Jango Airplay: Pay-for-play isn't effective

Pay-for-play has been around ever since the first kid in a garage wanted a quick and easy way to become a rock star. It never works.

Yes, beginning bands need to do some marketing, and sometimes this requires an outlay of money.

In the old days, it was going to Kinko's to print fliers and postcards for your mailing list. Now it's registering a domain name, building your own Web site, or establishing an online store to sell downloads, CDs, and merchandise (though there are more and more ways to do this with no money up front, like Audiolife and Routenote).

If only success were that easy. Jango

There's a slippery slope between these necessary expenses and one of the oldest scams in the music industry: pay-for-play. The idea's been around ever since there have been kids in garages who want a quick and easy path to rock stardom, and there are many variations on the theme: meaningless "showcases" or "battles of the bands" that are open to anybody who pays an entry fee, requirements for the performer to buy a big block of tickets to resell, services that place your songs on "compilation" CDs that are supposedly sent to record labels or radio stations, complicated online multilevel marketing schemes...if you can think of it, it's been done.

Earlier this week, Jango introduced a new program called Artist Airplay that offers a very straightforward proposition: the more you pay, the more you'll get played on Jango's Web radio stations. If enough listeners vote that they like you, you'll get placed into regular rotation.

Forget for a moment whether payola is fair to music listeners. Payola--like other forms of pay-for-play--is bad for artists. Even if your music's great, the conflict of interest makes you suspect. If you were any good, couldn't you get noticed some other way? (Of course, the original payola was conducted in secret, which eliminated listeners' ability to make this distinction. That's why it's illegal.)

The inherent conflict in pay-for-play is why the audience at those gigs consists of the band's friends, people bribed with cheap drinks, and the other bands who are also waiting to play--not music fans who actually buy music and go to lots of shows. That's why those "compilation" CDs go immediately from the envelope to the trash can--not into heavy rotation or an artist and repertoire agent's office.

In the case of Jango, listeners now know that some portion of the music they're hearing was selected not because an editor liked it, not because some algorithm calculated its similarity with other songs, not because it was popular with other listeners who have similar tastes, but simply because the artist paid for it.

This tarnishes the entire service with a distinct air of "suck"--which is too bad, since I actually liked Jango when I tried it a little more than a year ago. Who'd pay for that kind of exposure? I know that times are hard, and Web radio needs new sources of revenue, but asking musicians to pony up for plays is no way to build a serious, long-lasting business.

Here's the deal, musicians: if you want to make a living playing music, somebody should be paying you for your music. Not the other way around. If nobody's buying, consider it a hobby, not a career.