Radio Airplay 101 - Payola (part 4 of 5),
Comparison to Ads, PR, Merch, and Promotion.
I need to point out some areas where indie bands get confused with regards to giving things to stations. It's remarkable how many bands think that giving advertising or CDs to a station is illegal. What actually is illegal is when you are playing at a club, and you pay the sound guy to get you set up first. That's more illegal that anything a label does for a station.
ADS: Advertising a CD is legal because (1) the result of it (the commercial) is broadcast, not kept secret, and (2) the money is paid to the station (not an individual), meaning that the sales documents are available for public inspection. Even if you buy a non-broadcast remote (where the station makes an appearance at a retail store, but does not broadcast it), the result is still shown to the public. When you advertise on a station, you "own" the 30 or 60 second commercial, and you can "push" whatever you like within it, including your CD. As long as the commercial is not mistaken for regular programming, you are fine, and it is not payola (even though it promotes your music, and you are paying money to the station.)
MERCH: When you give a box of CDs (or shirts, caps, or posters) to a station, just because the CDs have value to you, does not mean it is like giving cash to the station. If the station gives them away on-air, then the CDs become part of the programming (like a refrigerator given away on a game show) and thus it is legal for you to do this... even if it does benefit you. If the station does not give the CDs away on-air, but gives them away at a live-remote instead, then that is fine too. Non-commercial stations can even sell them to the public, if it uses the money for station operations. About the only bad thing that can happen is when a person at a station sells your stuff on the street, and pockets the money. Other than that, you can even give cash to a commercial station, if they use it for on-air giveaway (it becomes part of their programming.)
PR: Buying a ad for your release in a newspaper/magazine is legal; paying a writer to write about your release, and not making this fact known to the paper, may or may not be legal (newspapers and magazines are not governed by the FCC), but it's close enough to "illegal" that we'll just say... it might be. Giving the writer a box of 30 CDs might be questionable, unless he/she is going to do a giveaway in the paper.
RETAIL: Buying shelf space for your release if perfectly legal; it's standard contracted-activity with major retail chains, and it's what every major label does with their priority releases. Interestingly, this fact is NOT made known to the public... the public thinks certain releases are "out front" because they are "better". If radio worked this way, you really would have a right to scream. But it's not just music retail that does this... every Ralph's and Delchamps and HMV and Publix grocery store works this way... everything that is "out front" is paid for. And they have NO requirement to tell you this. So don't get mad at radio.
INDIE PROMOTION: Lately, because of info available on the web, most people have been hearing about "indie deals" for the first time, and they hate the thought of it. Indie deals have been around for over 20 years, and were behind probably most of the material you grew up with on the radio. Indie deals are perfectly legal, and are a separate thing from the real meaning of "payola". While a few folks (indie promoters, bankers, doctors, mailmen) do pay people off illegally to get what they want, most do not. But paying people off illegally is separate from a legally-structured indie deal (just like illegally paying a retail person to put your CD upfront is separate from a legally-structured retail POP deal.)
That said, I'll leave details of indie-deals for a more advanced newsletter, and for now just say (like I said in my Clear Channel article) that you are putting energy in the wrong place by thinking that it's the "bad" people at the labels and radio companies that are holding your indie release back with their "deals."
Conclusion: Paying stations is not a tool for a small indie to get airplay.
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