Once again, the age-old payola question is being debated in the Nigerian Music and Media Industry. Payola; exchanging money for radio airplay.
I shared my views about this in an article I wrote in 2013, when the subject came up on social media, with emerging artistes expressing pain and frustration at the unfair system designed to keep radio airplay for only artistes that can afford to plug their music or ones with major label backing.
My views from 2013 has not changed; however, a lot has changed in the Industry since then and I have been around, seen and experienced things, talked to various players and I’ll be adding those perspectives.
First; Payola is the illegal practice of payment or other inducement by record companies for the broadcast of recordings on music radio in which the song is presented as being part of the normal day’s broadcast. (Wikipedia)
A little history here; In the 1920s, Payola was legal as long as it is paid directly to the media organization and disclosed. But in 1959, it became illegal due to a high profile case involving Alan Freed, a top DJ at the time with WABC radio in New York.
Alan Freed was fired after he refused to sign a statement that he had never received money to play a record on air. This led to its first court case in 1960, which made the news and subsequently served as references in court judgements.
So, is it legal in Nigeria?
Under Nigerian law, there is no outright law criminalizing the act of receiving money for the broadcast of a musical work by a radio station.
However Section 8 of the Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Act (2000) has these provisions:
Any person who corruptly –
(a) ask for, receives or obtains any property or benefit of any kind for himself or for any other person; or
(b) agree or attempts to receive or obtain any property or benefit of any kind for himself or for any other person, on account of-
(i) anything already done or omitted to be done, or for any favour or disfavour already shown to any person by himself in the discharge of his official duties or in relation to any matter connected with the functions, affairs or business of a Government department, or corporate body or other organization or institution in which he is serving as an official; or
(ii) anything to be afterwards done or omitted to be done or favour or disfavour to be afterwards shown to any person, by himself in the discharge of his official duties or in relation to any such matter as aforesaid, is guilty of an offence of Official corruption and is liable to imprisonment for seven (7) years.
To interpret this, one could argue that collecting money to discharge your official duties as a radio presenter, is a corrupt practice.
The music industry has not evolved to the point where some specifics like Payola, are addressed and so over the years, we have coasted along and played things by ear such that problematic issues like this slips through the cracks; until it becomes too big to be ignored.
In 2013, it caused a stir, In 2021, it is causing a ripple and if we do not address it now, a storm will burst.
Nigerian Afro-Jazz musician; Femi Leye’s name has been whispered about lately, because of his post on social media about radio stations and radio presenters asking him to pay money to get his music on the radio.
I have observed various reactions to this, especially from the culprits; radio people.
It has been disappointing.
Allow me to do a little breakdown of how music gets played on radio.
HOW THINGS WORK (THE IDEAL SITUATION)
For over 11 years, I worked as a broadcaster in several radio stations across the country, and the usual and official way songs make it into the library is this: When a single is released, the label rep, artiste manager, or artiste himself, emails his electronic press kit which includes, an mp3 file, a bio, promotional photos and sometimes streaming links and social media links to the music department or the library depending on the organization. Back in the day, this submission was done physically in envelopes containing promo CDs (but nobody really prints promo CDs anymore lool)
The EPK is then auditioned by the librarian, and if it fits the station’s music format and production quality is acceptable, and it passes NBC Broadcast guidelines, it is accepted into the library and included on the station’s music schedule.
For international music, radio stations subscribe to several music distribution platforms for licensed and unlicensed music. Some of those platforms are paid for, some are free. (That is why radio stations have librarians who source music and update the library)
However, all these are ideal situations. In the real world of Nigerian music promotion, things work very differently!
HOW THINGS REALLY WORK
Putting a song on radio and getting it on rotation to achieve a certain number of plays per week (sometimes per day) involves a rather byzantine process.
Here comes the independent players called ‘promoters’ or ‘plugs’.
So these ‘plugs’ are sometimes paid by artistes (especially independent artistes) and they secure their own bag by billing the artiste for ‘ radio promotion’. They then work as middle men to plug the music across as many radio stations as the artiste can afford to pay them for.
Anyone and their grandmama can be a ‘plug’. All it takes is knowing how to talk a good game, being seen with the ‘right people’ and most importantly, a good relationship with the right radio people. Sometimes, plugs masquerade as artiste managers or PR people; they are not.
So plugs bill the artiste —–> negotiates with the radio presenter or DJ —–> presenter in turn negotiates with the librarian and music scheduler —–> music gets played.
Note that this process is for radio stations that are structured such that they have a librarian and schedulers. In some low budget radio stations, the process skips the scheduler because there is only one person in the library and the presenters are in charge of setting up their own playlist.
In this process, everyone sets a price. Presenters bill the plugs, the librarians and schedulers get their cut from the presenter. In some cases, Plugs have direct access or relationship with the Librarian and skips Presenter. This usually goes bad because if the music and artiste in question is an unknown, the Presenter flags it as payola and will not play the song on his/her show until his/her cut has been arranged.
Sometimes, artistes approach the presenters or the librarians themselves and well, you can imagine what that conversation will sound like.
In some cases, Radio Presenters work as Plugs. Actually, artistes sometimes approach them as plugs because they believe that they have access to other presenters in the station and in other radio stations.
Now, this can be true but unfortunately, a lot of Presenters have over-promised and under delivered here. Reason is because when one presenter approaches another with new music, it is automatically assumed that money is involved and the receiving presenter is at liberty to set his own bill.
Sometimes, the offering presenter is greedy enough to have collected money to plug other stations but he/she won’t pay the other presenters and those ones will not play the music because they KNOW money is involved.
Has your head started reeling yet?
Now, sometimes artistes, management companies or record label execs sometimes develop a mutual relationship with certain radio personalities or even radio stations and in the process, gifts are exchanged ranging from premium concert tickets, artiste merch, bottles of wine, to iPhones and cars (yup! A certain A-List artiste once bought his favorite radio presenter a car)
That is not payola because those gifts are not demanded for, in exchange for airplay. Is there grounds for unfair advantage? Most likely yes and we can debate the fairness or morality of it all but I should expressly state that as long as the presenter in question DID NOT ASK TO BE PAID in cash or kind in exchange for airplay or a radio appearance, he/she cannot be accused of Payola. There are presenters who have been known to turn down cash gifts because they do not want to be beholden to any artiste or for other personal conviction.
SO WHY PAYOLA?
I have read all sides of the argument in defence of Payola by radio presenters and from some of my experiences, I’ll say that the major reasons are quite plain to see
COMPETITION: The music business is tight. Getting premium airtime on radio is competition now and as radio stations struggle to retain their audience, they are focused on putting popular music and fan favorites on air rather than risk an unknown who their audience might not relate with. For program managers on radio, it’s all about making sure listeners don’t tune off. Mainstream radio stations who play popular music retain their audience more than those who don’t. As a direct result, artistes who are breaking in to radio, will have to compete with the big names and big songs, hence, they circumvent the system by paying their way into playlists.
POOR STATIONS & BROKE PRESENTERS: Thanks to Nigeria’s abysmal economy and a host of other resulting factors, many radio stations are not doing well financially. Many can barely afford to pay staff at the end of the month and the fallout of this is that In many radio stations, presenters have turned to marketers and hustlers to earn their keep.
In more stations than you can imagine, Payola is a culture. It is management sanctioned because that is one of their major sources (if not the only) of income. The racket is airtight and perfected such that everyone gets a cut.
MY PROBLEM WITH PAYOLA
Here’s why I think Payola is problematic; It kills the integrity of your content as a radio presenter. One of the beautiful things about radio for me is how it allows me express and share my love for music. The Joy of discovering new music and new artistes, putting together an authentic playlist for your audience to enjoy it as much as you do, arranging music to set the tone and mood of conversations on radio, all of that is lost because your selection is now determined by the highest bidder.
Payola stifles growth because it blocks the pipeline of new talents getting heard. The same set of artistes from the same circles have an unusual amount of rotation on radio. These artistes then have proteges who they push aggressively by oiling the same wheel they oiled for their own projects. What this means is that talented acts who don’t have money or a backer with money, might never be heard on radio.
This has a ripple effect in the industry as a whole because it is the people we see and hear that we invest in. Continuous radio rotation means continuous media attention and fan engagement and all that attention leads to investments and endorsements.
I have a problem with Payola because I have seen it create demagogues and artificial gate-keepers. A certain ‘Radio Overlord’ demands to be paid in Millions and he must not be questioned; yet artistes will still have to beg, grovel, pray, and almost visit “babalawo” for their music to get played!
Some of the responses to Femi Leye’s post by radio presenters show this. The idea that radio presenters must be oiled and buttered up and boot-licked to get played on radio is a travesty that needs to stop.
Payola reduces you as a broadcaster. You are no different from the extortionist police officers who mount illegal roadblocks to rob young people of their money. You’re just doing yours from the comfort of a well air-conditioned studio and behind a microphone. What is not right is not right and is not right.
At some point, some presenters will have to decide how they want to function in this ecosystem. You want to do Publicity? Media Relations? Management? Set up a business and be known and recognized for doing that. Legitimately. Payola is NOT synonymous with any of that.
The interesting part about all these for me is that, I have seen that it is very possible to break an artiste outside of mainstream music radio. (but that is a conversation for another day)
For now, if we are going to fix this anomaly, we need to be honest with ourselves about what the problems are.