Billboard magazine, often called the Music Industry Bible, has reportedly been engaging in a “pay-for-play” payola scheme involving Lady Gaga, marking another disappointing turn in the magazine’s long downward slide.
Last year, the magazine named Lady Gaga “Woman of the Year” and featured her on the cover even though she didn’t have a hit record, according to a blog that tracks music scandals.
But Gaga got the award, anyway, because she paid the magazine to promote her.
The details were contained in a resignation letter submitted to Editorial Director Janice Min in October last year by a Billboard staff writer, who resigned in protest.
Shockingly, Prince leaked the letter himself before he died.
The artist abhorred music industry corruption, which apparently became too much for the Billboard writer to stomach.
“Never in a million years would I have thought our magazine would accept money from an artist (even if it’s in the form of charity) to reward her as “Woman of the Year,” wrote the staff writer, whose name was redacted.
Full disclosure: I was Editor-in-Chief for Billboard between 2003-2004, a period when the magazine was going through a key transition along with the rest of the music industry.
What’s significant about my tenure was the fact that I was the first Editor-in-Chief hired from outside the music industry in the magazine’s history.
I had previously been a reporter for The Washington Post and was Editor of a financial publication when Billboard contacted me out of the blue about taking the position.
Even then, the magazine’s revenues and circulation were plummeting, largely because of a rapid decline in the number of independent music stores. They were Billboard’s bread-and-butter readership.
At the time, Doug Morris, then Chairman and CEO of the Universal Music Group, told me bluntly that more than 50 percent of music albums were being sold through just 10 big-box retailers. And, that even before the digital music revolution.
As such, Morris said the industry no longer needed a trade publication like Billboard to market to the mom-and-pop music stores that once were the backbone of the industry’s retail sales. As a result they dialed back advertising significantly.
Pressure from digital sales and illegal downloading made matters even worse. Record labels went through rounds of layoffs and slashed marketing budgets to the bone.
Billboard, then owned by Dutch conglomerate VNU, had hired me because I had successfully turned around two previous publications where I served as Editor-in-Chief. They were hoping I could do the same for Billboard.
I knew the challenge would be daunting, given the economics, but I encountered something even I hadn’t counted on. Integrity had long been in short supply at the magazine.
The firmly entrenched staff believed their job was to promote their favorite artists. It was “journalism” unlike any I had ever seen in my career.
Tim White, a long-time music journalist and the previous editor for 10 years, had set the standard.
Although he was revered by many in the industry, he was disliked by just as many as well. His overt favoritism toward a small circle of artists, caused extreme resentment among other artists.
Bias was only one problem. My newly installed, publisher, who had never worked in a newsroom, thought reporters should be marketers.
Under my tenure, for example, Billboard published a straight-forward story about a top industry executive’s finances, the kind of story that would be routine at Forbes or BusinessWeek.
After the executive complained, my publisher made it clear he didn’t want to publish anything that would “piss off” the record labels. Others in the industry, of course, lauded the story as a breath of fresh air.
But favoritism was still rampant.
The charts were reportedly sacrosanct when I was there, but writers often ignored them to promote an artist.
A staff writer once wrote a glowing story about a new Pink release, even though it sold dismally and fell out of the charts almost immediately.
Another writer who wrote music reviews, provided them to the record labels in advance of publication. In fact, the reviews were so uniformly positive I changed the name of the column from “Reviews” to “Billboard Picks,” to provide some semblance of credibility.
There were, on occasion, quid-pro-quos involving the “Billboard Music Awards.”
One top artist, for example, refused to perform on the show unless he received a special award. So the marketing department created one for him.
These days, artists are so desperate to publicize their music, they clamor to be on television.
Otherwise, I never saw any overt payola corruption like the kind detailed in the recent Billboard letter.
Apparently the relationship is still on-going. The magazine and Gaga are reportedly “working together” to make her upcoming single “Perfect Illusion” a huge hit.
The writer offers these parting words for Min:
“Perhaps instead of rewarding this type of cheating… we could still support artists without helping them cheat their way up the charts, which has happened at least three times in the past couple of years. You know it. I know it.”
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