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Playola

Most radio stations pick songs that are good for everyone but aspiring musicians and listeners.

Next, Smith tried to shift blame for the growing clout of independent promoters onto the music industry. "[They] would be out of business tomorrow if the record labels wouldn't pay them money. The market power there is in a record business that's willing to put up the cash." He added, "Clear Channel was concerned that these independent record promoters were being paid staggering sums of money, and it wasn't clear where the money was going. So we wanted to establish very specific rules of engagement. You can't put them out of business, because the record business is still throwing money at them, right? So if the record business is still throwing money at them, we're going to establish rules."

And what are these rules? "We're going to interview the promoters," Smith said, "and we're going to decide what promoters work with what radio stations. And the independent promoters pay Clear Channel a fee -- a license, if you will -- to be the agent for that radio station. It's just like you might hire a consultant or an agent to represent an act. Those radio stations are paid a fee by the promoter, and that promoter is the only person who is allowed to filter all the stuff that comes in from all the sources and then present it to the radio station. But the radio station programmer makes the ultimate decision about what gets played."

This suggests that only songs hyped by the designated promoter will be heard on a participating station, but Smith said, "I think that's over the top." Later, though, he contradicted himself. "If you have a financial interest in getting a record played, this is the way it works," he maintained. "You've absolutely got to pay this guy money, because he's paying Clear Channel for the rights to be the agent. But the relationship between the independent and Clear Channel is aboveboard. The checks are deposited at the radio station, the taxes are paid, and there's no back office, no back-channel relationship allowed. And frankly, it's consistent with the way most major music radio stations, Clear Channel or otherwise, work in 2001 -- with the exception of the fact that Clear Channel has put more controls into the process, not less."

Without legislation to stop it, this bleak scenario seems guaranteed to lead to even greater centralization of the business, with just a handful of huge outfits able to compete for the attention of equally gigantic radio multinationals. But thus far, a few companies that do things the old-fashioned way, sans exclusive deals, are still flying under the radar. Take Coast to Coast Promotions, a San Francisco-area firm run by industry veteran Susan B. Levin. A former employee at Elektra Records and Blue Note Records, Levin hung out her shingle just over eleven years ago, and she says she continues to do business as she always has. Record companies pay Coast to Coast stipends of, on average, $600 a week per song, with occasional pre-negotiated bonuses if a tune heads toward the top of the charts, to promote the work of smooth jazz, traditional jazz and adult-album-alternative, or Triple-A, artists to stations on her roster -- 105 at last count. Included in this number is Clear Channel-owned KBCO. But Smith's statements to the contrary, Levin doesn't pay program director Scott Arbough to take her calls. He continues to work with her, she believes, because "we have a longstanding business relationship that I think he values as much as I do."

Because Levin specializes in music that's somewhat outside the mainstream and deals with a large percentage of non-commercial or inveterately individualistic stations, she hasn't been as affected by exclusive pacts between independent promoters and radio groups as have some of her peers. But she concedes that she's lost access to about 10 percent of her stations because of such deals, and worries that the trend is accelerating. "I just have to work harder and more creatively," she says. "And I'm grateful for all the stations that still decide what they want to play based on the music."

Unfortunately, such stations are increasingly outnumbered by ones that will weigh a song's quality only after it's collected a payment to do so. That leaves the local record producer whose tale kicked off this column with only one option: Since he can't afford to pay an independent promoter, he has to kiss hometown airplay goodbye.

The tao of Steve, part two: Clear Channel Entertainment COO Steve Smith talked about a lot more than independent radio promotion while in Denver. In addition to denouncing a lawsuit filed against the company by a Colorado concert partnership, Nobody in Particular Presents ("The Clear Channel Empire Strikes Back," October 11), he also took on several other hot topics about which his company has been largely mute up to this point.

They include:

•The state of the concert business. Smith acknowledged that Clear Channel felt the pain of a weakening economy throughout the just-completed summer season, and last month's terrorist attacks only made matters worse. "Things have been totally off the charts since the eleventh of September," he said. "I imagine a couple of times since then, you've looked at yourself and said, 'Do I really need to go out tonight?,' and artists and lighting directors and everybody else feels the same way." But, he went on, "I think we've done as well as could possibly be imagined with the hand we've been dealt."

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