Payola

What’s with this bizarrely impassioned screed against Spitzer’s prosecuting the pay-for-play scamsters in the music and radio industries by Daniel Gross? Gross thinks it’s a waste of time and money to prosecute companies who market their goods under false pretenses. After all, it just proves that these people are “bad businessmen.” Yes, and the perpetrators of stock fraud are often incompetent brokers too, so should we dismantle the SEC? (Wait, Chris Cox has already been confirmed, hasn’t he?) Maybe we should stop regulating ads, because only companies who weren’t confident in their lousy product would resort to such tactics and of course when consumers discover they are being lied to they won’t buy it anymore. Those whoo were burned? Tough shit for them. And hell, why bother regulating food and drugs? Only bad businessmen would sell beer with formaldehyde, like those Chinese breweries mentioned in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, or would see hot dogs with sawdust in them to fill them out. They won’t fool anybody for long. When a few customers die, the rest of the world will know to avoid those things, so why bother prosecuting them? The market will punish them fine, all on its own. Gross points out that if people don’t like radio they can turn it off. Well, if people don’t like cancer from cigarettes, they should just stop smoking. Why bother labeling the packs or restricting the ads? Let Joe Camel pass out free smokes to high school kids during pep rallys. No one is going to force those kids to then light up. Just as every radio has an on/off switch, so does every mouth open and close.

Gross presumes that because pop music is a matter of subjective taste, and not a life or death matter, the marketplace can sort out anamolies like payola that distort what is made and distributed. And he assumes the ease with which small players can enter the music market hampers the effectiveness of payola. But the flood of product only makes payola more effective, it makes exposure that more essential, so that one crappy song nugget can stand out amid the diarrehea-like flood of bad pop music. (Sorry for that disgusting metaphor. But the payola biz is disgusting.) And subjective taste doesn’t necessarily triumph, since it is so nebulous and malleable; most people’s tastes are in fact shaped by repeat exposure. Payola, pay for repeated plays happens because it works, not because the industry is desperate. And the secretiveness is necessary because overtly revealing songplays as paid commercials would subvert the way it works, by making people think they are obeying their own subjective taste, discovering their own unique interests, when in fact their wants are being manufactured through a quasi-Pavlovian system of timed and repeated stimuli. Spitzer is right to be appalled by payola because it is a covert system of subverting an individual consumer’s autonomy; it’s a intentional form of cultural brainwashing, and it doesn’t belong in an allegedly free society.

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