Just Look at What the Cat Dragged In

Hosted by
Just look at what the cat dragged in.
How record companies have replaced one bad habit with another.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Trying to orchestrate a hit single on the American Pop charts is an incredibly complex experience. The playlists of hundreds of pop radio stations make up the chart and your artist needs to be showing growth and increased airplay at most of them each week. This is a true horse race. Building momentum is the critical element in the game. Falter a couple of weeks and chances are you're off the charts. But with good momentum and steady airplay rotations at key radio stations, a song can be on the road to a Top 10 single, and the benefits of this success are sizeable. With a high charting single, print and television opportunities will open for mainstream syndicated coverage, and media exposure will guarantee international interest. In fact, the bounty of a Top 10 pop single can yield millions of dollars.

So it should come as no surprise that labels will do almost anything to try to bring a song to the Top 10 singles pop chart. But most recently, they've stooped to an all time low. Record labels are now quite literally buying the airplay of their songs on radios stations. It's not an illegal practice, but the game of deception still runs very deep to listeners and music consumers.

The reason labels are buying time to showcase new singles, is because they want to manipulate the singles chart. The chart is based on how many times a song is played on the air. Stations rarely go out on a limb to add a new song - they usually wait until another radio station has shown success.

So to make it seem like a station loves a song, record labels have begun to buy advertising time, in four-minute increments, to run during the midnight-to-6am slot. The advertisements showcase the entire song, with a disclaimer that the label bought the time.

But the real reason that labels do this is that they know that each spot counts as a real play of the song for chart consideration. So the underlying message is that the charts can now be bought. In fact, labels have developed a highly sophisticated system of buying hundreds of late night ad spots to run in multiple markets to try and push the chart position way up for their artist. They keep buying these spots until they can convince the needed stations to play the record on their own, or until there's no hope of making a hit single.

The partner in crime is of course the radio station, who allows their programming to be manipulated by the record companies.

But the real loser is the consumer. Imagine listening to that radio station, and hearing the new Alicia Key's track played 3 times an hour, 6 times a night, just from spot buys. Frankly, you'd be pretty bored of that station. The reality is that radio stations are banking on the fact that very few people are listening at those hours, and feel the revenue they generate is worth more than the listeners- interest in programming.

It's hard to believe that the record business has created one horrible tradition, to replace the previously horrible tradition of payola.

One can only hope, in a not too distant future, the FCC will wise up to this highly questionable practice and hold the airwaves to a higher standard.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.