Thank you Mr. Spitzer
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New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer made a settlement deal with record giant Sony/BMG this week, regarding the label's radio promotion tactics. Basically, the associated labels agreed to eliminate their use of independent promoters to stop bribing radio programmers and to curtail paying stations for airplay.
Ideologically, this is a strong win for radio. For decades, the airwaves have long been co-opted by radio corporations who have held their extraordinary strength at auction to the highest bidder.
With Spitzer's settlement with Sony BMG, and with similar impending actions with the other three label conglomerates, one would hope that commercial radio would return to the exciting and adventurous spirit it once had, but I'm afraid that this ideal is far from possible. Commercial radio faces a far more deadly adversary...that is, apathy.
Radio is no longer exciting and relevant to its audience. The listenership is falling across the board, and the audience is moving to outlets like NPR, Satellite Radio and their own iPods. More and more, consumers are demanding to listen to something more forward-thinking and inventive.
Maybe it has something to do with those commercials. More likely, it has something to do with the programming. The method used for songs to be programmed on commercial radio really underscores the problem in radio programming. Though most music directors receive hundreds of singles a month, they generally don't listen to most of them, opting instead to take their cues from major label representatives who visit them weekly.
The drill goes something like this. The record rep brings in a bag of CD priorities for the week from the label. They listen together. The song the music director likes the most gets moved into a private programming meeting with the programming staff. From those meetings, a playlist with new add's is created every week.
This way of doing business has worked really well for the major labels, who have record reps in every major market in the country. But it-s a disaster for the independent labels, since they could never afford to hire reps in each major radio market. Without the day-to-day contact, independent records never find their way on commercial radio. And without playing music from independent labels, the commercial airwaves by their very nature are imbalanced. Though indy labels used to represent punk, metal, hard core, and other left-of-center styles of music, today's independent label represent a more commercial sound. Bands like The Shins, TV on the Radio, Arcade Fire and The Decemberists are perfect examples of new bands deserving a lot more commercial radio attention than they currently get.
And what would all this commercial airplay do for a band's career? One look at Billboard sales chart tells all.
Only in the rarest of circumstances will an indy rock record make it into the Top 50 in sales. Overwhelming, records associated with major labels take Top 50 sales every time.
I applaud Mr. Spitzer for his courage and veracity. I only wish the radio programmers with the real authority would take their jobs as seriously.
This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.
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