One of the most contentious issues regarding radio and airplay in Trinidad and Tobago, besides the general lack of it, is paying to get your music played on the airwaves. Scenario goes like this: you go by Deejay X who plays on Radio Station Y. The Deejay says “it have potential eh, but bless mih with something and we go pump it. I mean, you have to invest in yuhself.” Sounds about right? The reality however is even though paying for radio play or payola is illegal in the US, the practice of paying to get on radio is alive and well and more normal than you think. In fact, the big labels all pay radio to get their top artistes play.
Now you may ask, how can one pay for airplay when it’s illegal? Well, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Record labels in the US simply pay third party ‘record promoters’ to push the songs to radio. These promoters in turn, handle program directors some ‘dust’ with the assurance that certain songs are pumped on a regular interval. So technically, there aren’t playing for radio play. Of course this doesn’t no guarantee that your song will be a hit. But it does give the top performers the best possible chance. Unless you have a Gangnam Style viral hit, this is the only way you will smell the top radio stations in the US.
This is the known and accepted culture in other parts of the world. The reason why artistes get so angry about it in Trinidad and Tobago is because we believe a dream that radio play is based on merit. Now I’m not saying that you should pay to get airplay. As a matter of fact, as you will read below, I believe you definitely shouldn’t. Not because of morals but because of logic – it doh make sense. But what you should appreciate is the nature of the beast. Based on how radio makes money, these things will come up so don’t be surprised.
Other than paying record promoters, another way artistes end up paying for airplay is when you work with a publicist. Now a publicist cannot guarantee you airplay but through their connections they can put you within striking distance. As part of their role, they will organize radio interviews which puts you in proximity to receive rotation. In Trinidad this type of “paying for play” is pretty common. Based on the other activities that a publicist does, this is on paper is a valid transaction. However, most publicists sell artiste vivid dreams and promise more than they actually can deliver. With zero accountability. Beware of these corbeaux.
With all that being said, there are a few things I want you to take from it. First off, it’s not easier to get on radio anywhere else in the world. That’s a myth that has been spreading in T+T for some time. Radio is about making money from ads. You don’t get played unless you can prove you have a significant legion of fans to bring to the platform. To listen to ads. Even if you pay, you won’t get regular airplay unless your song is a hit. They will take your money and play your song in middle of the night. Sound familiar? Or once then never again.
Secondly, if you’re an upcoming artiste, it makes even less sense to pay for airplay. Again, if you don’t have an established fan base they won’t play you. Take that money and invest in studio time. Make use of social media and start generating a buzz. If you can’t make a buzz on social media you won’t get played on radio regardless of how much money you pay. This scenario is exactly how you get artistes quarreling about getting played in the night and other off times. You paid to get played right? Lol.
Thirdly, make music for people, not radio. Pay attention to trends but don’t be a trend hopper. Be confident in your brand and your music. Things come in cycles. Once your music is good and you focus on your fan base of REAL people, your turn will come.
And lastly, if you don’t get radio play…so what? There are other platforms emerging, take advantage of them. The idea is to make money from your art. Getting heard on radio just gives you a megaphone to reach more people. But there are other megaphones. Seek them out and build your tribe.