How Songs Become Popular


I don't know what you were doing at 12, but I was rapidly turning the dial on my grandmother's radio wondering how songs got on the radio. As an adult, I finally figured it out, and it's depressing.

I started my research on this piece by asking the question, "Why do we hear the same handful of songs on the radio over and over?" What I learned from talking to music industry insiders was what most people have suspected: the breadth of the music industry's systemic bias against independent artists is astonishing.

To understand why we hear the same songs on the radio, you must first understand how songs get on the radio in the first place.

So how do you get your song on the radio? I Googled it. Here's the thing: If you Google "how to promote your music on the radio," you'll find a wealth of information on the process.

Some experts recommend that you:

  1. Build out your radio add four weeks in advance

  2. Press up single packages, press art, press releases, etc.

  3. Mail your CD package to radio program directors in target radio markets

  4. Pray to all the gods in the universe that the program director likes your song

  5. Enjoy a boatload of spins, and you'll live happily ever after in fame and fortune

By now, I'm guessing you know this isn't really how radio works.

Independent artists who send songs for consideration on commercial radio will calcify while waiting for airplay. Depending on timing or the sheer mechanics of serendipity, it's possible to earn airplay organically.

But radio insiders say this is extremely rare.

It's almost impossible to gain radio airplay without going through powerful gatekeepers. The route to radio involves private dinners, discreet meetings, briefcases and invoices.

Commercial Radio is Big Business

Once upon a time in radioland, disc jockeys (DJs) played whatever they liked.

Once radio became big business, everything changed. The era of play-what-you like gave way to the era of radio "independent consultants." Consultants introduced a six-letter concept familiar to every artist, label rep, A&R, and radio head: payola.


 undercover or indirect payment (as to a disc jockey) for a commercial favor (as for promoting a particular recording)

– Merriam-Webster

The word payola*,  a contraction of "pay" and "-ola," first appeared in a 1938 Variety article. Payola's history, however, dates back to the 1800s. In those days, song pluggers were hired by music publishers to promote sheet music. A song plugger would barge into a store and urge the manager to buy their songs.

Unlike their modern day counterparts (radio pluggers), song pluggers were also musicians. As part of their sales pitch, the song plugger would jump behind a piano and demonstrate or preview the song. Over time, the term "plugger" evolved to denote independent promoters who on behalf of record labels.

Payola has many aliases. It was once known as the "fifty dollar handshake." The nickname stemmed from the industry practice of paying at least $50 for airplay. In those days, a song booster would palm a $50 bill to a DJ disguised as a handshake.

How Record Labels Circumvent Payola

In 1960, as payola grew in force, a federal law barred record companies from offering undisclosed incentives in exchange for airplay. Because of this law, it is illegal for record labels to pay for play and for radio stations to play for pay. So how do both parties skirt around payola? They bring in a buffer: the independent promoter.

How Payola Works Today

An independent promoter (or indie) approaches a radio station owner or manager and offers them a fixed annual payment for "consultation" or "promotional support." Insiders say this figure is between $50,000 and $100,000, depending on market size.

"Indies align themselves with certain radio stations by promising the stations ‘promotional payments’ in the six figures. Then, every time the radio station adds a Shaggy or Madonna or Janet Jackson song to its playlist, the indie gets paid by the record label," Eric Boehlert wrote in a 2001 Salon article.

Once the indie has established an exclusive arrangement with the radio station, he or she reaches out to various record labels and informs them of this relationship with said radio station. The indie offers to plug the record label's songs on the radio. If recruited, the indie becomes the bridge between the label and the station.

Everything an indie does centers around the radio station's add date. During weekly adds^, the indie sends songs to the radio station and pays a spin fee to get it added to the station's playlist. Once the song is added, the indie reports back to the label and submits an invoice for each add. 

In the early days of payola, around 1950s or so, DJs would plug songs for the price of a latte. In Controversies of the Music Industry, Richard D. Barnet and Larry L. Burriss write: "Some DJs asked for a modest amount, such as $5 per spin. Others preferred an agreed-upon amount, usually $50 to $100, per week. In exchange for the weekly payments, the labels could expect to have all their records played on air." But that was the 50s. In the words of Dr. Dre, things done changed.

Today, it's almost impossible to secure a radio add (i.e. add a song to a radio station's playlist) for less than $1000. "I know of someone who tried paying what he thought was a standard $1000. It was not accepted," says Germar Derron, a former music marketer who has pitched songs to radio stations.

A document I obtained from a radio insider confirmed that many radio stations across various markets charge between $1000 and $1800 per add.

A typical add gets you 5-10 spins or 7-20 spins per week, depending on the depth of your pockets.

Let's do the math. Assuming you're adding a song to 10 small-market stations at $1000 a pop and 10 medium-market stations at $1500, you're looking at $25,000 for one song. Big-market radio stations (e.g. Radio One and iHeartMedia stations) charge between $50,000 and $75,000, offers one source.

Indies typically bill the record label twice the add fee. (Record companies, in turn, pass on the cost to artists.) Staying with the example above, the indie pays $25,000 to the radio station and bills the record label $50,000 in this scenario. And that's just one add.

Indie promoters generate additional income through spin maintenance fees, weekly retainer fees and promotional support expenses. Seasoned indies make around $500,000 a year to add songs to rotation.

  • See Also: The Biggest Payola Scandals in Music History

Most independent artists can't afford the cost of airplay. Worse, radio adds don't guarantee prime-time rotation. Or semi-prime-time rotation. Or even playlisting. Independent artists are typically relegated to the midnight playlist when most listeners are, well...snoozing.

"The problem with getting on late shows is you don't get enough spins," says Paul Porter, former BET Program Director and founder of Rap Rehab.

Want more spins? Pony up for a slot on the highly coveted drive-time** playlist. Want to keep your song in rotation? Pay additional spin maintenance fees. It takes an insane amount of spins to break a single.

For instance, popular tunes, like Nicki Minaj's "Truffle Butter" and Taylor Swift's "Blank Spaces," typically earn around 120 radio spins per week. These songs remain in rotation on the strength of their perceived popularity.

The cost of (air quotes) radio promotion is staggering. According to a 2014 IFPI study, record labels spend between $500,000 and $2 million to break a new artist. An estimated $200,000 - $700,000 of this sum are designated to marketing and promotion costs.

Typical Record Company Investment on a New Artist

  • Advance: $50,000 - $350,000

  • Recording: $150,000 - $500,000

  • Video Production:  $50,000 - $300,000

  • Tour Support:  $50,000 - $150,000

  • Marketing and Promotion:  $200,000 - $700,000

  • TOTAL: $500,000 - $2,000,000

The Big Payoff

Payola has grown more sophisticated over the years. Aside from offering outright cash to program directors for airplay, record labels also offer contest giveaways, free tickets and gifts to radio stations. This is also a form of payola, but it's harder to prove.

"There are so many ways that corporations dominate playlists," says Paul Porter, who manages the rapper C-PO. "They're going to sponsor your summer jam and give you their top five artists. And you're going to make more money off that than playing a hot record. "

Germar Derron, who pitched songs to radio stations, adds: "They [record labels] come in and say things like, 'You'll want to play this Artist's song—it's huge in the clubs, and Artist  will be here next week in your studio to promote it. And we're giving you ten tickets to his concert...for your listeners.'  It can't be pay for play, which is payola and illegal, but it's as close as you can get to it."

Whatever form payola takes, the reality remains that record labels are practically making radio programming decisions. And because both parties never exchange money and services directly, payola as we know it today is legally permissible.

Forms of payola:

  • Cash payments

  • Gifts

  • Gift cards

  • Paid trips for radio employees

  • Luxurious dinners for radio employees

  • Prostitutes

  • Drugs

  • Corporate sponsorships

  • Artist appearances (interviews, performances, etc.)

  • Free concert tickets

  • Access to industry soirees

Many independent artists, as well as a few established artists, are denied access to radio airplay unless they succumb to payola. Program directors say they are forced to play popular artists in order to remain competitive. Every PD has memorized this line like the numbers to a winning lottery ticket.

Independent recording artist Rukus recalls a meeting with Cindy Hill, then program director at San Antonio's 98.5 The Beat. Hill liked Rukus' material, but she explained that airplay was out of the question because of "the pressure to play the major label music that the audience knows."

"I asked her how the audience would ever know anything new," says Rukus. Hill replied: "If I take a chance on you, my competitors will be playing a Top 100 song and I'll lose listeners in that moment. It will be my job on the line for taking that chance on you." (Hill did not respond to my request for an interview.)

Radio stations believe that listeners stay tuned when they hear familiar songs and change the dial when they hear an unfamiliar tune. Indeed, the familiarity principle is why we return again and again to music we've already heard over and over. Yet, the right amount of dollars can sway any PD's playlist decision.

Sponsored by the Deepest Pockets

Radio stations are legally required to disclose that the records you hear are paid for, but they generally don't do this. If they did, you'd turn on the radio and hear something like, "By the way, this next Nicki Minaj song was paid for by Universal Records. Shout out to Cash Money Records." 

Here's the FCC's current rule on payola disclosure:

  • When a broadcast licensee has received or been promised payment for the airing of program material, then, at the time of the airing, the station must disclose that fact and identify who paid for or promised to pay for the material. All sponsored material must be explicitly identified at the time of broadcast as paid for and by whom, except when it is clear that the mention of a product or service constitutes sponsorship identification;

  • Any broadcast station employee who has accepted or agreed to accept payment for the airing of program material, and the person making or promising to make the payment, must disclose this information to the station prior to the airing of the program;

  • Any person involved in the supply, production or preparation of a program who receives or agrees to receive, or makes or promises to make payment for the airing of program material, or knows of such arrangements, must disclose this information prior to the airing of the program. Broadcast licensees must make reasonable efforts to obtain from their employees and others they deal with for program material the information necessary to make the required sponsorship identification announcements;

  • The information must be provided up the chain of production and distribution before the time of broadcast, so the station can air the required disclosure; and

  • These rules apply to all kinds of program material aired over broadcast radio and television stations. Some of the rules also may apply to cablecasts.

A new petition by a group of radio behemoths, including iHeartMedia, Cox and Emmis Communications, is urging the FCC to waive the current disclosure policy in lieu of online disclosures. The broadcasters claim that putting the list of paying companies online would grant listeners "access to more information in a user-friendly and satisfying way."

If radio stations were to disclose that the songs we hear are bought and paid for by record labels, would this change our perception of payola? More importantly, how would online disclosures affect what we hear on the radio?

Industry advocates call horse dung. "If this were to happen, it would seal the deal for commercial radio just being a closed system for large media companies to promote their products," Casey Rae, head of the Future of Music Coalition, tells the New York Times.

Safe and Sound

I know music lovers who loathe radio—they complain endlessly about the bland programming, the exclusion of independent acts, the Aunt Jemima-flavored playlists—and yet are just as clearly obsessed with it. So why do we still tune in?

This is partly because of the mere exposure effect. The mere exposure effect is a term coined by psychologists to describe why we develop an affinity to things merely because we're familiar with them. You frequent the same bar, hang around the same group of friends, order the same meal at your favorite restaurant because there's comfort in familiarity. Similarly, the mere act of repeated exposure to new songs brings us closer to those songs.

Put another way: If I give you a stick of celery with your meal every day and tell you that it's delicious, you'll start to like celery. After a while, you'll want celery with every meal. I don't know where I'm going with this, but I don't  like celery. Celery is the most nothingness-tasting thing ever. Radio music is celery+.

Blame Bill Clinton

Another cogent explanation is that our options are limited. The same handful of media conglomerates control thousands of radio stations and access to millions of listeners.

In February 1996, President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the most radical transformation of United States telecommunications laws in 60 years. One major drawback of the Act was Title III (Cable Services), which erased the cap on the number of radio stations a company could own.

Although the law's goal was deregulation of converging media markets, the effect was an unprecedented surge in consolidation of radio ownership. It allowed a few sharks to devour the squids.Vertical integration reduced fair market competition for independent artists and tightened big radio's grip on airplay. It virtually eliminated competition.

The Collective Conformity

Payola is not a sustainable system. Contrary to popular belief, record labels don't want to spend millions of dollars on radio promotion. Artists don't want to incur these huge expenses. Program directors, though enticed by the economic viability, don't want payola scandals hovering over their heads like the Sword of Damocles. All parties involved are held hostage by their own process.

A process created by radio stations, indies and record labels is under constant threat, but fear of the unknown keeps everyone in the collective conformity. And it's likely to stay that way until someone breaks out from the mob and creates a new collective conformity.

So What's the Alternative?

Radio monopoly fosters monotony and smothers the possibility for innovation. But it's easier to gripe about radio than it is to get rid of it. Radio is still a fount of hits. Many independent artists would give their left pinky for a chance to be heard on the airwaves because radio is still the most familiar way to "break" an act today. Radio won't disappear. As long as there are still cars, radio will be a thing.

The challenge, then, isn't merely to replace radio with new alternatives. The challenge is to acknowledge that the radio experience desperately needs a shake-up. The challenge is to create an atmosphere of market competition and creativity. The challenge is to make the audience a part of the journey, perhaps with opportunities for personalization. The challenge is to promote a diverse listening experience that spans the classics and the guilty pleasures; the indies and the majors; the superstar and the underdog.

Radio stations could start by reserving one or two slots on their weekly playlists for independent records and the handful of major artists who don't necessarily make radio-friendly singles.

The emergence of music streaming platforms, like Pandora, Spotify, Beats and , makes it impossible for radio to ignore the competition. If radio spiraled into oblivion, people would still find out about new music. The idea of terrestrial radio as a source of music discovery—the idea that people will always rely on radio for new music—is on the run.

"Traditional radio will die, right along with television," proclaims Derron. "Radio will move online.  Music in cars will be Pandora-like or ad-free subscription services. Everything will be highly customized and/or on-demand."

People are still tuning in, but radio listenership is on the decline. Meanwhile, digital streaming is on the rise. About 53% of Americans now listen to online radio, according to a study by Edison Research and Triton Digital.

The problem with radio is that it pretends that the Internet didn't happen, that in-car Wi-Fi didn't happen, that smartphones didn't happen, that Satellite radio didn't happen, that music streaming didn't happen. It's time for radio to start remembering.


^ An add is a song that has been added to a radio station's playlist, usually in exchange for payment. Sorta like an ad. Some stations add 2-3 new songs each week.

*Drive time is when radio listenership is at its peak. Drive times coincide with rush hour when most *people are listening to the radio in their car. Morning rush hour ranges from 6 am to 10 am, while after rush hour ranges from 3 pm to 7 pm.

* Payola is a cousin of pianola, itself a contraction of "piano" and "viola." Pianola was a term used to describe piano players in the early 20th century. Pianola's popularity inspired several words ending in -ola, including Victrola, plugola and payola.

+ I wouldn't mind celery if I could also eat some hot wings every now and then.