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Payola: The Criminalization of Independent Artists

Updated: 6 days ago

In the 1960’s, the supposedly shady practice of “payola” became so pervasive that President Eisenhower condemned it as an “issue of public morality.” Secretly paying commercial radio stations to secure the “organic” promotion of a new record obviously reeks of corruption, but the true source of that stench might surprise you. 

As Andrew Hickey points out in A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs, major labels had no need to resort to this method because they practically owned the radio stations anyway. Payola was therefore one of the few methods through which smaller labels like Sun and Chess were able to level the playing field. 

Starting in the 1950’s, countless beverage corporations significantly increased their profits by transitioning from reusable to single-use packaging, causing America’s first serious waste crisis. To preemptively frame the narrative in their favor, these companies collectively funded an advertising campaign designed to portray litter as the consequence of irresponsible individuals’ poor decision making rather than a product of their insatiable greed. Culminating with the infamous “Crying Indian” advertisement in 1971, the key message read, "people start pollution; people can stop it."

The propaganda of redirecting accountability away from large corporations extends far beyond the greenwashed environmental movement. Major labels similarly launched a campaign designed to associate payola with criminality in order to snuff out competition and draw attention away from their own, much more insidious forms of corruption. While they shamelessly whitewashed the music of underrepresented black artists, they criminalized any attempts made by these same artists to get their music heard in a system that was designed to exploit and exclude them from the very beginning. 

The decline of radio caused the practice of payola to die out, but Spotify’s meteoric rise has led to an extremely similar strategy: paid third-party playlist inclusion. This modern iteration is one of the only ways independent artists are able to attain spots on “popular” playlists, once again creating a pay-to-play dynamic. And while major labels regularly pay for fake streams to push their artists' songs up the charts, Spotify ruthlessly punishes independent artists for doing the very same thing. 

This double standard underscores the platform's role in perpetuating an unequal music industry, where access and success are often determined by financial power rather than artistic merit. As independent artists struggle to be heard, the cycle of exploitation continues.

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