As it has grown, dance music has integrated an entirely new element into its system, something that has become integral yet quite invisible: payola.
Per Wikipedia: "Payola, in the music industry, is the illegal practice of payment or other inducement by record companies for the broadcast of recordings on commercial radio in which the song is presented as being part of the normal day's broadcast. Under U.S. law, 47 U.S.C. § 317, a radio station can play a specific song in exchange for money, but this must be disclosed on the air as being sponsored airtime, and that play of the song should not be counted as a 'regular airplay.' The term has come to refer to any secret payment made to cast a product in a favorable light (such as obtaining positive reviews)."
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Look at the various methods used to reach the top regions of the Beatport chart, which is often referenced to rate a DJ's relevancy in the scene. A lot of DJs rely on this all-important chart to get bookings or increase their fees. With labels often locking artists into 360 deals, which include a percentage of gigs, they are incentivized to help push up the Beatport chart positions by giving out free headphones in return for a purchase receipt from the customer. Or helicopter rides, or free tickets to a gig, or any other cute action you can come up with to generate sales.
My label Mixmash Records decided to give this a go earlier this year and offered a full refund in return for a purchase receipt. For some reason, this action drew a bunch of complaints and Beatport decided this was considered chart manipulation. So they deleted the sales result from the chart, which kicked us out of their top 100. Surprisingly, Beatport does not communicate what their rules are when they refer to chart manipulation, nor do they respond to other similar cases, which are allowed to remain in the charts.
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Editor's note: Beatport responded to the issue with the following statement in January. “While conducted in the open from a reputable label with no history of artificially influencing sales, the campaign impacted Beatport policies regarding chart eligibility. Out of fairness to other labels, Beatport had no choice but to remove the track from the store as a result. The decision to remove the track in question was not to punish Mixmash Records, Laidback Luke, or Tujamo, nor should it be seen as an accusation of any wrongdoing against any of the parties involved. The track was re-added shortly after with a new track ID to reset the chart position.”
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In the strictest sense of the word, this is not payola as it is not a direct "pay for play," but the idea is the same -- influence beyond what could be considered marketing in order to gain success. So call it payola. Call it what you will, it’s (still) here, and it’s all over the dance industry in numerous ways.
We’re all familiar with the implications of artists buying likes, followers, plays, views and so on. But what about Facebook’s algorithm? It either rewards or penalizes you for boosting (paying for more exposure to a larger audience) posts. This is a completely legal and accepted business practice that "buys" you more views and potentially allows for more likes and engagement to be generated. Nowadays, this is even generally perceived as marketing.
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I’m currently doing an Asia tour, and one of the promoters told me that if she wanted to book a bigger-name DJ from a certain agency, she was often forced to book a smaller DJ -- so-called packaging. I sometimes get tweets from fans asking me why I can’t come play in their favorite city, and in certain cases, that’s due to what festivals I’m playing.
Due to the size and competitive nature of the festival industry, we DJs are often bound to exclusivity and territory restrictions that can cover various states or even countries, as well as any type of performance. For instance, at times I can't play for a club run by a competing promoter for up to half a year after a festival took place -- even if the festival promoter has no club available to me. Sometimes this means I can’t play a cool underground club for a few hundred hard-core fans if I want to play a festival main stage for 50,000 people. Both are important to do though, so it frustrates me.
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Discussions between agents, managers and promoters are ridiculously detailed for fees, billing sizes, pixel sizes relative to other artists, special guest lines, and even which side we'll appear on the flyer. It all impacts artists' profiles and is used as a trade-off when negotiating deals. The bigger agencies often have the upper hand here as they have more artists to supply and thus more leverage. These negotiations reference not only Beatport charts, but also Facebook likes, Twitter followers and DJ Mag Top 100 positions. There's therefore a big incentive to influence them one way or another, be it by buying, marketing or boosting.
Corporate investors are now involved and they often extend offers to promoters that they can't refuse. Such investments require return, and lineup strategy and conversation gets weighed down even more by charts and apps that continuously poll the audience about what they like, who they are going to see on the day, and what they want and appreciate. The result? A blur of lineups that look the same everywhere, and musical curation disappears. With this, it's telling us old-school, rebellious and true dance music heads that a conversation about pop artists playing too many festivals isn’t even a worthy topic of discussion when it comes to dance music.
With little to no A&R direction from the promoters’ side, there's no effort to manage fans' expectations. So somehow it ends up being the same usual suspects playing the same rundown of hits and playing it safe. The stakes are too high with so much money involved, so risks can't be taken. We DJs feel that pressure too.
Curation by numbers has now resulted in opening DJs being forced to guarantee a certain number of ticket sales to be given a slot in a big club. In many cases, opening DJs end up investing their own money into those tickets and buy themselves the slot. This obviously has nothing to do with real talent or the ability to properly open a night with the right music. I often wonder how much dance music’s payola stimulates organic growth. We need quality artists and real talent to sustain this industry. Even from a purely economic perspective, what is happening makes little to no sense. We are not nurturing enough resources to sustain a reliable output.
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I’m a positive guy, and it’s all about passion in the end. Festivals like Tomorrowland, EDC and Ultra broke through because their passion for details was genuine. We are walking a thin line here by having this big, corporate takeover without a vision for keeping the scene alive. I, for one, am willing to fight for the real art of DJing. And I try and spread the word around how awesome it is to be able to produce and master tracks by myself and encourage others to do so too.
Another example, boxing. We don’t want to have what happened to boxing happen to dance music. Look at the Mayweather-Pacquiao match. What should have been the fight of the century turned out to be a dud. It was so overhyped, so overcalculated and so disconnected from the real boxing fans. It seemed to be all about the celebrities and the stories leading up to the fight, and I guess somebody forgot about the actual art of boxing. I tweeted it straight after: "When it’s all about the money, passion is lost."
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We all need to understand what’s going on and be part of this debate. Everyone needs to decide their individual role in this. Keep an eye out for real talent, real passion and nurture and develop that. Phonies won’t bring us quality, and they won’t sustain the scene. I’m not just only talking about DJs, but promoters, agents, managers, bookers and radio too. Everyone has their part to play. It’s all our responsibility to step it up and let it grow, rather than let it sink.
Laidback Luke is a Filipino-Dutch DJ/producer with more than two decades of experience in the dance music industry. Luke owns Mixmash Records and supports rising talent through sub-label Ones to Watch and his production forum, whose users have included the likes of Avicii and Afrojack.