The Problem with the Major Labels – Will it ever change?


I was rooting around in my files looking for something and came across an article I’d save from some time back.


From the Reuters News Service 11/22/05 the headline read – “Warner Music to Pay $5 Million in New York ‘Payola’ Probe.” The article

also mentions how a few months previous to this Sony BMG agreed to pay $10 million to settle a related pay-to-play probe. For those of you

who are unacquainted with the practice, ‘payola’ is when a record company pays or provides goods to get a record played on the radio. The term

is actually a contraction of the words ‘pay’ and ‘victrola’ the old record players you had to wind-up. The law against such bribes came into play in the US in 1960 as a result of a huge scandal involving the gentlemen who coined the term ‘rock-n-roll’, Alan Freed. To this day many say Freed was simply the scapegoat as everybody was doing it. That may very well be true. And it seems that everybody is STILL doing it.


Every few years this record company tactic boils to the surface. Fred Dannen wrote about this at length in his 1990 book Hit Men, where he recorded the history of the record business from its early days through to the nineties. In the book he outlines how the practice of rewarding or encouraging radio stations to play the songs they’re currently pushing was so important. In the book he explains how the record companies worked to circumvent the 1960 law by working with independent promoters to influence which records got played. What he described was really an endemic culture that apparently still exists.


Fact is there’s a lot at stake when it comes to getting a song on the radio. Millions of dollars! Let’s face it if a company is fined multiple millions for circumventing the law how much do you think they stand to make by breaking that law. The stakes get higher all the time. At least in the past a record company said they were prepared to nurture an artist and they did for a few albums at least. Today they may say they want to nurture an artist but that support quickly disappears when the hits disappear. For the record companies it’s all about getting a hit and today if that first album tanks they’re on to the next big thing. The sad part is they absolve themselves of any responsibility in this and simply blame the buyer for being fickle. The record companies have yet to accept any responsibility in reaping the harsh reality of what they’ve sown over the years.


So what’s all this have to do with progressive rock. Well other than for a brief time in the seventies, prog has never had a comfortable relationship with the major record companies. That’s because the major labels have never been able to understand the genre, let alone figure out how to sell it. Let’s face it, the aberration of the late sixties and seventies where the public’s interest organically fell to looking at whole albums as opposed to singles kind of fell into the record company lap. They were still trying to sell singles until it became painfully clear they were on the wrong track. But then they took that ‘cash-cow’ to the bank one to many times. Behind the scenes they were still pushing singles and the minute the landscape seemed open to change they pushed hard to get back to singles, and they succeeded. Punk rock wasn’t about albums and from 1976 through 1978 the business swiftly shifted fully back to singles and then video’s struck, which while the record companies didn’t see it coming put the final nail in the albums coffin. Now it was really all about the song.


I see this as a warning. A warning to all budding progressive artists to tread carefully when it comes to forging relationships with the major labels. It all looks rosy on the outside but inside it’s full of nastiness. Few progressive artists since the seventies have fared well on major labels. Just ask Echolyn. It takes a tremendous amount of determination to not compromise and be prepared to walk.


Thankfully with the rise of the internet and a host of independent labels with good distribution, progressive rock bands have a perfect vehicle. Our job is to support these artists, not only by seeing them live whenever we have the opportunity to do so, but also to purchase their music. Only by laying down the cash either on-line or at your local record store will you be making your statement of appreciation. It’s a small price to pay for something that gives us so much enjoyment.


At least that’s what I think.


Jerry Lucky

September 2007