I have lots to do, but instead I came across this article from The New Yorker Online that I missed back in September: an interview with Sasha Frere-Jones on the then-current pop music scene:Red-Hot Pop [pdf]
Why am I posting it? Aside from the overall insights into the pop business (making the whole thing worth a read), there’s this little gem:
So the more things stay the same, the more they change?
It’s a feedback loop: radio hits inspire other radio hits, which in turn inspire songs that exhibit a certain novelty because they don’t sound like the other radio hits—and they become hits for that reason. Hit songs create their own playing field. If people make choices, they’re making choices from a set of commercially available iterations, and then reacting against them. This is usually cast in fairly negative terms by journalists and critics—you know, the big, bad money people forcing the poor people to hear focus-grouped music that all sounds the same. I don’t see it quite that way, though there are certainly many aspects of the hit-making machine that we can all rue: usurious contracts, monopoly control of radio programming (which spurred the rise of file sharing, which I still see as a grassroots regrowth of radio). [emphasis added] And I think it’s probably a pain to be a pop star twenty-four hours a day. But commercial pressure is a great spur for artists. Record executives, even if they pray to Mammon, tend to have the same taste as I do: big hooks, lots of energy, and a general sense of vigor. Musicians are lazy, entitled people, and they need something to push them.
You say that payola can increase diversity of content. This is the most controversial moment in the piece, because it seems, on its face, extremely unlikely. But you have an argument, which is that it levels the playing field for anyone with the money. It breaks strangleholds of habit and institutional power and permits participation by the nouveau riche. It’s the democracy of money rather than the inertia of power. What are some examples? Is this the Ross Perot phenomenon?
I think that the nineteen-fifties, the heyday of payola, is a great example. There, the stranglehold of the major labels on popular music really was broken. Black artists got far more exposure than ever before, and small labels put out records that everyone was listening to. I’m not convinced that would have happened without payola. Ross Perot is a good example, at least if we take “good” in a broad sense.
I also think that you have to expand your idea of what “levelling the playing field” means. The real inertia of power is not just on the producer side–the record labels, the publishing houses. It’s on the retailer’s or the radio station’s side, too. So, in the absence of things like slotting fees and paying for space at bookstores, the range of products you’d see prominently featured at stores would be much smaller. It’s a familiar lament that if you walk into a bookstore all you see are well-known authors, but it’s empirically not true. Look at the “New Arrivals” tables in most big bookstores, and the range of authors and subjects there will surprise you. Most of them will be published by major houses, but that’s a function of the fact that major houses are more likely to publish books that a large audience will want to read. Again, the defense of payola isn’t that it makes it more likely that good products will get a shot but that it makes it more likely that potentially popular products will get a shot.