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The WSJ Exposes the NAB’s Big Lie: They Aren’t Promoting Music, They Are Playing the Same Songs Over and Over


If You Can Hear it Every Time You Get in Your Car for Free, Why Bother Buying It?


In 2002, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers made a courageous warning in their song “The Last DJ” about Big Radio consolidation and the diminishing opportunities for new artists to get airplay and breakthrough.

Last night, The Wall Street Journal put out a bombshell report that shows Mr. Petty’s worst fears have been realized.  It exposes the NAB’s biggest lie – that Big Radio promotes new music and helps new bands breaks through.  

We respect copyrights here, so I will just offer a few key takeaways.  (But please, please, read this amazing story in its entirety here.)

AM/FM radio is playing the same handful of songs over and over and over.  And the problem is getting worse and worse:  

  • “The top 10 songs last year were played close to twice as much on the radio than they were 10 years ago, according to Mediabase, a division of Clear Channel Communications Inc. that tracks radio spins for all broadcasters. The most-played song last year, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," aired 749,633 times in the 180 markets monitored by Mediabase. That is 2,053 times a day on average. The top song in 2003, "When I'm Gone" by 3 Doors Down, was played 442,160 times that year.”

The song definitely remains the same.  

This saturation overplay obviously crowds out new bands, both because it just doesn’t leave much airspace to gamble on new acts, and because decisions are being made by too few people (often with too little imagination):

  • “When [a veteran radio promoter] first asked Top-40 stations to play The Lumineers' acoustic-guitar-driven single ‘Ho Hey’ in 2012, for example, many responded incredulously, making jokes along the lines of: ‘What are you giving me, a Peter, Paul and Mary record?’”

Big Radio’s closed-off playlists may be blocking out new artists, but at least its good for the handful of bands who win a Clear Channel Golden Ticket and go into 24/7 rotation, right?  Bands like Capital Cities whose song “Safe and Sound” has been on heavy rotation for two years?

Not so much.   First, if you hear “Safe and Sound” every single time you get in your car, are you going to buy it, or just hang around and wait for it to come back around again?

Second, as stated by the band’s manager in the story, you can’t sell albums with just one hit.   If Big Radio won’t find space for Capital Cities next song, not only are they not selling “Safe and Sound,” but they aren’t selling albums either.  

But at least these bands are earning a living from all that radio success, right?  Well, if you are reading this blog you probably already know that these bands earned nothing – zero – from this airplay, no matter how many times the songs were aired.  AM/FM radio has lobbied its way into a special exemption from these “performance royalties” – even though every other kind of radio (Internet, satellite, even cable TV radio channels) all pay for performance.

But that doesn’t explain why Big Radio has started programming in this dead, empty fashion.  Who benefits?  I’ve buried the lede, but fortunately the story doesn’t:

  • “Faced with growing competition from digital alternatives, traditional broadcasters have managed to expand their listenership with an unlikely tactic: offering less variety than ever…listeners tend to stay tuned when they hear a familiar song, and tune out when they hear music they don't recognize.”

Just like McDonalds knows customers will keep coming back for a consistent, recognizable, familiar product, the Clear Channels of the world have learned that they can keep ratings high if they don’t break much new ground or challenge their listeners to get to know new acts.  

So why does it matter?

Big Radio defends its performance royalty loophole by claiming that AM/FM airplay is valuable “promotion” that helps new bands break through.  It has been selling this big lie to Congress to continue to avoid paying performers for the use of their songs for years, even though, as the WSJ has shown, Top 40 has to be dragged kicking and screaming to let a new act into the rotation.

The reality is that the promotional value radio provides is to itself and its paid advertisers.  

Capital Cities gets played over and over, but they receive nothing, while radio locks in listeners by playing hit songs over and over – in fact playing them so much that fans don’t need to surf channels or buy the album.  

I am not here to tell radio how to run its business or whether it is good business or bad to overload playlists like this.

But the music creators whose work is used must be paid for the work.  And empty promises of phantom “promotion” won’t do.

If Big Radio wants to talk about promotion, the WSJ has put the question squarely on the table:

Who’s Promoting Who?

Or as Tom Petty put it:

“….there goes the last DJ
Who plays what he wants to play
And says what he wants to say
Hey, hey, hey
And there goes your freedom of choice.”