Here's an article on modern payola and streaming music.
Pay-to-play was outlawed for terrestrial radio in the 1960s. But now, with Spotify playlists and streaming curators influencing millions of listeners, should similar rules apply?
Relatedly, exactly how are an indie musician's tracks weighted on streaming platforms, versus more popular (and profitable) content? Can artists really make money on these platforms? Here, algorithms are usually discussed (from the article):
Streaming algorithms and playlists have democratic potential. They hold power to level the playing field for artists who are locked out from the system of mainstream radio.
"Potential" is the key term. Sure, there is a greater potential for exposure on streaming than mainstream radio (especially for artists with minimal marketing budgets) but will that exposure convert to real dollars? In the landscape of internet-based creatives, it seems only the best rise high enough to make minimum wage.
Add to this, making myriad platforms play nicely together can be tricky. At the bottom of this interesting take on Net Neutrality (not my view), the author points out that Youtube no longer allows clickthroughs to crowdfunding platforms like ArtistShare, PledgeMusic or Patreon.
In general, I'm skeptical of the "fairness through algorithms" line of thinking, no matter the industry. But could we have a crowd-based analysis of a company's "democratic algorithm"? That sounds interesting. But I don't hold out any hope that companies would publicize their algorithms. These are their "secret sauce." If we look at another industry—the chemical industry—we can see how hard they fight against transparency. Is a proprietary algorithm any different than a proprietary chemical compound?
I think it's good for creatives to keep in mind that these platforms are just tools, and we're going to continue to go through periods of rapid change. And expecting tech companies not to pursue their self-interest is unrealistic. Their whim will trump your strategy every time. My view is that your biggest asset is still your website. There you have ultimate control over your content and you can sell direct.
More on payola: Here's another payola article, with journalists in the hot seat this time.