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Why Indie Artists Are a Rarity on Radio: ‘If You Don’t Pay, You Don’t Move Up’

Promotion executives from independent labels tell Billboard that a pay-to-play "toll" is keeping them off the airwaves.

Not long ago, a major-label radio promotion executive had a song climbing into the top 10 in his format. Eager to maintain the track’s upward momentum, he tried to get a station in a small city in the Northeast to put the song into rotation. There was only one problem: That station worked with a middleman, known as an independent radio promoter, who controlled what tracks received airplay. And that middleman demanded $3,000 for an “add.”

“It frustrates the hell out of me,” the executive says. “But if you don’t pay, you don’t move up,” he notes, referring to the radio airplay charts.

Adding to the frustration: The cost was high enough to make even a deep-pocketed major label think twice. In the world of independent labels, though, $3,000 to get one song played on one station in a small market can be prohibitive. “Majors can throw so much money at a release and get it running up the chart,” says one executive with experience running radio campaigns for indie labels. “As an independent label, you can get something played at a small handful of commercial stations. Once your budget runs out, you almost have a built-in ceiling.”

This has become a growing concern for indie labels, according to promotion executives who spoke on the condition of anonymity, to the point where some are considering appealing for help from government regulators or investigators. While radio rarely breaks hits in the streaming era outside of country music, it remains important in building recognition at a mass scale, as well as raising awareness in local markets for artists on tour. Radio airplay charts continue to be a metric of success in the music industry internally, and airplay remains one of the components of the Billboard charts.

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Over half a dozen promotion executives say it is still common to have to pay in money or goods to get a song added to a station’s playlist or to increase its spin count. Independent labels are battling to gain exposure for their artists by any means necessary in a ruthlessly competitive musical landscape, and these sorts of promotional costs put them at a distinct disadvantage with the majors.

Promotion executives offer varying estimates of the costs of campaigns, but sources say a serious push at triple A can run $30,000 and up, while making an impact at alternative radio is likely going to cost at least $40,000, but could take more than $60,000. A campaign at active rock and adult top 40 will often set a record company back even more, these sources say, and if a label sets its sights on the top of the mainstream R&B/hip-hop or top 40 airplay charts, the budget is likely going to be six figures. (Though one source claims you can launch a campaign at top 40 with $70,000.) A pair of promotion executives say that between 20% and 40% of this money, depending on the format, will go to independent promoters who control access to specific stations.

But several indie-label executives say a budget of $15,000 for a radio campaign is their ceiling. Shelling out for airplay “is the cost of doing business,” says one promotion executive at an indie label. “The problem is that the cost is getting more and more.”

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It’s not surprising, then, that major labels accounted for more than 85% of the tracks on Billboard’s year-end 2021 Radio Songs chart. For comparison’s sake, a conservative estimate from December 2021 pegs the major labels’ share of recorded-music revenue for the year at 66.1% — indicating that indie labels play a larger role in the overall music ecosystem than they do on the airwaves. The three biggest radio companies either did not respond to questions about promotional costs or declined to comment.

Paying to get songs on the air has been a fixture of the music industry since the early days of rock’n’roll. Congressional hearings in the 1950s resulted in a 1960 decision that prohibited direct payments by labels (aka payola), but a loophole opened the door to independent promoters as middlemen. In 1990, when Fredric Dannen published Hit Men, his investigative history of the music business, he reported that major labels were laying out as much as $80 million a year (the equivalent of $210 million today) to middlemen to get their songs spins during the 1980s.

A 2004 investigation by the New York attorney general’s office — then under Eliot Spitzer — made it clear that the practice of paying for airplay was still flourishing: “Please be advised that in this week’s Jennifer Lopez Top 40 spin increase of 236 we bought 63 spins at the cost of $3600,” one promotion executive wrote in a 2005 email obtained by the attorney general.

In 2007, following the Spitzer investigation, the Federal Communications Commission secured a pledge from four major radio chains to play more independent music on the air. But little changed. A 2008 study by the Future of Music Coalition noted that “over 92% of independent labels report no change in their relationship with commercial radio since the settlement.” What’s more, “nearly half of respondents [surveyed] reported that payola remains a determining factor in commercial radio airplay.”

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Today, promotion executives say the pay-to-play “toll” remains in place at some stations, and radio ­playlists have narrowed even further, making each slot on the airwaves that much more competitive. “It’s hard to work a record through the system if you don’t have some type of resources,” says one radio promotion veteran with extensive major-label experience. “It can be a struggle for some of these smaller labels that are trying to get things going, especially at the stations that have those deals [with specific independent promoters who require a toll]. Certain companies aren’t going to be able to compete with [a major] when it comes to payments and what they can afford to pay an indie promoter.”

As a result, some independent labels have chosen to tap out. “There are certain formats that indie labels don’t venture into because they just can’t afford it,” says one longtime member of the independent music community who has worked at a variety of labels, pointing especially to top 40 and country radio. “Most independents I know have just given up.”

“The airwaves are designed not to be built for all,” adds one frustrated promotion executive who works at an indie label. “You can only come to the table if you’re spending the right amount of money and you know the right people.”

This story appears in the Sept. 17, 2022, issue of Billboard.