Payola, the practice of paying radio DJs money for airplay—or pay to play, as it is more colloquially known—has been an acknowledged evil in music since the 1950s.
In practice, payola today bears little resemblance to the stereotyped image of a businessman handing off a briefcase full of bills with an LP tucked inside. " Playlist payola"— paying to have a song featured on popular podcasts and playlists—is the most visible contemporary analogue, but it's just one of the ways the practice has changed. Thanks to the rise of digital technology, payola has metamorphosed into a new host of subtle pay-to-play schemes, including Facebook "boosts" and chart-rigging. Just this week, THUMP's investigation into paid content on EDM.com revealed just one more way that artists can surreptitiously manipulate their online presence for money.
For consumers, sussing out whether a payola scheme is at work behind a given business venture can be hard; deciding whether these new practices are legitimate can be even harder.
Today's payola marketplace seems particularly entrenched within mainstream EDM, a relationship has proved fertile due to the genre's position between two gigantic capitalist monoliths: Beatport on the one side, and the DJ Mag Top 100 on the other. For promoters, both charts present easy-to-read metrics as to how big an artist's following is—numbers that will invariably be brought up when it comes to booking shows. The resulting compulsion to excel on Beatport and DJ Mag, sometimes by any means necessary, funnels talent into a musical sausage press; a high chart position becomes something to aim for at all costs.
As THUMP pointed out last year, DJ Mag's annual poll has allegedly become a hotbed for some of the ugliest marketing schemes imaginable. Some artists buy votes on eBay while others solicit them at major festivals using girls armed with iPads. Even DJ Mag itself offers advertising packages for the poll, ranging from $18,000–40,000. Meanwhile, Beatport's charts can be gamed by paying for "download farming"—i.e., having someone buy a particular track hundreds or thousands of times with different IP addresses—or offering rebates and prizes for purchasers.
The push back against these pay-to-play schemes in electronic music has been growing, but one of the loudest voices of discontent has come from within the EDM world itself. On August 12, 2015, Laidback Luke, a popular Dutch-Filipino DJ who regularly plays festival main stages all over the world, authored an op-ed for Billboard on dance music's "integral yet quite invisible" payola system.
Luke seems to have two main grievances. The first is that in the economic arms race of pay-to-play, real talent is being buried by those with deeper pockets. The second is that even for those who choose to play the game, the company's policies pertaining to pay-to-play are unclear: if using a Facebook boost "buys you more views," as Luke puts it, how is that any different from paying to get a higher chart position on Beatport or the DJ Mag Top 100?
His query is a timely one. He and his label, Mixmash, were involved in their own chart-rigging scandal with Beatport in January 2015. When Mixmash released Laidback Luke's single "S.A.X" that month, the label offered a full rebate to anyone who could furnish a Beatport purchase receipt dated January 9, 2015. The plan seemed to have the intended effect: the track hit #1. However, it was later stripped of that position. Beatport alleged that the label's rebate constituted chart-boosting, stating, "the campaign impacted Beatport policies regarding chart eligibility."
The internet has been quick to criticize Luke for the scandal, but he claims that the "S.A.X." imbroglio was all because Beatport has not made their policies on chart-rigging public information. "Beatport does not communicate what their rules are when they refer to chart manipulation," Luke wrote in his August op-ed for Billboard. "Nor do they respond to other similar cases, which are allowed to remain in the charts."
THUMP contacted Beatport in September 2015 to inquire about their code of conduct. A PR representative for the company pointed us to two different articles: Beatport's official response, which is included in Luke's op-ed, and a post from May 2014, condemning chart-boosting by Beatport's current COO Lloyd Starr.
"To anyone tempted to use one of these so-called chart-boosting services, we urge you to first consider the cost," Starr writes. "Not the monetary cost of what these scams charge, but rather the cost to your career, to your reputation, and the cost to your soul."
For all its finger-wagging, the statement does very little to explain the company's methodology for determining which artist practices actually constitute chart-boosting, or to illuminate the real relationship between money and music on the charts.
For some, this imperative to succeed on metrics like Beatport may be a sign of the corrupting influence of internet-era capitalism on music. For others, such variations on traditional pay-to-play are indicators of a dynamic new market that, despite the influence of corporations, is leveling the playing field for new artists and labels.
Joshua Hernandez—founder of SectionZ Records, an independent electronic music label based out of Los Angeles—utilizes services like Facebook boosts for his own releases, and is adamant that these advertising practices will be helpful for emerging musicians in the long run. Hernandez's pragmatic assessment is this: independent artists can now autonomously build and market their own brands using the same social tools they interact with every day.
"Today, it's pinpointed marketing," he tells THUMP. "You've always had to spend money on marketing, so now Facebook gives you a tool to target specifically the people that are into your shit. At least you know that $40 is going to get you 17,000 people in this area, between these two days." With every new wannabe DJ cranking away on a home computer with a cracked version of Ableton and Vengeance samples, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish individual voices above the din—and some forms of contemporary pay-to-play can help talented independent artists get the attention they deserve.
Still, in addition to finding their own way through a rapidly changing industry, artists today are also tasked with a great responsibility—that of determining whether financial decisions deemed necessary to their growth are also morally questionable, actually illegal, or both.
The lack of transparency around payola practices, and the slipperiness of the word's definition in the digital era, has created a marketplace in which the propriety of services like Facebook boosts, "featured" content, and download rebates is ambiguous to consumers and artists alike. Payola in its original sense was quickly identified as anticompetitive and illegal; those engaging in it were aware of the ramifications. So, what does it mean in today's industry when a 20 year veteran like Laidback Luke is involved in a chart-rigging scandal because, ostensibly, he didn't know better? For young artists, the world may be within reach from a bedroom studio, but the difference between 100 plays and 100,000 plays is the same as it's ever been: a briefcase full of bills.