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Why is Payola Illegal?


I agree with Daniel Gross and Matt; I’ve never really understood why payola should be illegal. It doesn’t really make sense that this particular form of marketing music to radio, as opposed to all the other forms, should be against the law. And, certainly, many of the arguments against payola seem to be under the severely mistaken impression that in the absence of direct (as opposed to indirect) forms of payment stations would be programmed based on evaluations of artistic merit. Sure. If you believe that, I have a gross of “Jessica Simpson signs the songs of Ian Anderson” CDs that you’ll be able to move like hotcakes right here.

Admittedly, maybe it’s just that I have a libertarian streak about these things; laws banning ticket scalping have never made much sense to me either. I’ve never understood why it’s perfectly legal for the Knicks to charge $150 for a game against the Grizzlies in November, but if someone sells a World Series ticket to someone else for $150 they’re committing a crime. (And, of course, the more common situation is someone trying to dump one of their Knicks season tickets to a game and get something back; laws against ticket scalping make that much more difficult, which is why teams want them.)

Lindsay makes the case for the other side. I think the key to our disagreement can be found in her argument that “[t]he station that runs on payola is offering a fundamentally different service than a station whose DJs have creative control. An independent DJ is offering her expertise and aesthetic judgment. It’s her job to listen to choose good stuff and to play it in aesthetically pleasing sequences. As a consumer, I want independence from my DJ.” This is, I think, a clearly false dichotomy. Not because I don’t share Lindsay’s aesthetic preferences (I basically never listen to any music on commercial radio), but because the independent jock programming her own stuff is an anachronism; independent programming has essentially vanished from commercial radio despite payola being illegal. Programming for the vast majority of for-profit stations is done centrally because broadcasters can (or think they can) make more money doing it this way, and whether payola is illegal or not doesn’t really change this.

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