Chris Uggen's Blog: commodification, payola, and KMOX

Saturday, August 13, 2005

commodification, payola, and KMOX

Market economics and freakonomics have a lot to recommend them. Intellectuals get pretty lathered up, however, about the commodification of art and culture. Can we really blame the tyranny of the market when "good" work gets pushed aside? Economic and cultural sociology have always interested me from afar, so I wish I had the training and conceptual tools that each area employs to get traction on such questions. I came across three loosely related stories in the last month that a good economic sociologist or cultural sociologist should be able to get her head around

1. For better or worse, Gore Vidal's smart-alecky essays on power and inequality kick-started me into sociology as a freshman English major. The last few years I've seen his interviews become lamentations, as he realizes he won't live long enough to see "some sort of civilization take root" in America. I think what he means by "civilization" is a well-educated populace, generally free from material want, with some reasonable "floor" of health care and income that preserve human dignity and connectedness. (He'd say it with much greater panache, of course). By saying we lack a civilization, however, he's also clearly ripping American culture as well as the political and economic choices made by elites. I would probably disagree with Mr. Vidal on the particular contributions of rawk music and baseball to American culture (and civilization), but some aspects of the market can undermine even these peculiarly American contributions.

2. On rawk, I posted last month about Jacob Slichter's dissection of the economics of popular music. The former Semisonic drummer published a Times op-ed recently, weighing in on the New York Attorney General's investigation into payola allegations at Sony.

[The] method of getting airplay circumvents payola laws, which forbid a radio station from accepting a payment to play a song without disclosing that payment to its listeners. Because the promoters pay the stations up front and collect later from record companies, the lines are sufficiently blurred, making it hard to prove that any quid pro quo transaction took place between a label and a station.

I guess no one should be shocked anymore at the commodification of popular music, but I don't think a lot of listeners (or musicians, for that matter) know that the artists are actually paying for the airplay:

I certainly didn't understand it - until my band, Semisonic, found itself flying around the country in 1996, visiting radio stations and ingratiating ourselves to program directors ... Knowing that our record company, MCA, would deduct our promotional expenses from the band's share of future record sales, I kept tabs on our costs after flights, meals, hotels... I estimated we had spent close to $20,000. ... How much had we spent on promotion overall? Close to $500,000... had gone to independent record promoters, gatekeepers who control access to the airwaves. The promoters pay commercial radio stations, putatively to look at their playlists, but in reality, as those in the business know, to get their clients' songs on the air.

My favorite statement on the subject is Neil Young's Payola Blues [clip] from his "Shocking Pinks" rockabilly period.

Well, here's three thousand,that ought to get it on.
Well, thanks a lot man! I love your new song.
Payola blues- No matter where I go, I never hear my record on the radio.

On a not-unrelated subject, Mr. Young's record company sued him for making albums that were not "Neil-Young-like" enough. (Sociology departments can't do that, can they?). In any case, I'm not sure whether payola represents a market distortion or simply a mature market in full flower. Either way, however, the practice dilutes the cultural products that help make us more or less civilized.

3. On baseball, it bugged me (way more than it should have bugged me) that, after 52 years, St. Louis' KMOX had lost the rights to broadcasting Cardinals games. I think the radio term for KMOX is a "flamethrower" because its signal spreads far and wide across the prairies. I would pick it up while driving or doing dishes (hey, its a glamorous life) late at night in Madison or St. Paul. I've never lived anywhere near St. Louis, but I always respected their great baseball tradition, and I always heard it and pictured it at KMOX. Their crews were legendary -- Harry Caray (who made his bones at KMOX well before becoming the Cubs mascot), Jack Buck, and Joe Garagiola called the games in 1954. I did a morning drive interview about some crim research on the station last year and I couldn't believe that the DJ took the opportunity to rib the Minnesota professor about the '87 Twins. I'm sure there are radios in garages and nursing homes whose dial hasn't budged from 1120 AM since Lyndon Johnson's presidency (when Bob Gibson was mowing 'em down and Bob Uecker was just Tim McCarver's backup catcher). Cardinals management said the move simply made financial sense, generating more revenue to field a better team. So, the economic side of me sees this as an acceptable if not salutary example of market efficiency (I mean, people can still hear the games for free on the radio and the Cards get full value for their product), and the cultural meaning side of me sees this as the devil's business.

As a criminologist, my tools work best on the payola example. In this case, the practice clearly violates FCC regulations, whereas the KMOX example is just a question of sentimentality or nostalgia for me. I don't know that either case forestalls development of American civilization, but each shows how the market shapes cultural products that hold meaning for a great many people.


At 2:29 PM, Anonymous chris said...

Hmmm...ceiling fans and cat furniture? I guess I could always use more of those...


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