Payola Evolved

My first brush with the music industry was as a tiny 15 year old intern in the very large Sony Tower in New York City.

Day 1: Sprinted to 5th avenue to buy La Mer face cream for the girlfriend of an exec.

Day 2: Transcribed Future lyrics to Karate Chop: “Beat that P*ssy up like E*** T***”

Day 3: Got hit on by a very powerful exec in the industry who has since been canceled.

Day 4: I was privy to a very sketchy “YouTube analytics” meeting where I may or may not have witnessed the marketing department paying for YouTube views.

Safe to say, this whirlwind steered me away from any traditional music industry path. 10 years later, now building a tech product that serves as the backbone for the industry, I’m forced to reckon with the same major label shenanigans.

It’s Day 4 that sticks with me the most, a reminder of how the majors have evolved with the times — determining which artists get signed, what songs get made, and whose music gets promoted, via methods above and below the surface.

Sadly, the advent of digital streaming did not democratize anything. Spotify has leveraged its connections with Big Music for the benefit of their wallets. In 2019 they launched Marquee, a feature that lets labels pay for aggressive pop-up ads for their artists. Then “Discovery Mode” in 2020, in which labels and rights holders can take a lower royalty rate for songs that Spotify promotes on their radio playlists.

“All this does is continue what payola always has done: The major labels, which have the most money and the most frequent releases, get the most play, consolidating the amount of art that is put out there,” — George Howard, professor of music business at Berklee

At DISCO (my company), the launch of our marketplace feature hopes to democratize music discovery. We’re curating playlists by hand for now (with a rotating curation team). As we grow and consider algorithmic curation and prioritization we’ll be faced with tradeoffs between satisfying industry customers and ensuring the discovery process remains unbiased. Here’s to committing to never bending to the pressures of the big guys…no matter what is at stake.



PM @DISCO | Co-founder of The Farmlink Project

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