By Danny McBride - 09/28/2002 - 01:16 AM EDT
By Danny McBride © 2002
"You know the landlord rang my front doorbell- -I let it ring for a long, long spell- -I went to the window and peeped through the blind- -And asked him to tell me what was on his mind- -He said ĎMoney Honeyí"- -Jesse Stone (recorded by The Drifters, then later Elvis).
And in Elvisís day, if you wanted to get a song played on the radio, you ponied up a few hundred bucks for the disk jockeys at the key stations in the big markets, and everything fell into line. They reported their playlists to the trades, and all the medium and smaller markets played what was popular with the big boys.
Sure, every once in a while a small or medium market broke a song that was done either by a popular local artist, or because the record company was a small local outfit with ties to the local stations. In fact, thatís pretty much how Elvis got on the radio to start with, although in those days, there were a lot of "live" music shows- -broadcasts of concert hall events- -Louisiana Hayride, Grand Ole Opry, and the like, and acts could appear on those shows before even having a recording contract. By the way, the Opry is still on WSM radio in Nashville.
So you built up a following, market by market, and toured in support of your record, market by market.
But then in the late 50s-early 60s, Congress held major hearings on what was then called "payola", and several big name djs went to jail, or were at least discredited by their employers and fired from their radio jobs.
But payola never went away. It just changed forms. Instead of cash, swimming pools were dug in backyards, or gifts of a less tangible nature were offered, like vacation trips. By the 70s, it was sex and drugs at "record release parties" that were offered up, sometimes by record company employees, but as often as not, by "independent" record promoters. The record companies paid the promoters to get records played, no questions asked. These guys were mostly just a half-step up the slime pool ladder from pimps and drug dealers, but they got the records played. Radio people were not paid well enough in those days to be able to afford all the party-perks that were culturally popular in the 70s, and so they were easy prey for the city-slicker-fast-talking record promoters.
But then in the 80s, the move to "corporate rock" sanitized the whole business. Just a few holdovers remained. The most important of these holdovers was the concept of paying to get records played. Except now the broadcast outlets got in on the deal. They cut out the power the individual jocks had to choose music and had consultants create uniform playlists for all the stations one company might own.
When de-regulation took place in 1996, radio station clusters grew from a handful of stations in key cities, to a few enormous conglomerates owning almost all the radio stations in the country. And thatís how it is today.
And the biggest of these by far is Clear Channel. Here in L A they own eight radio stations, five of them music stations in all flavors of contemporary hit music spanning the tastes of modern America and raking in tons of money.
And one of the most significant ways of doing that is to charge the record promoters for access to their programmers. In fact they now charge about $250,000 per station annually for these promoters to gain access. They own 1200 stations. No, not all music, but they are pulling in about $20 million a year just for saying you can come and talk to our guys. No guarantee weíll play anything either. In fact the record promoters charge the record companies $500-$3,000 a song per station once itís added. And the stations also have a gimmick whereby you can pay $5,000 to showcase a song to a panel of their programmers.
So the record companies must factor these fees into their cost of doing business.
How does your future recording career look to you now?
Itís no wonder so few new artists "break out" with any kind of longevity. To get a new artist played on all the Clear Channel stations in the country at once, so as to create the effect of a "national breakout", costs a fortune. How many artists are record companies going to be willing to spend that kind of money on per year? Not many. And how are you, as a songwriter, ever going to break through this glass wall to achieve any kind of material success.
By being unique. You must stand out from the herd. Donít think about whatís on the radio now, because if you just copy that, by the time your song were to go through the process of getting heard, placed, recorded and played on the air, it could be eighteen months or more, and thatís considering the fact you are lucky enough, or connected enough, to break through.
Senator Russell Feingold (D-Wisconsin) has proposed legislation that would ban the present system of independent promotion arrangements. He says whatís going on now violates the payola laws, which prohibit radio stations from accepting money to play a song. Of course if the station announces they were paid to play the song, itís legal.
So write whatever you want. If it gets big-time radio airplay, and you get a big-time royalty check, great. But donít hold your breath. Write what you like and explore all the other avenues that exist for your music to be heard.
Okay, Iíve got to go. Letís see if I can resist the temptation to put the radio on in the car.
Thatíll teach them.
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