Sunday, 19 June 2016

Payola? Still here. Methodology? Totally different

Some traditions never go away. They just morph 

I have a problem with hype. It's not new and it's not just with music. You see it with movies, gaming and more. The film industry does it best. They're brilliant - they sucker me every time. I wind up really wanting to catch a movie, and then, when I do, I often leave vaguely dissatisfied. Indie film makers with zero budgets must hate this. 

Hey, this is entertainment, where there's a need to recoup investments made sometimes on the back of risky emotive judgements. It gets vile and slimy when vast sums are laid out to manipulate public taste. In general, shamefully, the media know this. But they play along.

Is this new? Well.... no. 

Cally Callomon and Gabrielle Drake, Nick Drake's sister  Photo: Shakeypics
So why talk about all this now? Well, two weeks back, I had my memory jogged. I was at Lunar Festival to do a session with Cally Callomon, talking about the revival of interest in Nick Drake

You can hear the conversation at Brum Radio's Mixcloud page, here:

Cally is a music industry veteran, so we talked about that too. Cally bluntly laid into industry practices of the 90s. 
"It was payola. We would pretty much give music away. It caused enormous damage, and it has stopped, by and large. We would buy our way into the charts. We would falsify chart entry books in record in shops on order to get this or that ridiculous record at number 6, because then we would get Top of The Pops, or Jim'll Fix it."

I knew this - everyone did - and it did rather piss me off. I was programming radio in Brum at that time. My two stations were BRMB and sister XTRA-AM. We watched with glee whenever a payola scandal broke at Radio 1. That sort of thing didn't seem to reach outside of London, however. I think, bluntly, that local radio wasn't worth that level of expenditure. BRMB was a local station, north of Watford, with a slice, by no means the biggest, of the West Midlands audience. So London-centred music businesses never cared much about that. 

Principles or a pain in the a..?

That didn't stop me having LOTS of arguments with recordbiz guys. I followed clear principles, which did not sit that well with the industry. To me there was no point playing anything which wasn't relevant to my stations' audiences. There was no point lavishing airtime to help break songs for a record company exec; there was every point in supporting material we felt would be well received by our audience, hit or no hit.

There was every point, too, in doing our own research, using word of mouth and industry tools, to dig out what was really happening. And from a creative point of view, there was also every point in championing bright, valuable new material, even when we knew the record company was fast losing interest.

Now, you can't really argue with any of that, can you? It did bring a certain amount of ire down on my head – I remember an extraordinary, venomous, outburst from one plugger who didn't deliver what his bosses wanted from us. 
Of course I was being idealistic and possibly mule-headed, but I was also trying to do my job. There was a gaping gulf between my music-fan approach and the profit motives of an entertainment industry. 

The industry take

This was brought home to me at a mid-80s meeting between several of the UK's radio programmers, myself included, and some major music producer names. It was brokered by the great Tim Blackmore, a veteran radio man of great skill and savvy, who ran the Radio Academy at the time. I was thrilled to attend. I knew all of the producers by name; some of them had worked with local people I cared about. So it was crushing to learn that a breakthrough hit from a major Birmingham name, one I had supported for some time, had been manipulated into the charts.

When I took this up with some of the band members, much later, they were perfectly happy with this arrangement. Any exposure, whether earned or manipulated, worked. All they wanted was a result. I can't blame them. 

So does the end justify the mean s?

Maybe it does, over the long run. Time can be a great filter, and if a work has merit, maybe it can survive and flourish over the long run – that was very much a theme from my chat with Cally at Lunar Festival. But in the short term, when feverish excitement is been whipped up in the hope of a fast recoup, that's when a medium like music radio has the most to lose, while the industry that supplies the content has most to gain. 

Of course, all this is from another time, long before we had several hundred analogue stations, dozens of digital outfits, and thousands of online operations, delivering a radio cake sliced ever thinner. It was long before we had YouTube, Spotify and all the rest. I kind of like our new landscape, at least from a creative point of view. 

I suspect there's far less incentive to fiddle the Charts now, when you can fiddle YouTube instead. And there's not much point in trying to turn a radio station to your own ends when the most responsive market – the youth market – has largely left radio for dead. 

See more radio and broadcasting and music business posts on Radio To Go


Tue 21st, 4pm: Big Wheels - Cally Callomon on Nick Drake at Lunar Festival
Wed 22nd, 11pm: Live and Local: Bentley Rhythm Ace at Lunar Festival 
(repeated Sat 25th at 11am)
Fri 24th, 3 pm: Muso Takeover: Terry and Gerry

After airing, these can be found on Brum Radio's Mixcloud page.

All Radio To Go shows are listed here


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