Laidback Luke pens an op-ed about how payola is stunting dance music
Industry heavyweights in their respective fields have recently been harnessing the power of the pen. President Barack Obama submitted a letter to the editor of the New York Times, for instance, and superstar DJ Laidback Luke published an op-ed in Billboard addressing payola’s place in dance music.
Payola is technically an illegal practice of record labels, where a bribe is exchanged for casting a product — track, album, concert, anything — in an artificially positive light. This is unavoidable in today’s era of primarily 360 deals, where labels profit from artists’ gigs, Laidback Luke laments. If rewarding customers’ Beatport purchases with money or gifts like headphones and tickets equates in a higher Beatport position for the artist, and therefore a more thriving career, labels are at a disadvantage to not engage in this behavior if everyone else is.
“My label Mixmash Records decided to give this a go earlier this year and offered a full refund in return for a purchase receipt. For some reason, this action drew a bunch of complaints and Beatport decided this was considered chart manipulation. So they deleted the sales result from the chart, which kicked us out of their top 100. Surprisingly, Beatport does not communicate what their rules are when they refer to chart manipulation, nor do they respond to other similar cases, which are allowed to remain in the charts.”
Payola extends beyond income and chart positions, Luke explains, and can dictate gigs that an artist can or cannot play. Payola helps determine artists’ clout, which can be more influential than a dollar tag. In these discussions between agents, managers, and promoters, the upper hand unsurprisingly often goes to the player with the most recognizable names. Beatport charts, Facebook likes, DJ Mag Top 100 positions, and other factors are currency in these negotiations, which is why so much time, money and effort goes into boosting those numbers.
“I’m currently doing an Asia tour, and one of the promoters told me that if she wanted to book a bigger-name DJ from a certain agency, she was often forced to book a smaller DJ — so-called packaging. I sometimes get tweets from fans asking me why I can’t come play in their favorite city, and in certain cases, that’s due to what festivals I’m playing. Due to the size and competitive nature of the festival industry, we DJs are often bound to exclusivity and territory restrictions that can cover various states or even countries, as well as any type of performance. For instance, at times I can’t play for a club run by a competing promoter for up to half a year after a festival took place — even if the festival promoter has no club available to me. Sometimes this means I can’t play a cool underground club for a few hundred hard-core fans if I want to play a festival main stage for 50,000 people. Both are important to do though, so it frustrates me.”
With the boom of EDM and the festival industry, and the increased presence of corporate investment, promoters receive many offers that they can’t refuse, which explains the prevalence of so many virtually-identical festival lineups. With this many hurdles to keep this complicated numbers game in place, there is barely any room for organic demand to determine billing, or fans to encourage new artists enough to garner their booking.
“We need quality artists and real talent to sustain this industry. Even from a purely economic perspective, what is happening makes little to no sense. We are not nurturing enough resources to sustain a reliable output. I’m a positive guy, and it’s all about passion in the end. Festivals like Tomorrowland, EDC and Ultra broke through because their passion for details was genuine. We are walking a thin line here by having this big, corporate takeover without a vision for keeping the scene alive. I, for one, am willing to fight for the real art of DJing. And I try and spread the word around how awesome it is to be able to produce and master tracks by myself and encourage others to do so too.”
The build of the bubble of EDM, and speculation on its inevitable burst, has been making headlines recently, and not just in dance music media. By explaining some back-end aspects of this bloated equation, Laidback Luke has opened the door for fans and industry folk alike to understand why this current balance is tenuous and to demand change.
“We all need to understand what’s going on and be part of this debate. Everyone needs to decide their individual role in this. Keep an eye out for real talent, real passion and nurture and develop that. Phonies won’t bring us quality, and they won’t sustain the scene. I’m not just only talking about DJs, but promoters, agents, managers, bookers and radio too. Everyone has their part to play. It’s all our responsibility to step it up and let it grow, rather than let it sink.”