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  • Carlos Marin


For those of you who are a bit unfamiliar with the history of the music business, publishing companies and radio labels have viciously competed for the radio performance of their artist’s catalogue. This became particularly evident after the copyright act of 1976, as the industry had a clearer guideline on how copyright, and specially royalties, behaved. Royalties are residual payments done to copyright holders for the public performance, or reproduction, of their creation. In simpler words, you made a song that is fire as hell and businesses are using your creation to make a lot of money, so you got dibs on that dough. Whenever a song is performed publicly, entities who’s entire job is to gather money from those performances (Performance Rights Organizations, PROs in short) pay the songwriters (and their labels... mostly the labels...) for their original work.

Unfortunately, a very unethical (and illegal) practice developed during this golden age of music, in which publishers and labels would pay (bribe) radio stations for songs to be played. This was called Payola, and it was one of the most damaging practices in the music industry‘s history. According to The Music Copyright Manual by Jim Jesse, this practice and it’s variations existed very well until the 2000s, when the arrival of the mp3 changed the rules of the game. Why this practice damaging and illegal? Because it’s an unfair treatment of art, in which only those with a lot of money to “pay for plays” could get their music out there and everyone else was screwed.

It sucked.

An example you could relate to are video games with a “pay to win” model. In these games, it doesn’t matter how much skill, understanding of the game, or luck during your play through you have; someone with way too much money on their hands will always win because they can purchase the top weapons, armor, spells, ammo, vehicle or whatever it is to give them an unfair advantage over everyone else who’s not rich.

(I used to be a gamer, and...)

This also sucked.

Now the main reason why publishers and labels would do payola was not “for the likes” (exposition) of their artists, but for the disgusting amount of money they would get from terrestrial radio performance royalties. Terrestrial Radio performance is one of the most profitable sources of income. They would made their investment ten-times over, or much, much more. And with the resources and contacts, this practice continued until we started buying our music online, downloading it from stores and websites, and eventually streaming it on our music services (AKA. Spotify, Apple Music, etc.); rendering radio (musically speaking) obsolete.

So, payola died and we lived happily ever after.

There are two new phenomenons in the music industry that are evolutions of payola and are hurting the business and your finances, specially if you’re a DIY musician who’s “trying to make it”. The first one is the new payola, called playlist-ola. Payola on terrestrial radio performance is now aggressively prosecuted by the federal government, and with the change of markets it’s a dead practice; but as new technology and forms of music consumption were created, so were new ways to discover music. If you have released something on Spotify, you may know the performance of your song is directly correlated to its placement in a playlist. If you haven’t released anything yet, well... now you know. You can get thousands, if not millions or reproductions if you are part of a popular playlist with millions of listeners. But how do you get into those playlists? Well... it’s very hard, and although not particularly accepted by any label or publishing company, there’s a reason why all the big banners and publicity on the landing pages of streaming services belong to big label artists. I am not saying anyone is paying for anything (cause please don’t sue me Universal-Sony, I’m broke), but you are free to assume as much as you want from this blog... 😜 The official way to get on a playlist is by catching the attention of (very elusive) curators who are constantly updating playlists according to what‘s new and trendy. All I have to say about them is good luck on your endeavors.

The second phenomenon which is aggressively predatory in nature is the so called playlists scam. In it, unscrupulous individuals “slide into your DMs” and promise you entry into premium chat groups and/or playlists for a flat fee that ranges between $300 to $500 USD. If you have been recently approached by any of these accounts, please do the old block and delete. They will take your money and dissapear as quickly as they arrived. Because its such a novel way of committing fraud, law enforcement is having a really hard time following up on these crimes, so the best way to deal with them is to avoid falling for their scam in the first place.

So, what can we do about all this?

  1. Congress could legislate about a fairer system were the playing field is balanced and of equal opportunity. For that we can reach out to our representative and blah blah blah, blah blah, blah.

  2. We can hire a PR (Public Relations) music professional who has the connections and knowledge on how to get your music across and into playlists, media outlets, blogs, etc. Their services range from very affordable to Rockefeller-rate depending on who you are and what you’re looking for, so its a good investment in your music and your career regardless of were you’re at.

  3. You can learn about what a PR professional does and try doing it yourself, but in this cases you really get what you pay for... Not that you can’t do it, but it’s better if you leave it to the pro’s.

The bottom line is: If your music (and by extension, you) becomes popular enough through hard work from songwriting to marketing and publishing, it will make it to the playlists anyway. If you really blow up you might not need them at all...

Although the system is rigged and not fair, I do not want this to demotivate you. On the contrary, my intention behind this blog is for you to know the truth, understand it, and adapt yourself to the system. There are countless of resources that were inexistent or unavailable to musicians back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and you should take advantage of as many as you can. Learn more about how the music business works, learn about your rights and duties under the law, be the best businessman you can be and treat yourself with passion and respect for your brand, for your art, for who you are. Just so me a favor, if someone tries to sell you a playlist/premium chat opportunity at a “very affordable price”, block-delete. Better you burn that money than giving it away to a scam.

(Not encouraging defacing of currency either, it’s just a joke Mr. FBI...)

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