Thrash-rap rockers Limp Bizkit were having a tough time breaking onto radio in Portland, Ore. So their record label, Interscope, came up with a novel but potentially controversial idea for getting the band onto alternative station KUFO (101.1).
They bought the airtime.
Not unlike a three-minute musical informercial, Interscope paid for radio play of the song "Counterfeit" (RealAudio excerpt) from their album Three Dollar Bill, Ya'll to air on the station -- a relatively new practice called "pay-for-play" -- for five weeks with an announcement before or after the song that made note of its sponsor. At best, it was an unusual step that raises questions about radio content and the free flow of musical ideas on the public airwaves.
"When you have a band like Limp Bizkit, who sell out 3,000-seaters, playing music the kids want to hear, finding a way to get them on a radio station without prostituting them is a huge plus for everybody," said Jeff Kwatinetz, the band's manager. Kwatinetz, who also manages Korn, another thrash-rock band he said has difficulty getting airplay, said he has no problem with the arrangement and doesn't see it as either unethical or illegal.
"This is honest; payola was about fraud," said Kwatinetz about previous record industry scandals that began in the early 1960s, in which radio programmers accepted bribes in exchange for spinning certain songs. "Payola was about DJs defrauding the owners of their stations and potentially hurting ratings by not making musical decisions. Then the FCC required people to say that a spin was paid for, so the fraud element was taken out of it. By us saying this is brought to you by Interscope, you know the money is going to the station. If stations want to make bad decisions, then their ratings go down."
At a panel on emerging media conglomerates entitled "All I Want Is Everything" at this year's South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Tex.., Spin magazine Editor-In-Chief Michael Hirschorn attested to the difficulty of new bands breaking on radio due to the limited number of available slots on conglomerate-owned alternative stations.
"When cable modems and Internet radio becomes a reality," said Hirschorn, "they will make radio obsolete because of this marketing-driven idea of what people want to hear. New bands can't get on the radio because programmers don't want to take a chance." Members of the panel also noted that nearly a quarter of the nation's radio stations have changed hands since the Federal Communications Commission deregulated the industry several years ago. Deregulation led to more corporate-owned stations with smaller playlists, argued several of the panelists, including New York Times music critic Neil Strauss.
In a related story, the Wall Street Journal reported on March 16 that the Capitol Nashville record label was considering the idea of "paying radio station groups $1 million for an hour of prime programming time for its artists."
The Limp Bizkit track -- thought to be the first pay-for-play arrangement of its kind -- first aired 10 weeks ago, Kwatinetz said, with a five-week commitment from Interscope to pay for more than a handful of spins each week.
After the initial test, Kwatinetz said the quintet's record was so popular among listeners that the station added the song to its regular rotation. KUFO operations manager Dave Numme could not be reached for comment. Arguing that the paid-spin method was cheaper than other gimmicks used to get bands added to play lists, such as label sponsored contests and appearances at radio station concerts, Kwatinetz said the effort has already paid off.
"That song is still on KUFO because the song is a hit," said Kwatinetz. "The album [Three Dollar Bill, Ya'll] has sold 170,000 copies and Portland represents less than one percent of those sales. This just happens to be a brilliant move for everyone involved: the band, the station and the label. The station gets airplay on a band for little cost, avoiding much more expensive promotions and the band gets airplay in a market they normally wouldn't have."
Kwatinetz declined to reveal how much Interscope paid for the KUFO airtime buy.
"It's a very honest thing. There's nothing hidden about it," he said. "If kids didn't want to hear the song, it would be off the air faster than you could say 'KUFO.'