Creating a Merit-Based Music Economy: Compulsory or Blanket Licensing for Interactive Subscription Services
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A3. Bottlenecks in the System -- Scarcity of Access

There are other ways to promote music than just radio and video. For example:
  • Movie soundtracks benefit from the promotion of the movie itself.
  • Some urban music uses teams on the street getting the word out in person (but still broadcasting pretty much the same message to everyone).
  • House music thrives in the dance clubs that serve crowds of people all at once.
  • Newspapers and magazines review concerts and records, and interview artists.
All of these kinds of alternatives reflect or rely upon one-to-many communication -- they are part and parcel of the mass-market process.

Because the broadcast media are so important and powerful in reaching a wide audience, they are valuable, and buying presence there is expensive in one way or another. If you are an advertiser, then ad space is expensive. If you are looking for publicity, then "notoriety" or "news-worthiness" is relatively rare, and requires a time-intensive effort to encourage editors to provide your story with space in their media, at the expense of something else. Even word-of-mouth strategies usually must be triggered with some mass-market legitimacy to spread effectively.

It simply costs a lot of money to become a star, because only a finite number of stars can be present in the mass media at the same time. There are many more people fighting for this space than there is space available to accommodate them.

Becoming a star is a scarce commodity, so it is difficult and expensive.

Print/TV news: In news media, feature articles/segments and concert or record reviews are only available to a limited number of artists in each issue or show. Does that mean that those are the only worthwhile artists making music out there? No, of course not. It only means that no more can fit in the allotted space in the media. Many of the choices of to whom to cover are not strictly music-related -- they are "news-related" in the sense of having a "hook" that would be expected to interest a large number of people in the media audience.

In many cases, the mere fact that an artist is added to radio playlists can be the news that gets them a story or review. Or, if an artist generates controversy in some way (not necessarily related to their music), that can also generate press coverage.

Being a celebrity in itself generates more celebrity.

Once you're "in the game" you have a much better chance of staying in the game. You get onto the charts, which generates more visibility. Having an established audience itself translates into the newsworthiness of "legitimacy." The Haves increasingly trample the Have-nots in a self-fulfilling cycle. It takes a big effort to break into the game.

Radio Formats: Radio has operated for many years according to the descendents of what was originally called the "Top 40" programming format. A radio programmer once noticed that the jukebox in a local restaurant wasn't getting an even distribution of play for all songs -- a few were getting played over and over, and many others were hardly getting played at all. He figured he'd be able to satisfy a large audience just by playing a few songs over and over on the radio, too. He was right. In fact he was so successful that this way of programming completely overtook big-time music radio decades ago.

Music radio formats are now usually very carefully controlled, with a combination of high-rotation, medium-rotation and low-rotation tiers. They're often duplicated on many stations across the country, as radio is increasingly aggregated into national networks. Only about 1000 music stations across the country are effective in reaching enough of an audience to sell records -- averaging about 20 per state, mostly in metro areas where the audiences are larger. (Music videos, on just a few cable TV channels, are of course even scarcer.)

This is how the zero-sum game works, with mass media. Even though there are more radio stations than just these 1000 or so, they have smaller audiences, or they don't play music repetitively, and so they are not effective in promoting music to many people. When a mass medium becomes a "one-to-not-so-many" medium, its promotional power is diluted. There are only so many radio stations that could have large enough audiences to make a difference -- otherwise they'd dilute each other too much.

Because of this, there is very little room in broadcast radio for a large number of songs at any one time. Consider that tens of thousands of albums are recorded each year, averaging somewhere around ten songs per album. Only a tiny few of these songs have a realistic chance of being played on the radio enough for mass-market visibility.

This extreme of scarce supply (limited promotional space on radio) and sprawling demand (all those new records, plus millions of older records) has made getting airplay very expensive. These days it's a legitimate business called "independent promotion" but back in the old days, when it was structured a little differently as a black market, it was known by the famous term "payola."

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