Who are “indies” and why are they responsible for your favourite smash hits?

Rick Henriques is a first year public relations student at Humber College. Henriques’ interests include pop culture, music and radio.

“Radio sells records. Period,” says Grammy Award winning American record producer and music industry executive Clive Davis. Music reaches more people every week through radio than any other medium; American census reveals that over 92 per cent of all US consumers listen to the radio every week making it the most widely spread advertising and promotional tool in existence today, surpassing magazines, TV and the Internet.

With these numbers in mind, it is no surprise that all gold or platinum-certified singles and albums have had success on the radio. Evidently, music promoters and radio stations work hand in hand to create success for the music industry and it’s artists.

Katy Perry, Pop Music, Radio, Billboard, Record
A video still from Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” which dominated the U.S Charts for 46 weeks – which resulted in a world record.

Record labels and radio stations work together to create superstars and achieve platinum albums. But how do certain smash hits dominate the radio without prevalence? Take for example, Magic’s “Rude.”

Perhaps the reason for this is a loophole surrounding payola. Payola is the illegal practice of payment or bribery by record labels in exchange for the broadcast of music on the radio in which is presented as part of the regular day’s broadcast. Essentially, it is a pay for play scenario.

A radio station may accept money in exchange for airplay; however, the plays must be disclosed as sponsored on the air and it cannot be counted towards regular airplay. Of course, a record label would have no problem financing their own artists to the top of the charts, but business isn’t always fair.

Sony BMG Music Entertainment has faced lots of heat for using payola to support artists such as Jennifer Lopez, Avril Lavigne and Maroon 5.

Jennifer Lopez, Billboard Music Award, Icon Award
Jennifer Lopez’s famous track, “I’m Real” owes its success to payola.

But if payola is illegal, how are hits receiving such massive airplay? Record labels, needing to promote their artists, of course, hire independent record promoters, also known as indies. The job of an indie is to get the songs that their clients, record labels, want on the playlists of radio stations across the country. Indies are the third-party loophole for record labels to avoid payola.

An indie approaches a radio station manager or owner and offers an annual payment between $75,000 to $100,000 per year for promotional support, as well as giving the station money, gift cards, prepaid visas, vacations or gifts of other forms.

Meghan Trainor, All About That Bass, Radio, Viral, Top 40
A video still from Meghan Trainor’s viral single, “All About That Bass”, which brought made her an instant sensation for Top 40 radio.

In exchange, the radio station adds songs the indie recommends to their playlists. The indie then contacts the record label to notify them of the agreement with the station and charges the record label $1,000 fee for every song the indie recommends to the station. For major singles, record labels pay indies anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000.

Thus unravels the mystery behind hits that just seem to never get off the radio. “Uptown Funk!”, “Take Me To Church”, “Fancy” and many other great records all have something in common. They were all catchy hits that seem to have exploded to the top of the charts out of nowhere.

Personally, I admire the impact that independent record promoters have in both the radio and music industry; however, I do not believe that the use of payola or indies is ethical. The music industry has already taken a hit in profits during the digital age due to pirating, not to mention that the industry has deteriorated its relationship with music junkies through extreme lawsuits. Both indies and payola further the disconnect trust between music lovers and the respective industries.

Can you think of any other top hits that might have had a nudge to reach the top of the charts? Leave a comment below!


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