probe of illicit payments allegedly made to radio stations by Latin-music giant Fonovisia Records.) Pay-for-play is done out in the open, with the money going to the station, not the deejay. And it’s all perfectly legal. Under FCC rules, such payments are O.K., so long as the station identifies the song as paid for, usually with a brief announcement (“This record was brought to you by…”) before or after the song. It’s a record-industry version of those infomercials you see on late-night TV. You may think you’re hearing a song because a station believes it’s going to be a hit, but what you’re really getting is an ad.

In Nashville, Tenn., where record bosses have watched country music’s ratings share dwindle, one label, Capitol, has pioneered a related tactic: pay-for-say. The label is spending $500,000 at 28 radio stations this year for 10-second commercials to run with songs by Garth Brooks, Steve Wariner and Suzy Bogguss. The ads remind the listener of the singer’s name, the record label and where the album can be bought. Though the label does not pay for airplay, the commercials (which run only when the song is played) are an obvious incentive for the station to play the records more often. Capitol Nashville CEO Pat Quigley says he’s so pleased with the results that he intends to expand his campaign to 100 markets.

Do these tactics pay off? On the evidence so far, it’s doubtful. While pay-for-play can give singles a push, its impact on album sales–where record companies make their real money–seems limited. Limp Bizkit’s album, after getting an initial boost from pay-for-play, has sunk to the bottom quarter of the Billboard 200. Whatever success the band has had owes more to its many live performances.

Capitol’s country artists too seem to have got only a minor boost from pay-for-say. Brooks’ album Sevens is a hit–as it would undoubtedly have been without pay-for-say. But Bogguss’s Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt, after debuting on the Billboard album chart at No. 42, has since slipped to No. 61, while Wariner’s Burnin’ the Roadhouse Down opened at No. 6 and fell to No. 21 last week. Pay-for-play is no magic wand. It can make a good record sell better but doesn’t do much for an average one.

That’s just one reason most record executives are still wary of the practice. Country-music hitmaker Mike Curb, best known for discovering LeAnn Rimes, vows not to use pay-for-play, fearing that the financial lure may tempt stations to start refusing songs unless they’re paid. Another opponent is Richard Branson, the billionaire entrepreneur and head of V2 Records, who is worried that pay-for-play will turn listeners off by allowing inferior music on the airwaves. “If radio doesn’t give the people what they want,” he warns, “the people will go to other mediums.”

Many musicians are skeptical of the practice as well. “I’ve been trying to get on radio my whole life,” complains country singer Hal Ketchum. “This whole idea brings us one step closer to the infomercial and limits the opportunity of a great song to break through. It puts us on the same plane as the Thighmaster and the Ginsu knife.” Nor will it ever substitute for the real emotional connection between a song and a fan, which was once what hits were all about.

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