While many of our favorite artists have fielded allegations of benefiting from “payola” – the act of a platform (streaming or radio outlets mainly) accepting pay or bribes from record labels to boost an artist’s chart or certification stats – the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) believes the practice has simply gotten out of hand.
With Gold, Platinum, and Diamond certifications being handed out left and right thanks to the Recording Industry of America’s inclusion of streaming in its tallying since 2016, the FCC – which stands as the United States’ “primary authority for communications law, regulation, and technological innovation” – has begun a probe to determine if these successes are being accomplished legitimately.
On Wednesday, FCC commissioner Mike O’Rielly sent an official letter to the Recording Industry Association of America asking the trade organization to investigate “possible violations of federal laws and regulations that expressly prohibit payola.” “Your association is uniquely situated to survey the practices of your industry and respond to press reports regarding alleged practices,” O’Rielly writes. “My primary goal is to get to the bottom of existing industry practices to determine whether the law is being followed or whether any problematic conduct must be addressed.” [source]
First, it should be noted the practice of “payola” is not illegal as long as it is publicized and there is recorded information that details the transaction that occurred between the label (or artist representative) and radio station or streaming platform. Conversely, the act of undisclosed pay-for-play has been prohibited since 1960 following “a congressional investigation of corruption at radio.” The latter is believed to be what is presently rampant in the music industry.
Secondly, it should be noted the recording association is not directly being accused of actively participating in the practice of payola (yet) as much as there is suspicion, hence the call to investigate the possibility of infraction. Keep in mind the RIAA only certifies artists AFTER a record label submits request for certification. As such, the “unique position” referred to by O’Rielly in his statement is the organization’s role in reviewing, auditing, and accepting or rejecting those label requests for fairness and accuracy before awarding a Gold, Platinum, or Diamond plaque.
As of time reported, the RIAA has not responded. Click here to read the letter they received in full.