Yesterday, I posted an article about the prevalence of pay to play, or payola, in modern mainstream radio. It isn’t officially acknowledged, or even legal, but it goes on in many clandestine and disguised ways. Rest assured that any mainstream label artist that enjoys chart success has bought their way to that position. It wasn’t on the strength of their artistic merit. There are a number of industry sources that confirm this is how it works. The most popular mainstream artists are the ones whose record company, usually using funds the artist will have to earn back through sales or otherwise repay, paid the most money to independent promoters to get their songs onto radio play lists.
What effect does this have on an artist?
Artists might think that the goal of their musical adventure is to achieve fame and wealth. They might see that as the goal. In fact, they might be told, repeatedly, that this is the goal. The industry which surrounds artists doesn’t actually care about the art. They have nothing to do with it. What they want are riches. Hence, they are biased toward telling the artists that the true goal of their career is the maximisation of wealth.
Artists mistake fame for adulation and love. What artists really want is the love of their fans. Fame isn’t like love. It’s nastier, more jealous and more intrusive. Fame takes a private life and turns it into a public entertainment. This is a real life that is being transformed. Artists think that fame will guarantee that everyone they meet will think well of them and appreciate them as human beings, but what it really does is exposes them to judgementalism, rejection, sniping, bitching, criticism, envy and dismissal as lightweight irrelevancies.
It must be hard for artists that really care about their music and their art, to find themselves in the midst of a melee that undermines the ability for the art and music to be judged on its own intrinsic qualities. Even if your art was good, and genuinely, dearly beloved, by millions of people, could you really trust that judgement, if you had the knowledge that you were, in round about ways, paying for exposure and force feeding your music down the gullets of millions of unsuspecting people? The accolades and acclaim would be tainted. However much people told you, sincerely, that they really loved your music, you would always suspect financially motivated sycophancy or assume that the person telling you had no idea they had been manipulated, by the application of money and power, into liking your music. In short, you would never regard any fair and unbiased assessment of your music as reliable.
Buying the audience’s undivided attention is akin to living a lie, as an artist. You want people to like what you made and appreciate its aesthetic qualities, but if money changes hands in order to influence people, covertly, into liking what you made, then how can you be sure they’ve even noticed the fine aesthetic qualities you laboured to include in the music? What makes you think they even care about them?
All musicians with any skill and integrity want people to like their music because it’s good music that speaks to them. It completely distorts the assessment of an audience, if competitive offerings remain hidden. The playing field is not level, so the victory feels like a cheat. Sure, the artist might achieve fame and wealth, but it’s a hollow sort of victory. The fame becomes a serious hassle and the wealth doesn’t buy the fulfilment of knowing you did something worthwhile with your art. Did you touch the audience in their hearts, or just their wallets?
I think that the existing system of major labels paying shady independent promoters to get music listed in mainstream radio playlists is utterly corrupt and has not served the audience or the artists well. Artists are left with pyrrhic victories and audiences have had their tastes utterly and cynically manipulated, for sheer profit. That does the art no good at all. The only people that have benefited are the greedy money men in the industry, who don’t care about the artists, the art or the audiences.
Meanwhile, the practice eats at the hearts and souls of artists corrosively. Is it any wonder that so many succumb to substance abuse? The despair must be unbearable. They’re as alienated from their audiences as they are from the rest of society and beholden to a corrupt business that traps them in long term contracts, from which only one in ten artists benefits financially. The rest are collateral damage. The music industry’s body count is unconscionable and it’s always dismissed lightly, as the inevitable side effect of dissolute, Bohemian lifestyles. That isn’t fair on the many artists that have died. They had lives. They came from families who loved them. They wanted to live. That they became enmeshed in such a monstrous business may have been something they deeply regretted, but had no way of escaping.
With such conditions prevailing, foul play is exceedingly easy to deny and disguise, as it is seldom properly and thoroughly investigated, free from prejudice. We sweep the deaths of musicians under the carpet, telling convenient fictions about their wild, out of control lifestyles. The travesty of it is that we rarely know what the actual truth of the circumstances surrounding their deaths even is. It’s all too quickly subsumed into the gossip press as entertainment, distorting the sequence of events and perverting the course of justice. Speculation and hearsay replaces the actual events. This circus of slander and innuendo ensures that the truth about their deaths can never be known. The evidence and witnesses become too compromised and the truth too entangled in the fictions and falsehoods. Everybody’s making money, except the poor, dead artist.
I feel sorry for the mainstream, big label artists caught up in all of this. I am certain that most sign their record contracts naively, with the noblest of intentions and expectations. I am equally certain that the reality of the business comes as a bitter shock and mortal blow to people that care, first and foremost, about their music. Nobody likes to believe that they have been bought and sold, by cynical manipulators, for sheer profit.
There are, thankfully, new opportunities for artists to reach audiences, independently of the diseased mainstream record industry. More artists are able to bring their music to fans and have honest, direct assessments made of the aesthetic and artistic merits of what they have made. The human connections with the fans are on a better, more honest footing as well. They’re genuine reactions and personal connections that are being made. This, I think, is altogether a healthier situation for artists, even if it brings them less fame and wealth.