During a single week in May, Canadian pop rocker Avril Lavigne’s new song “Don’t Tell Me” aired no fewer than 109 times on Nashville radio station WQZQ-FM.
The heaviest rotation came between midnight and 6 a.m., an on-air no man’s land visited largely by insomniacs, truckers and graveyard shift workers. One Sunday morning, the 3-minute, 24-second song aired 18 times, sometimes as little as 11 minutes apart.
Those plays, or “spins,” helped “Don’t Tell Me” vault into the elite top 10 on Billboard magazine’s national pop radio chart, which radio program directors across the country use to spot hot new tunes.
But what many chart watchers may not know is that the predawn saturation in Nashville -- and elsewhere -- occurred largely because Arista Records paid the station to play the song as an advertisement. In all, sources said, WQZQ aired “Don’t Tell Me” as an ad at least 40 times the week ending May 23, accounting for more than one-third of the song’s airplay on the station.
The “Don’t Tell Me” campaign is part of the latest craze in record promotion, a high-pressure part of the music business in which the labels try to influence which songs reach the air.
In the late 1950s, rock’s earliest days, the industry was hit by a series of payola scandals in which cash bribes were paid to disc jockeys who agreed to play certain songs. That practice was subsequently outlawed, prompting record companies to find more subtle means of currying favor with radio programmers, be it sending them on junkets or handing them concert tickets.
In the latest twist, it’s the radio stations themselves that have been reaching out to the labels, offering to play songs in the form of ads, often in the early morning hours when there tends to be an excess inventory of airtime. The practice is legal as long as the station makes an on-air disclosure of the label’s sponsorship -- typically with an introduction such as “And now, Avril Lavigne’s ‘Don’t Tell Me,’ presented by Arista Records.”
To be sure, “Don’t Tell Me” is a bona fide hit, even without spins being bought and paid for. Radio stations must play a song many thousands of times for it to crack the Billboard top 10. Nonetheless, a few hundred spins here and there can move a song up a place or two in the rankings -- and ensure that it is climbing rather than falling on the charts.
Playing songs as advertising makes “the chart unreliable,” said Garett Michaels, program director of San Diego rock station KBZT-FM. “Basically, the radio station isn’t playing a song because they believe in it. They’re playing it because they’re being paid.”
All five major record corporations have at least dabbled in the sales programs, industry sources said, with some reportedly paying as much as $60,000 in advertising fees to promote a single song.
Interscope Records has purchased spins for the Black Eyed Peas’ song “Hey Mama” in recent weeks, as well as for Sheryl Crow’s “The First Cut Is the Deepest” and Sugababes’ “Hole in the Head,” sources said. Virgin Records has bought advertising time for rock band A Perfect Circle. Lava Records has purchased airplay for singer Cherie, and V2 Records has done the same for Katy Rose.
Representatives for the labels declined to comment.
But one label executive who has purchased airplay, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the idea was clearly to prop up songs long enough for them to attract genuine fans.
“In our business, perception is reality,” he said. “The minute you’re down in spins, these program directors drop the record.”
Michael Ellis, associate publisher of Billboard and sister publication Airplay Monitor, acknowledged his concern about the “legal but nevertheless questionable practice.”
“We take great pride in the accuracy and credibility of our radio charts,” Ellis said. “We are carefully studying this situation and consulting with the industry to determine the proper course of action.”
Still, it remains unclear what Billboard and its main rival, Radio & Records magazine, can do.
They base their charts on information collected by two tracking services, Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems and Mediabase. The tracking services monitor more than 1,000 radio stations around the U.S., using computers or human listeners to identify and tally which songs are being played.
The tracking services say it is not their place to determine whether airplay is legitimate.
“At the end of the day, a certain number of listeners did hear the performance, and that’s what we are reporting back to our users,” Mediabase chief Rich Meyer said.
Besides, Nielsen BDS and Mediabase executives note, radio programmers would be foolish to rely solely on a song’s total spin count to determine its popularity. Other data, such as audience size, are also salient. Programmers must use lots of different indicators “to separate the wheat from the chaff,” said Rob Sisco, head of Nielsen’s music services.
For their part, the radio stations are unapologetic. Whether the charts are a real reflection of a song’s standing with programmers “is not our concern,” said Bud Walters, president of Cromwell Group Inc., which owns WQZQ and 19 other stations. “We’re in the advertising business.”
Al Vicente, president of Archway Broadcasting, which owns 13 stations, took a similar stand: “The labels are an advertiser like anyone else, and they have the right to advertise their product.”
Airplay time for Cromwell and Archway is sold to record labels by an Encino-based independent promotion firm, National Music Marketing. Under its terms, the labels can purchase 21 spins for about $1,200.
Entercom Communications Corp., one of the nation’s biggest broadcasters, with about 100 radio stations, began peddling airtime to labels in 2001 and recently hired an in-house salesperson to promote the program, called CD Preview. Under this arrangement, labels can buy airplay in batches of 42 spins on the company’s six top 40 stations for as much as $3,500 a week, sources said.
Pat Paxton, Entercom’s senior vice president of programming, defended the program as an improvement on past practices.
“Unfortunately, there’s a long, sordid history of things going on the radio for the wrong reasons,” he said. But with songs legally positioned as advertising, the company can help the labels “build a story” on the charts.
In the case of Lavigne’s “Don’t Tell Me,” Arista’s paid advertising during the week ending May 23 made it appear that the song had become more popular with programmers nationwide when, in fact, it had lost some steam. The Billboard chart showed it gaining 156 spins for the week. But if Arista’s ads were removed from the equation, sources said, the song would have dropped about 45 spins.