A new report from Rolling Stone has reportedly obtained damaging messages, which alleges pay-for-play practices between radio promoter Steve Zap, who denies the allegations and major record label executives. Two of the big three record labels, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group, have launched investigations in response to the Rolling Stone piece, while the remaining big label, Universal Music Group, released a statement in response to these claims.
Rolling Stone alleges that they have around 2,500 text messages involving Zap and major label executives, which allegedly “refer to conversations with major label executives about promotional giveaways and payments to a radio station in connection with airplay – practices that have supposedly been banned.”
One of these alleged messages from Zap states: “Tell me when you move up stuff. I could have billed on Khalid and BSB moving up.” During the month that text was sent Khalid had a pair of singles on the Hot AC chart, while the Backstreet Boys’ “No Place” hovered outside the Top 20. None of the artists mentioned in these texts had any contact with Zap, according to Rolling Stone, as performers rarely get involved in radio campaigns.
Rolling Stone’s report claims that labels use the phrase “billing” and “promo” for these alleged practices. In one case Rua’s “Gasoline” began climbing toward a top 30 AC hit, not long after Zap allegedly sent a text regarding the duo’s plays. “Please put Rua into 50 spin rotation,” Zap allegedly texted. “Just for 6 weeks. I can use the billing … Mostly nights and overnights of course … This is how I will get the bills paid until we make money.”
Zap vehemently denies any wrongdoing, and told Rolling Stone that these texts were taken and misrepresented by a disgruntled former employee. “I try to sell radio station program directors on the merits of my clients’ music, and to make friends with program directors at various stations — always within legal bounds,” Zap told the publication.
The practice of paying for radio plays, previously known as payola, has been against the FCC regulations since the 1930s; but several loopholes have been exposed in the decades since these regulations. While radio stations are legally allowed to play songs on the radio in exchange for payment, this must be disclosed adjacent to a recordings broadcast.
One of the most recent rulings of this method occurred between 2005 and 2006, when each of the Big Three labels settled out of court on these charges with New York attorney Eliott Spitzer. Sony states that they have followed the conditions outlined in this ruling and states that they do not condone this alleged practice.
“Sony Music Entertainment follows the standards of conduct concerning radio promotion as outlined in the 2005 Agreement with the New York State Attorney General’s Office, and we have enforced policies in place that stipulate appropriate business practices within those guidelines for both our employees and independent radio promoters,” a spokesperson for Sony Music Entertainment told Rolling Stone. “While we are not part of the relationship between independent promoters and radio stations, we do not condone any activities by promoters that inappropriately claim to represent the interests of Sony Music or violate the standards of conduct in our agreements with them. We take our obligations under the 2005 Agreement very seriously. We will not tolerate any violations and will investigate any claims of improper activity.”
Warner Music Group called these allegations “inconclusive,” but states that they are taking these allegations seriously, and have launched an internal investigation. They also reiterated that they have “high standards of compliance,” to prevent this alleged practice.
“We require high standards of compliance across our promotion teams, reinforced by annual training programs,” a spokesperson for Warner Music told Rolling Stone. “Although the information we’ve been presented with is inconclusive, we’re taking the allegations seriously and we’ve launched an internal investigation.”
Universal Music Group have not given any indication that they will hold an investigation, nut did respond to the recent claims by Rolling Stone. “Generally, we can say that as a matter of policy, all third-party radio promotion contractors annually submit affidavits to UMG certifying their compliance with strict rules and regulations, including prohibitions that expressly forbid providing anything of value to a radio station or a radio station employee in exchange for increased airtime. If we were provided evidence that these mandatory certifications were false, we would take appropriate steps, up to and including the immediate termination of the third-party contractor and prohibiting them from working with UMG labels or affiliates in the future,” a spokesperson for the company claimed in their statement.