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Label Running Ads to Name Its Tunes

Pop Beat: A new advertising campaign in which Capitol Nashville Records is paying for spots before or after a song's airplay is stirring debate.

April 11, 1998|JERRY CROWE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don't be surprised if you hear a disc jockey introduce a record by advising motorists to pull over to the side of the road and pay attention--because they're about to hear a classic.

In fact, thousands of radio listeners will hear exactly that in coming weeks under a controversial new advertising campaign in which Capitol Nashville Records is paying CBS-owned radio stations to air 10-second spots before or after selected records are played.

In this so-called "pay-to-name" practice, the label doesn't dictate which songs are played, or how often, only that information about the song will be mentioned in conjunction with airplay.

It is distinct from the pay-to-play debate that has resurfaced in the industry, in which a label actually pays for a song to be played. (It's not considered "payola" if the station acknowledges receiving compensation.)

Pat Quigley, president and CEO of Capitol Nashville, says the idea for the campaign grew out of his frustration with radio's inconsistency in identifying what records they were playing.

"If radio's not going to do it, I'll do it myself," says Quigley, who decided to move ahead with the pay-to-name approach after focus groups expressed the same frustrations.

"I'd always been told that consumers were having a hard time in record stores because they couldn't find what they were looking for," he says. "But what I found was that they didn't know what they were looking for. Radio hadn't told them the name of the song they liked, or the name of the album it was on."

The ads--which will begin airing April 20 on eight stations, including KYCY in San Francisco--will be used initially in support of a new album by Steve Wariner, but will also be aired in coming weeks to promote a Garth Brooks box set and a Suzy Bogguss album.

The question circulating throughout the record business after Quigley's move is whether other labels will follow suit--and, equally important, will the plan spread beyond country to other areas of pop?

"There's no reason why it shouldn't," says Jeff Pollack, owner of the nation's largest radio programming consulting firm. "Of all the pay-for-play discussions I've heard, this one seems to make the most sense and would be most compatible with the audience."

But there's no immediate sign that other labels will begin reaching into their budgets to pay stations to identify their songs.

"The jury is out," says Lon Helton, country music editor for Radio & Records, a trade publication that keeps tabs on the playlists of the nation's leading radio stations. "If Quigley's money moves the sales meter, they'll all be in line. But I think a lot of the labels believe right now that this is just not cost-effective."

Bruce Hinton, chairman of MCA Records Nashville, says he's not interested in paying for what he believes should be standard radio practice. "I'm open to any kind of advertising approach that showed an effective return on the dollar," says Hinton, whose label's roster includes George Strait and Reba McEntire. "But I'm skeptical that a back-announce, in and of itself, is meaningful to a consumer."

Curb Records, home of such bestsellers as LeAnn Rimes and Wynonna, already has come out against the pay-to-name idea.

Several other labels contacted by The Times were taking a wait-and-see attitude and wouldn't even discuss the topic for publication for fear of offending radio station owners.

Two other radio chains that met with Quigley, Jacor Communications of Covington, Ky., and Chancellor Media of Boston, say they are opposed to pay-to-name.

"I think we need to be very judicious on the programming side to make sure that we don't lose editorial control of our product," says Jaye Albright, director of country programming for Jacor.

CBS declined comment.

Alan Aronowitz, a senior attorney for the Federal Communications Commission, says radio stations can accept payment for back-announcements as long as it's clear to listeners that the spots are paid advertising.

The pay-to-name debate is taking place at the same time that Interscope Records has started an experiment by paying a Portland radio station to play a song by one of its acts. Both the pay-to-name and pay-for-play moves underscore the importance of radio in selling records.

All labels, of course, share a desire to have radio stations identify what they're playing.

In 1989, the Recording Industry Assn. of America, which represents the major U.S. record labels, launched a campaign that urged radio stations to voluntarily identify the songs and the artists they were playing. The campaign was built around the slogan "When you play it, say it!"

Quipped Hilary Rosen, president and CEO of the RIAA, after learning of Capitol Nashville's decision to pay stations to identify records: "I don't remember the slogan of our campaign being, 'When you say it, we'll pay it!' "

Pollack says the situation is vexing for radio programmers.

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