In three decades of reading, writing and playing music, I've read two stunningly insightful documents on that thing we call the music industry: Steve Albini's 1992 essay "The Problem with Music" in Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, and Eliot Spitzer et al.'s recently released Assurance of Discontinuance--the settlement between Spitzer's office and Sony BMG Music Entertainment.
Albini, a thoughtful musician and record producer from Chicago, spelled out in detail the how the ethics and the economics of DIY made sense and underlined that the industry is rarely, if ever, the friend of artists. Part of that is making the artists pay the cost of promotion out of their already thin (10-12 percent if you're lucky) slice of the pie.
What the investigation by New York Attorney General Spitzer has revealed is just how slimy the underbelly of the music industry gets. For more than a year, his office has been looking into payola in the record industry, investigating the practices of labels, radio personalities and station managers, major radio conglomerates and independent promotion companies. In July he announced a settlement with Sony for $10 million--the money goes to a nonprofit fund for music education and appreciation programs--and an agreement by the company to play fair under a set of new promotion guidelines.
In a way, prosecutors didn't have to work too hard to make their case for commercial bribery, thanks to plenty of Sony memos and e-mails that spell out the schemes. And it is the raw audacity spelled out in correspondence between promoters, stations and company reps that makes the Assurance of Discontinuance such a page turner.
If you're a musician who has ever pondered why it is so damn hard for anybody but the heavily financed top tier to get on a commercial FM station, or a regular radio listener wondering why the hell they're playing that Good Charlotte song again, the answer is the same: money, as in some people are being bribed to play it. Judging from the evidence and the fact that Sony is, according to investigators, not the only major label engaged in this practice, it's safe to assume that every day in this country someone at a radio station is taking cash, trips or "prizes" from an independent promoter or a record company to play one song over others.
They're doing this on the public airwaves with a license granted by you, and it is not just a breech of the public trust, it is a crime. It's called commercial bribery and it is a criminal offense in all 50 states, including North Carolina.
Some of the pushback from both the radio and music industry after the scandal broke was that the types of things going on were both rare and not so bad. We beg to differ.
It should be noted that the documents and the memos are really just the first chapter in this saga. There are still open investigations of Vivendi Universal's Universal Music Group, EMI and Warner Music Group. The FCC is also getting into the act, asking New York to forward findings and documents, especially those that show bad conduct by stations and radio chains.
In this issue of the Quarterly, reporter Fiona Morgan looks into the details of promotion schemes--including the involvement of stations in North Carolina--and the ripples created by the Sony BMG settlement and the investigations still unfolding.