Musical Tastes and “Freewill”


What’s your favorite radio station?* Turn to it right now and write down what song is playing. Chances are that song will be played – along with a handful of others – ad nauseam throughout the day. There is an equal chance that the record label – not the radio personality – is responsible for how many spins that horrible track receives.

Payola and other forms of relationships between radio staff and labels are no big secret. Even though payola was banned several decades ago, record labels still dictate what songs the lemmings hit play on in the broadcast studio. Our musical tastes were controlled not by some sort of meritocracy in music, but by labels implanting their audible acquisitions into our membrane.

Internet radio like Spotify and Pandora were viewed as a solution to the decades-long problem of being manipulated and lied to. We the people control the content coming at us.


Pandora recently got busted for a modern-day form of payola.

To many, this is a surprise. How dare a company we trusted to give us what we want lie to us! For us adults, it’s the same ol’ song and dance…to a song we probably dance to because Merlin (the company paying off Pandora) audibly violated our eardrums with.

Just like FM radio in the ‘60s used to be a lawless land for rock DJs, the internet is now the Wild Wild West for music programmers. By the nature of the internet, nothing is regulated and completely enforced. Some use the argument of regulation to defend terrestrial radio today, but there are plenty of shenanigans still going on.

Upon hearing from word-of-mouth about bands threatening not to play a radio-sponsored gig without heavy rotation of their music, I reached out to Forbes contributor Nick Messitte, who recently wrote an article titled How Payola Laws Keep Independent Artists Off Mainstream Radio.

I’m not saying that Buzz Beachball lands artists through backroom deals consisting of knocking other bands out of their playlist for heavier rotation, BUT a few red flags will be raised if you hear those bands more often than usual in the weeks leading up to the show.

Just a few days ago, Colorado Public Radio announced they were severing ties with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. According to a Denver Post article:

The CSO, which also underwrites the public-radio outfit for about $50,000 a year, wanted assurances that CPR’s classical station would promote the concerts in a manner that would help sell tickets. One way would be to give out the CSO’s website whenever CPR played its music or interviewed one of its musicians.

The CSO also suggested that the station employ music critics who could attend concerts on Friday nights and broadcast their opinions on Saturday mornings, encouraging customers to come out to hear the same musical program Saturday evenings or Sunday afternoons.

Although, CPR turned down the offer due to their ethics policy, I assure you there are many radio stations out there that do not enforce such policies. In an era where radio is losing terribly to internet technology, any chance to make up for lost advertising revenue will be greeted with open arms, and usually at the expense of the listener experience.

According to a Wall Street Journal story, “The top 10 songs last year were played close to twice as much on the radio than they were 10 years ago, according to Mediabase, a division of Clear Channel Communications Inc. that tracks radio spins for all broadcasters.” Even in 2014 when new technology allows user-driven content, terrestrial radio still lives in a world where we must listen to it for lack of choices.

Many decades ago, the DJ dictated what hit the charts. Much a like a master chef would suggest the best paring for your dish or an attorney would tell you the best legal action to take, the DJ was the music expert that filtered through all the hay to find the metaphorical needle for the literal (record) needle. Stations were owned independently, and station owners put their trust in the DJ’s musical knowledge.

Today, nearly every radio station is owned by a parent corporation who runs dozens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of other stations. The dollar, not the entertainment, is the bottom line. Labels and billboard charts dictate the playlist. Instead of music experts choosing the bands, Personal People Meters, surveys and focus groups identify what people want to hear by some algorithm designed by engineers.

Studies reveal that we like what we are familiar with, so let’s keep pumping that same alt-J song into the ether!

You think you are hearing the best music for you, but are you really? Are you in complete control of your musical decisions? If you are getting your options from a middleman – radio, apps, etc. – a corporation with a personal investment in the band is probably behind your “freewill.”

In 2014, no one is truly “breaking new bands.” Go ahead and #ListenLonger. I guarantee you that your favorite stations are not playing the music that is best for YOU.


* Note to younger readers: A radio station is that sound coming out of your mom’s Pathfinder.


This week on Soundtrack of the Week, we discuss with Ferguson grand jury decision with a former prosecutor, 30-something-year-olds beer pong, Pandora & Payola, hipster pizza in KC and more!

Update, December 4th, 2014, 2:45 p.m. CST: Your media player can also manipulate your “choice” in bands.

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