The Post-Payola Slippery Slope

The folks over at Downhill Battle are understandably excited about Spitzer's investigation. For their part, labels are a little excited and a lot relieved at the prospect of removing some of the promotion bulk from their budgets. (It's not like they want to spend $1,500 per station to break a song.) But terrestrial radio has already crippled its tastemaking power with years of inbred policy development and poor talent retention. Even if all the independent promoters disappeared overnight, it would have little or no impact on the song selection at 99% of commercial radio stations.

The majority of radio programmers have grudgingly accepted the fact that they do not wield the same sway over shaping the tastes of popular culture as they once did. The minority of programmers with some ability to break new acts understands their tool well enough to focus on creating big names one act at a time. Other folks who might have thrived in the "golden ears" radio industry of the 50's and 60's have moved on to other kinds of creative work. (And/or they achieve the same or greater impact with their own weblogs.) It's common for folks in radio to be told to "grow up" by spouses and loved ones, in order to earn at least a living wage.

My present fear is that the exuberance of posts like the one at Downhill Battle will translate into some of the less scrupulous promotions companies pitching emerging artists on the false hope that there's a more level playing field. There's not. Commercial, broadcast radio by its definition and mandate must program for the largest possible audience, which will always mean favoring safe, already-established artists over new sounds.

Remember that radio airplay is always going to be a symptom of your success, not its cause. When you can show programmers that you've got something that an audience responds to, they'll knock on your door. Unless you're focusing on creating some inroads through specialty promotion, use your energy to cultivate audience relationships that will benefit you more directly for the long term.