The embattled record industry is still knee-deep in the hoopla surrounding the massive cutbacks in the use of independent promoters. This controversial--and longstanding--practice had been the subject of recurring rumors about payoffs and other illegal activities by some indie promoters.
In recent days, the crisis atmosphere has deepened, especially after an investigative subcommittee of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee announced last week that it would probe "payola and possible mob ties" in the industry.
An "NBC Nightly News" report last week also claimed that CBS Records chief Walter Yetnikoff "had a lot to do with stopping an investigation by the Recording Industry Assn. of America" into independent promo activities, a charge a CBS spokesman labeled "inaccurate and untrue."
But those aren't the only problems prompted by the sudden cutbacks. Many experts say that the companies may have damaged a key cog in the hit-making machinery--radio airplay for new artists.
As one industry vet put it: "The loss of independent promotion, especially in the area of album-oriented rock (AOR), has hurt the artists who need the most help--the young, developing groups. Radio programmers have been so rattled by all the controversy over independent promotion that they're playing it very safe. They're only adding big name bands to their playlists. The bottom line is that the young groups are getting frozen out--no one wants to touch them."
Coming at a time when AOR radio is increasingly relying on predictable "classic-cut" oldies formats, rock radio is beginning to sound like a pop cemetery, with new artists getting shut out. In the new issue of Radio & Records (R&R), the industry's leading radio publication, the five most added AOR tracks on stations around the country were all by the same groups--three new Van Halen songs and two new Rolling Stones tunes.
Without the presence of independent promotion people, who have played a key role in persuading timid programmers to listen to new bands, many stations have shied away from taking chances on unfamiliar music. "I think that the cutbacks in independent AOR promotion may have cut off a good information source for AOR radio stations," said R&R editor Ken Barnes. "The shortage of input has definitely been a contributing factor in prompting a new conservatism in radio."
Barnes explained that the week after the independents were dropped, the total number of new songs added on stations that report to R&R dropped by 25%. While the number of these added songs (known in the industry as adds ) have increased some in recent weeks, the total numbers are still down. And the percentage of records by new artists has declined even further.
Barnes pointed out that the biggest number of new adds came in the week when new records by such familiar names as Bob Seger, the Stones and Van Halen were released--they cornered nearly 40% of all total adds. In fact, it's so hard to get new artists played on the radio now that several major labels have postponed the release of many new records, preferring to wait until later this summer when radio formats may be less restrictive.
Not all radio experts are convinced that AOR radio's increasing ossification is tied to the independent promotion scandal. According to Jeff Pollack, a leading rock radio consultant, this ice age for new artists is more of a cycle than a trend. "Radio is definitely more conservative today than it was a year ago," he said. "There's a lot of corporate pressure on radio programmers to get older listeners, who attract more advertising.
"But this is really part of a larger issue--the oldies craze that's going around the whole country. It's like Eisenhower is in the White House--there are reunions on TV shows, '50s bars springing up everywhere. That's all affecting the radio climate as much as the problems with independent promotion or tight playlists."