Major Label CEO Confirms That ‘Playlist Payola’ Is a Real Thing…

Playlist Payola Is Killing Your Career...If you don’t sign with my label, you won’t get onto my playlist.

If you’re looking for an industry cliché, here’s a good one: ‘playlists are the new radio.’  And like most clichés, it’s partly true: playlists on platforms like Spotify are not only a major vehicle for discovery, they are also a huge way to build a song’s popularity and an artist’s career.  For many music listeners, it’s the only way they’ll hear something new (or old).

The only problem is that the biggest playlists on Spotify aren’t organic, they’re bought-and-sold like radio playlists of old.  Which means it’s nearly impossible to get discovered with great music alone (just like before).

So who makes the decisions on who gets into that heavily-trafficked playlist, and who gets left off?  Those decisions appear increasingly controlled by three major labels: Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and Warner Music Group, a group that collectively owns a very substantial ownership share of not just Spotify, but other platforms like VEVO, a critical component of the largest streaming service in the world, YouTube.

Recent comments from Warner Music Group CEO Stephen Cooper all-but-confirm those lingering suspicions.  “In the past it was about radio play, weekly charts and sales — now it’s a minute-by-minute battle for people’s time and attention,” Cooper told Billboard in an interview this week.

“So playlisting is one of the big reasons why artists need record labels today.”

Strangely, it was Billboard itself that exposed the racket a few months ago, with information about inside operators, pay-for-play price tags, and other dirty aspects of modern-day payola.  “Spots on many of the largest Spotify playlists are already controlled by the three major music companies, which each own a branded property that curates playlists of many styles and genres,” asserted Billboard journalist Glenn Peoples in a piece sharply critical of the practice and its major label controllers.

Peoples even cited sources inside the major labels to affirm that payola — for playlists — definitely exists.  “Pay for play ‘is definitely ­happening,’ claims a major label marketing executive, one of several who say that popular playlists can and have been bought,” People wrote.

Welcome to ‘playlist payola,’ the modern-day equivalent to old school payoffs of radio station deejays.  And just like the old days, there are specific prices for spins.  Peoples cited a source stating “$2,000 for a playlist with tens of thousands of fans,” up to to “$10,000 for the more well-followed playlists”.

“And these practices are not illegal, although it would be difficult to find an official policy in the fine print,” the report continued (Peoples no longer works at Billboard).


The deeper question is whether independent labels and unsigned artists are getting squeezed out entirely.  Enter independent label organization Merlin, whose chief Charles Caldas has been accused of orchestrating his own version of payola — with Pandora.  According to accusations leveled by high-profile artist champion David Lowery, direct negotiations between Merlin and Pandora not only include preferential rates, but preferential spins, as well.  “They’re giving a discount in exchange for airplay,” Lowery told NPR in late 2014.

“So essentially you’re being advertised to without you knowing it.”


Press clipping by Neil Rogers, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0).



33 Responses

  1. TraciWellz

    Payola has been a common practice since the beginning of radio in mid 1900’s. Nothing to see here.

    • Remi Swierczek

      I totally agree!
      In desperate times when you cannot sell the music directly you have to make fake activity AROUND SEMI-SHITY PRODUCTION so you can switch to LIVIE CASH!

      (Any insider, please report how live is tied in to artist contract.)

      • Remi Swierczek

        It was early 1900s. Even subscriptions started in 1927 by BBC and to this day most of the Europeans pay mandatory Radio/TV subscriptions. Folks in Norway, Sweden or Austria pay $30/month to listen to Radio!!! (This why Spotify RELIGION was born in Sweden) Still, music industry or musicians get little or nothing from those

        MUSIC has to become merchandise again or HUNGER GAMES will go on!

        Larry Page, the Master MONK of digital medieval, have some honor and fresh
        DESIRE for MOONSHOTS then shake up this music NERD LAND so you can TRIPLE your GOOGLE by 2025!

        • Remi Swierczek

          LAST note for all 3 confused label CEOs. PLAY LIST should be and UNMARKED teaser (on streaming, radio, car, bar, restaurant or elevator) FORCING today’s FREELOADER to payment for ADDITION to his own playlist!

          NO other way around!

          Welcome to Discovery Moment Media Monetization!
          Where’re you Larry, the MONK of digital era?
          You Google is a sandbox comparing to music and “other media” monetization potential.

        • Big Ron

          I realise yours is a semi-coherent, ill-informed rant but for your information, in the UK every household with a TV (or a number of TV’s) has to pay a ‘TV Licence Fee’ of £145 per year.

          This fee covers the cost of BBC national and local television, national and local radio, online services and BBC world service radio.

          The three big radio music stations (1, 2 & 6Music (online)) are incredibly important to the music business in the UK – they play a much wider range of music than the commercial alternatives, offer live exposure through sessions and live concerts and we don’t have to sit through any advertising.

          The stations also pay performance revenue, as any commercial station would do.

          It’s not perfect, but add in the spoken word/news stations and the fabulous Radio 4 and it’s a fantastic offering, probably unmatched anywhere in the world.

          If you do bother to reply, please at least make it readable.

    • no sigh

      I’ve always hated this type of reaction: “Oh, old news.” The jaded, “everyone knows this” sigh, the “it’s the way of the world” stance.

      You almost always see this as the first comment about a whistleblower type of comment. It derails any talk of change from the start. I’ve often wondered it — especially in the case of political news — if these comment come from “insiders” who want to weakne the impact of the news. (“Of course the candidate has had affairs, that’s old news!” “Of course the NSA spys on you, that’s old news”).

  2. Jon Topper

    All for Payola. Just need to get back to paying to put good music back on the radio like they did in the 50’s 60’s and 70’s. Would they be having the Megafestival on Coachella grounds if it was not for payola. Probably not. would a band like Wilco be as big as Tom Petty if payola worked like it did in the 70’s an 80’s. I would say yes.

    • Paul Resnikoff
      Paul Resnikoff

      Certainly, there’s an entire discussion over whether payola should be illegal on radio, or deemed unethical. Walk into a supermarket, and every placement on every shelf is paid for. Why don’t we care that Wheaties is right in front of our (5’10”) noses, but Wheat Puffs are one two inches above the ground? It’s the exact same principle.

      • Troglite


        IMHO, payola is only a problem when it’s opaque. Listeners should be aware that what they are listening to is controlled, in part or in whole, by financial sponsors. Similarly, artists and managers should be able to know what spots can be purchased to reach a particular audience and what the cost of doing so would be.

      • Markiel

        Payola SHOULD be illegal

        What is payola (one situation) under current laws on many countries:
        1-You pay the station to play your music
        2-The station play your music
        3-The story ends here

        What is NOT payola (and so totally legal) under current laws on many countries:
        1-You pay the station to play your music
        2-The station play your music
        3-After the song is played the station says “this song was advertised by label or artist X”
        4-Story ends here.

        The question is: Why do you specifically not want to tell the listeners you paid the station to put your song there?

  3. Rap Beats Online

    Crazy but obvious. Who didn’t know this was going on????

  4. JTVDigital

    What did Stephen Cooper say exactly? That Warner (just like any other major label and big indie and others) has a “playlisting team”:
    “It’s cliché but you can have the best playlisting team in the world but…”
    And so what? This is called influencer marketing. Is there anything wrong / bad about that?
    Traditionally this is the job of publicists / PR people to pitch music to the media, radio stations, etc.
    In the streaming world, you have teams dedicated to pitch tracks to playlist owners for trying to place these songs on their playlists. But I can tell you that it’s not easy at all to get a song featured, and it’s not about money; 99% of playlists owners / tastemakers are not accepting any money. They will feature the song if they like it. Period.

    • Shlomo

      You occasionally contribute coments that make sense. This is not one of those times

    • Troglite

      Seems intuitively obvious that legitimate marketing efforts and shall we call them “borderline” payola practices will BOTH occur within the marketplace. Hasn’t that prerty much always been the case?

  5. indiemono

    Unfortunately, this is how it works nowadays or how it remains (like some kind of renovation that it’s actually not). However, we shouldn’t forget there’s good people in this business, or trying to be part of it. People that really cares about music, supporting new bands and artists, curating with love, although their great and sane skills are being hidden and unrecognized. Let’s bet for good and real changes, let’s try to discover and support great musicians, not because of their bank accounts, just because of their music. #beyondplaylists #indiemono

    ”The engine that propels good curators is their passion for music, and their playlists’ quality will be given by their qualities as curators, integrity being one of the most important among them”

    • etc etc

      If you’re doing such independent work, why are you still focussed entirely around Spotify? An artist has to be on Spotify for you to even listen to their music. That, to me, makes me wonder if you’re just another arm of the beast.

      • indiemono

        no, I’m not. And I’m not only focused on Spotify, We curate playlists in other streaming services and we would do it in any other places, webs, radios with no problem.

        • etc etc

          oK, excellent. I just went to your page and the only submission link I saw possible was to submit a link to a band’s spotify uploads.

  6. Carl

    Soo maybe the model is this… starve out indie content providers with sub-subsitence streaming rates, while pushing streaming to consumers, while, major label content creators, while invested in said streaming service wait until the competitive aesthetics are starved out, thennnnn argue with their powerful lobbying wing to increase streaming rates. Anyone else seeing this when they look at the last 10 years or so? Indie’s winning Grammy’s, the “millenial” market coming of age and the staid major aesthetics not knowing what to do about it, and then figuring this out?

  7. hippydog

    well. this totally explains why I have always hated both Spotify’s and Deezer’s so called recommended or “editor lists”..
    I’m not crazy those lists are just really bad..
    they are not curated just paid for. ??

    • Troglite

      They have a policy. Is it enforceable?

      Seems like payola and paid placement have always existed, at least in my lifetime. Not sure digital changes that. Although i can see how several applications of that technology could bring more transparency or change the balance.

  8. DJ Grim

    More people need to subscribe to my playlists then. Nobody pays me to get onto them.

    Of course, you would listen to my playlist to find music to put on your own. And the playlists of others.

  9. Soupy

    How “substantial” is the label ownership in Spotify? I thought it was less than 5% with Universal selling their interest. Also what about Discover Weekly which I love and so do many others. I get a new playlist each week and most of the bands aren’t on any of the big 3.

  10. Fred Milton Olsen

    Nearly ALL public radio stations and even the “community” stations have gone to a model where they SELL the music you’re listening to. If that’s not a form of payola, I don’t know what is.


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