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Payola: can the indies ever win?

Payolagerry_cagle The FCC has all but concluded its investigation of payola, with four leading radio chains agreeing to pay $12.5 million to make the commission go away. Read the LA Times' story by Jim Puzzanghera here. They also have agreed to submit themselves to greater oversight by the feds, with new limits on the gifts they receive from labels and promoters. And in a separate deal with the American Association of Independent Music, they pledged to give equal access to indie-music promoters and to reserve about 8,400 half-hour segments of airtime for indie artists.

The action may put an end to the most brazen pay-for-play deals, and that would be a very good thing. But it may not have much impact on radio playlists. For starters, the four chains in question -- Clear Channel, CBS Radio, Entercom and Citadel -- own and operate more than 1,650 radio stations across the country, so the 4,200 hours will be spread pretty thin (although many of those stations are talk radio outlets not affected by the deal). That hardly seems enough to build an audience for indie artists. Second, even if radio stations give equal treatment to promoters for all kinds of labels, the indies will never be on the same footing as the majors. Record stations gravitate naturally to major-label artists because they come with their own marketing budgets to help their songs become hits. A well-hyped new record is much more likely to get airtime than a disc with no advance buzz, no matter how great the Pitchfork Media review is. Similarly, radio stations tend to play the heck out of artists who've agreed to perform at the shows the stations sponsor. If you were trying to sell tickets for a concert, who would you rather have on your bill: Korn or Bikeride?

I don't mean to sound cynical about this. Who knows, the promises of access for indie-label promoters might result in more gifted but overlooked artists winning mass audiences (although TV/film exposure and sheer genius are doing some of that already). Nevertheless, I think indie labels are better off focusing on emerging music platforms that aren't so influenced by the majors' marketing muscle. These include online subscription services and satellite channels. The most promising has been Web radio, where the programming is far more diverse than it is over the air. (Unfortunately, online stations face a steep increase in royalty payments, so some of that diversity may soon be lost in a wave of consolidation.) As indie label exec Peter Gordon told the Chicago Tribune, more than a third of the music heard on these emerging platforms comes from indie artists -- a far, far greater percentage than what's played by local stations. It seems the indies would be better off focusing on those fast-growing platforms than fighting for the occasional half-hour of airtime.

The image comes from the cover of "Payola," a 1988 novel by Gerry Cagle, a journalist and former radio programmer.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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