It’s happened to me and I’d bet it’s happened to you. You’re listening to the radio or to your favorite stream service and a top charted song plays. You may think this top song isn’t all that great, and it’s by an up and comer. You ask yourself how that song even got released much less moved quickly to the top of the charts. As with so much else in life, it starts with dreams. Then come schemes and streams. Is it acceptable? Should this be disclosed?
The website Saving Country Music takes a look at a form of what amounts to pay to play, summarizing the current state of the pop culture arena:
“We are living through the asterisk era of music data, when the question isn’t if behind-the-scenes money shifting and influence peddling is resulting in top placement on powerful playlists that result in the launching of massive superstars and monster singles, but how much of a factor it’s playing in the performance of certain songs and artists…paying Red Music or using positions of power to leverage preferable placement on streaming playlists is currently not illegal…”
In an earlier article, SCM relates one aspect of music merchandising I never thought about—price points matter:
“Though Billboard does have rules ensuring songs and albums priced at a severe discount don’t get an unfair advantage in the marketplace, the threshold for a song is $0.39.”
Ari Herstand, a musician and author writing at Digital News, delves deeper into the practice of pay to promote to set lists by sharing her personal experience with it. Someone she trusted had recommended a company who, for a reasonable amount of money, engaged in plugging playlists. She researched the company, and decided to give it a go:
“I ponied up the $150 for an estimated 50,000 streams.
Sure enough, within a few days I noticed the song had been added to a fairly popular user generated playlist (of about 50,000 followers).
“Great!” I thought. “It’s working!”
Before I started this campaign, I had had about 300,000 total streams on my songs on Spotify. Now, this doesn’t seem like a lot in the streaming world, but considering I was on relatively few playlists (no gigantic ones), it’s a number I was satisfied with. These are “fan streams” — versus just streams from people who follow a playlist containing a song of mine.
After some more digging, CD Baby said it looks like Streamify is using click farms or something. The song did, in fact, get included on a popular playlist and Streamify’s FAQ states:
“Spotify track plays are sent to our huge partner list that includes music promoters, DJs, online radio stations, playlists and various other parties. We provide them only the Spotify URI of the tracks you give us.”
So is this wrong, right, or neutral, as in it’s the free market, so why should it matter?
If it’s legal, that places the decision in the lap of the artist. I think the most important part of any artist’s promotion is honesty, though. Disclosure goes a long way in building trust with any audience. Considering the often lame quality of so much music we hear today from corporate-bound artists, I wonder if the counter-culture won’t soon expand as it did when I was young.
My daughters and I have often discussed goals and plans in hopes of broadening their fan base. Many different companies have approached. Some offered contracts. Others offered publicity. One long-time industry insider—one of the few we took seriously—made it clear that drastic changes in clothing, makeup, etc. would be necessary if we were to work with his company. Rebecca didn’t even ask me about that one. I overheard the conversation, and I knew exactly what she’d say because she’s always been authentic even if it rocked someone’s boat.
“I can’t do that,” she said. And she hung up the phone.
Many years ago when I decided to do the impossible and leave a fantastic job to become a freelance writer, I’d grown far beyond the dreams of my youth. At that point, I didn’t think to myself, I want to be a famous writer. I just thought to myself I want to write what I want to write. I met my goals, and in some cases, exceeded them. It’s been enough for me to be able to earn while I do what I love every single day.
Technology hasn’t just changed sectors like healthcare and retail. Technology has changed the arts world in dramatic ways. Some are good. Some are not.
In the end, an artist has to decide what’s right for self—what you can live with and what you aspire to. If you have the money to secure positions on top playlists, and if you’re good with it, that’s your business.
Would it be okay with you as a fan though? If you know a song was pushed to the top of a playlist by pay-to-play, would that bother you?
To be honest, for me, it’s all about the song. A playlist never made me like a song. The song itself—the lyrics and score and arrangement did.
(Kay B. Day/Feb. 19, 2019)