'98's Best: Radio Weighs 'Pay-For-Play' As Label Plans To Buy More Airtime

Opponents say practice yields less control for radio, less exposure for indie labels.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at

1998's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Wednesday, May. 6.]

For Flip Records president and Limp Bizkit co-manager Jordan Schur, Limp Bizkit's "pay-for-play" experience was only the beginning.

Schur, who said the decision to pay about $5,000 to a Portland, Ore., radio station for 50 airings of Limp Bizkit's song "Counterfeit" (RealAudio excerpt) proved a success, is considering doing the same for other unspecified Flip acts in the future. Whether radio stations are going to open their airwaves to these acts is another matter entirely.

"I believe unseen and untold means unsold," Schur said, adding that the pay-for-play deal netted the hip-hop thrash-rockers broad exposure via the radio, not to mention publicity from the national media, who covered the controversy surrounding the recently reawakened strategy.

While the label head noted that Limp Bizkit were also touring heavily and

were featured on MTV during the band's February paid slot on KUFO-FM, he said "there's no question that the market in Portland went up" thanks to the

pay-for-play deal.

Since its release last July, Three Dollar Bill, Y'all, the album containing "Counterfeit," has sold 218,000 copies nationwide, according to SoundScan, a significant number for a relatively unknown act. The disc landed at #134 on this week's Billboard 200 albums chart and saw its peak charting at #100 soon after the controversy broke in March.

Certainly, the future success of such acts as Limp Bizkit depends on radio programmers buying into the pay-for-play concept.

Though he said his station is open to the idea, radio program-director Rick Strauss isn't yet convinced that radio stations accepting above-the-board cash for playing certain records is the way to go. After all, the program director for Baltimore's 98 Rock (WIYY-FM) argued, record companies wield hefty advertising budgets. "Maybe we should have a piece of that pie," he said recently.

Although 98 Rock has no specific plans to participate in any so-called

pay-for-play arrangements, Strauss acknowledged that his station is not completely opposed to the concept either.

Strauss has joined radio programmers throughout the country in studying the now historic deal in which Portland's KUFO-FM accepted money from Flip Records to play the Bizkit song 50 times over five weeks. While

proponents call the idea an innovative way to generate money for stations

and publicity for bands, detractors are crying foul, claiming that the arrangement

results in less control for broadcasters and less exposure for independent

labels.

Greg Gillispie, president of B/D&A radio consultants, said most of his

clients are skeptical about signing onto pay-for-play, although many are

interested in learning more about the practice as it develops. "They feel that it does not give them complete control over the programming of their radio station or perhaps forces them to play music that they really may not want to play," said Gillispie, whose Atlanta-based company advises about 50 rock and top-40 stations throughout the country.

Schur countered, however, that no shrewd program director would accept cash

for a song that he or she considered a liability. "It has to feel right, it has to pass the smell test," he said. "These [program directors] aren't going to be small-minded enough to put the credibility of their station at stake by taking money to play something that isn't going to work."

KUFO program-director Dave Numme did not return calls for this story.

Meanwhile, supporters in the broadcast industry say pay-for-play may channel record-label advertising dollars -- which in recent years have shifted from other outlets, according to 98 Rock's Strauss -- back to radio. "Radio is far and away the number one medium for exposing and breaking new music and spurring people to make a music purchase," Strauss said. "Some of the money should be going into that medium."

But pay-for-play is a terrible advertising deal for radio, argue some of

Gillispie's clients. While Flip (and its partner company, Interscope) paid about

$5,000 to "advertise" Limp Bizkit's five-minute "Counterfeit" 50 times,

KUFO could have sold the airtime of those plays -- a total of more than

four hours -- as traditional advertising-time for well over five grand, they said.

Among those most concerned that they'll be losers in the pay-for-play game

are independent record-labels. The success of SoCal rockers the Offspring's 1994 Smash album made commercial radio play an achievable goal for larger indie labels such as Epitaph and Lookout!. Now, however, some labels fear that they won't be able to compete if they're forced to pay for their airtime.

"It can only further the gap between the kind of promotion that independent

labels are able to offer their artists and the kind of promotion that major

labels offer," said Tristin Laughter, advertising director with Lookout!

Records. "Money is already a factor -- it's not a level playing field.

This is an exacerbation of that reality."

Laughter argued, however, that bands are not necessarily made or broken

strictly based on ad budgets, a concept with which Schur wholeheartedly

agreed.

The Flip president said Limp Bizkit had already logged several months of touring with bands such as Korn and House of Pain before radio took an interest in the pay-for-play effort.

"I break my bands from the road," Schur said. "I let the kids discover it

for themselves. That's how bands have credibility, especially in this genre."