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Pay-for-Play Was Banned From Radio — But Texts Reveal It May Still Be Thriving

Among the 2,500 text messages obtained by Rolling Stone, several suggest a link between airplay and record label payments
Photo illustration by Rolling Stone. Images in illustration by Adobe Stock

I n June 2019, Mitch Mills, a senior vice president of radio promotion at Elektra Records, sent an urgent text to Steve Zap, an independent radio promoter who works with a number of stations in the adult contemporary format. The pair are both longtime players in the music industry, and have texted each other periodically about Warner Music Group acts, including Panic! at the Disco, Twenty One Pilots, and Fitz and the Tantrums. The June 2019 text shows that Mills was worried because Panic! at the Disco were receiving fewer plays than they had the previous week on a station Zap oversaw. “Stevie … [down] 11 in panic,” Mills wrote. “I just did a 2k deal with you … I need Panic back up.”

The text is one of more than 2,500 messages involving Zap that have been obtained by Rolling Stone. A number of these texts, covering 2018 to July of this year, refer to conversations with major label executives about promotional giveaways and payments to a radio station in connection with airplay – practices that have supposedly been banned.

Some of the activity described in Zap’s correspondence echoes behavior that originally led former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to investigate the major labels beginning in 2004. (Mills did not reply to a request for comment.)

“Record labels endeavor to gain airplay for their songs by providing such inducements to the radio stations as ‘promotional support,’ which the stations can then use either to help meet their own operational needs or as prizes and ‘giveaways,’” the New York attorney general’s office wrote at the time. Spitzer’s investigation culminated in multi-million dollar settlement agreements with the major labels, but in 2019, radio veterans said these pay-for-play tactics continue at certain stations.

Zap is a music-industry veteran who started his career in 1986 for Virgin Records America before becoming a vice president in promotions for then-Warner Brothers Records and MCA Records. In 2004, he started a management and promotion company called Z-Entertainment, which spawned a record label of the same name in 2011 and his label Artbeatz in 2015. Known for his power in the Hot AC format — think non-threatening pop — Zap has also worked with Aaron Carter and the pop singer Daya, known for her 2015 hit “Hide Away.”

Zap’s texts show that the record labels routinely seek to influence the level of radio play to achieve specific chart goals for their artists — which in and of itself would raise no issues. But his messages also explicitly refer to payments in money or goods to radio in connection with airplay.

“I Can Use the Billing”

Several of Zap’s texts discuss “paying” or “billing” for radio play either when a song is added to a station’s playlist, or when a song’s spin count is increased. In a March 2019 text from Zap to a radio-station employee, he wrote, “Tell me when you move up stuff. I could have billed on Khalid and BSB moving up.” That month, Khalid had a pair of singles on the Hot AC chart, while the Backstreet Boys’ “No Place” was hovering outside the Top 20. (The texts show no evidence that any artists — who rarely run their own radio campaigns — were communicating with Zap or involved in any negotiations with radio stations.)

One text discussed Zap charging for plays in the overnight slot between midnight and 6 a.m. when few listeners are tuned in. In April 2019, “Gasoline,” a somber ballad from the English brother-sister trio the Rua, was moving toward the Top 30 on the Hot AC chart. “Please put Rua into 50 spin rotation,” Zap texted. “Just for 6 weeks. I can use the billing … Mostly nights and overnights of course … This is how I will get the bills paid until we make money.”

And when a label was unwilling to pay? A text from Zap warned the radio station not to take directions from the record company. “Please don’t let Interscope dictate anything to you,” he wrote. “They don’t pay me shit.”

Similarly, as Billie Joe Armstrong’s cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” was climbing the radio chart in May, Zap intervened at the radio station because playing the song was “not paying bills.” The promoter’s text included the instruction, “Billie Joe needs to go down.”

In a statement to Rolling Stone, Zap vehemently denied any wrongdoing and claimed that the texts were provided by a former employee “motivated by the recent loss of his job.” The promoter says he “worked hard to help young musicians become better known in the music industry.” As part of that work, Zap says, “I try to sell radio station program directors on the merits of my clients’ music, and to make friends with program directors at various stations — always within legal bounds.”

“You say that I requested airplay and awarded [a station] with ‘consideration,’ and that such linkage is established by text messages,” Zap’s statement continued. “The actual texts, though, do not support your characterizations. In the texts, no specific consideration is linked with any specific instance of airplay. Therefore, allegations that I purchased airplay through quid pro quo agreements would be reckless and extremely damaging.”

“I just got you a 1k promo through Columbia,” Zap wrote. “Tell me what you need for stations. They will cover.”

In statements to Rolling Stone, each of the three major label groups claimed they have safeguards in place to ensure that their radio promotions departments abide by their settlements with the New York Attorney General’s office.

“We require high standards of compliance across our promotion teams, reinforced by annual training programs,” a spokesperson for Warner Music says. “Although the information we’ve been presented with is inconclusive, we’re taking the allegations seriously and we’ve launched an internal investigation.”

“Sony Music Entertainment follows the standards of conduct concerning radio promotion as outlined in the 2005 Agreement with the New York State Attorney General’s Office, and we have enforced policies in place that stipulate appropriate business practices within those guidelines for both our employees and independent radio promoters,” a spokesperson for Sony Music Entertainment tells Rolling Stone. “While we are not part of the relationship between independent promoters and radio stations, we do not condone any activities by promoters that inappropriately claim to represent the interests of Sony Music or violate the standards of conduct in our agreements with them. We take our obligations under the 2005 Agreement very seriously. We will not tolerate any violations and will investigate any claims of improper activity.”

A spokesperson for Universal Music Group tells Rolling Stone, “Generally, we can say that as a matter of policy, all third-party radio promotion contractors annually submit affidavits to UMG certifying their compliance with strict rules and regulations, including prohibitions that expressly forbid providing anything of value to a radio station or a radio station employee in exchange for increased airtime. If we were provided evidence that these mandatory certifications were false, we would take appropriate steps, up to and including the immediate termination of the third-party contractor and prohibiting them from working with UMG labels or affiliates in the future.”

“We Need Beach Swag”

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Steve Zap Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

It’s common for record labels to hire third-party independent promoters to help them push their songs to radio. These promoters are frequently compared to “consultants” or “lobbyists” for hire who leverage their relationships with specific program directors to try to convince them to add a song to their playlists.

When the New York Attorney General’s Office investigated the radio industry, it scrutinized independent promoters and scolded labels and radio stations for enlisting some indies as “middlemen” to “act as conduits for delivery of the labels’ ‘promotional support’ to [radio] stations, and help perpetuate the fiction that this support is not actually being delivered by the labels in exchange for airplay.”

On several occasions, Zap’s messages to one radio station he worked with linked promotions to playlist adds or increased airplay. In November 2018, Zap texted a station employee, “Any way to move 5 Seconds of Summer to Super Power til Sat? I will get a great promo for you.” (When a song is in power rotation, it’s one of the most played tracks on a station.)

Sometimes the texts are more specific about the nature of the “promo” that Zap is promising the station, and he links the goods to an exact spin level for a given song. “Can we do Flora cash and Khalid,” a text says, referring to the pop duo and R&B singer, respectively. “Promise them 35 spins each. Will cover that cash giveaway.” “Michael Franti to 35 spins,” another one of Zap’s texts says. “Getting free show.”

In August 2019, a text from Zap asked, “Can we move Ellie c Goulding to a steady 40 a week? And x-ambassadors to start 5 a day. We need beach swag.”

When one station increased the number of plays on a single by LSD, the electronic trio of Labrinth, Sia, and Diplo that was being worked by Columbia Records, Zap’s texts confirmed a promotional reward for the station. “I just got you a 1k promo through Columbia,” Zap wrote. “Tell me what you need for stations. They will cover.”

Zap’s texts often indicate that he policed songs’ spin counts to make sure a promotion was effective. In February 2019, the earnest balladeer Dean Lewis was in the Top 10 on the Hot AC chart with “Be Alright.” “Can you make sure Dean Lewis doesn’t get killed,” a Zap text read. “We did a promo to move up last week. It is down -15.”

“Please don’t let Interscope dictate anything to you,” Zap wrote. “They don’t pay me shit.”

Similarly, in November 2018, Zap sent a text about the Los Angeles pop group Lovelytheband. “Make sure we kill Lovely the band [sic] til Sat,” he wrote. “5Secords [sic] Of Summer 4 spins away from 1. We already did that promo and they covered.”

In his statement, Zap claimed the activity described in his texts was all above board. “I am well aware of the applicable rules,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I have observed them carefully in my work as an ‘indie promoter.’ I do not dispute that I asked [a station] to play certain records on various occasions. In addition, I supplied [the station] with certain promotional support from time to time. However, this would only cross a line if a particular level of support were conditioned on specific instances of airplay beyond what [the station] would otherwise schedule — because of specific benefits supplied to the stations or to [a program director] personally.”

“Republic Sweating Me Already”

Many of Zap’s texts refer to adjusting airplay to help labels achieve chart goals in key weeks. This was often a carefully targeted process. Zap’s texts discuss taking away plays from one artist high on the chart and assigning them to a lower-charting act to help the latter rise in the widely used rankings kept by the radio data company Mediabase.

Radio veterans say labels use this legit technique at multiple stations when they want to catch up with a competitor in a hurry. The song-swap tactic demonstrates the music industry’s ruthlessly intense focus on chart position.

Zap instructed a station he worked with to take plays from artists such as Panic! at the Disco and Maren Morris in an effort to boost Marshmello, Halsey, and Dua Lipa. (“Can we take off Panic till Sunday. Help Marshmello go 1,” Zap texted.) On one occasion, Zap instructed a station he worked with to reduce plays for the Jonas Brothers to help P!nk (“Can we pull down Jonas. Bros Sucker,” Zap asked. “Helping Pink go 1”); 14 days later, he asked the same station to take plays away from P!nk to benefit another artist. (“Everyone so desperate and sad at Labels,” Zap wrote. “Let’s pull down Pink and Kelly clarkson.”)

In August 2019, a Zap text to one station said, “This week kill Panic and Ed Sheeran and put Shawn super power for #1 … Republic sweating me already.” On the previous week’s chart, Sheeran’s “I Don’t Care” was Number One, Shawn Mendes’ “If I Can’t Have You” was Number Three — Republic Records was promoting the single — and Panic! at the Disco’s “Hey Look Ma, I Made It” was Number Four.

As the chart’s tracking week neared its end, the station told Zap that Mendes’ single was set to play every half hour. But then Zap fired off another text: “It is too close and we haven’t jumped Ed yet. After 8 pm. Can we do every 15 min. No one will even notice. No one listens to the radio unless in car.”

That week, Mendes leapfrogged Sheeran on the Mediabase chart and hit Number One.