Paying to Play… at the Superbowl


Just when you thought the music industry couldn’t fall any further into the great abyss, along comes the National Football League.

A couple weeks ago with the preseason just getting underway, the NFL began making noises about next year’s Superbowl, America’s favorite sports orgy. Without even an inkling of knowledge as to what will happen on the gridiron, the fine minds behind the singularly largest televised event of the year began leaking its plans for the half-time show, that time when we collectively push back from the table and leave the room to take a nationally synchronized flush. 

NFL’s halftime rock concert traditionally showcases one of the largest performers or bands currently still touring, even though said act is well past its prime. Recent talent has included Madonna, The Black Eyed Peas, The Who, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Prince and last year’s hot mess, Bruno Mars with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. 

The Superbowl halftime is almost purposely forgettable, just like the game that surrounds it (Do you remember who played in Superbowl XLVIII? I didn’t think so). Despite that, the Superbowl’s halftime is the largest stage on which any band can perform. The number of eyes and ears tuning in (but rarely paying attention) are easily the most at any one time for any one event. It is a solid gold piece of marketing space. The NFL understands this, which is why in past years it hasn’t paid bands a plug nickel to perform. 

But this year, the NFL is going one step further. The League, which clearly has fallen on hard times, has decided to sort of auction off this prime piece of music marketing real estate. According to Forbes, the NFL is now trying to convince acts to pay for the privilege of playing the halftime show, either by asking the acts to pay a percentage of subsequent tour income or by making “some other type of financial contribution.”

The NFL said the deal is designed to help defray some of the halftime’s production costs while acknowledging that past acts have enjoyed a rather sizable “Superbowl bump” in sales. Mars’ latest record jumped to No. 3 on the Billboard charts after the Big Show, with sales increasing by 92 percent, according to the Forbes article. 

So far no one has taken the bait. The Wall Street Journal reported that Katy Perry, Rihanna and Coldplay all passed on the offer… so far. But how long will they or some other desperate performer or band hold out? 

This is the turning point. This is where the future of music gets decided. This is where we as a society determine if art and performance (of any quality) is worth paying for. We’ve watched from the sidelines while music has systematically been devalued over the past decade with the rise of the internet and the fall of CD sales. We now have access to virtually any recorded music with a mere click of a mouse, brought to you via YouTube or Spotify or any number of free download services. The only true cost for this convenience is the livelihood of the bands that no longer are getting paid for their music. 

Income derived from music sales is drying up faster than the California aquifer. We are raising a new generation of post-internet music listeners who think that paying for music not only is unnecessary, it’s stupid. 

If bands pay to play at the Superbowl, it’s only a matter of time before bands pay to have their music heard at all. Publishing rights income is money performers and songwriters currently are paid to have their music used in movies, television shows and commercials. And as a music marketing platform, this format has taken the place of terrestrial radio, which no one listens to anymore (at least for new music). 

Case in point, I recently discovered the band Big Black Delta after hearing their song, “Money Rain Down,” used in a commercial for shoe maker Aldo. I “rewound” the commercial on my DVR, used my Shazam app on my iPhone to identify the band and the song, went to Spotify to listen to it again, and eventually paid for the track on iTunes. I never would have heard that song had it not been used in that TV commercial. I certainly wouldn’t have heard it on the radio.

In the old days, bands selling their music to Madison Avenue was considered “selling out.” Today, it’s considered good business. And believe me, Madison Avenue — and Hollywood — know this and are watching what happens with the Superbowl halftime show very closely. If a band is willing to pay to play that halftime, surely a band — especially an unknown quantity like Big Black Delta — would be willing to pay to have its music placed in advertising or in films. Why pay for the milk when the cow is free, or in this case, when the cow is willing to pay for you to drink its milk. 

Back in the radio days, payola was defined as the illegal practice of payment or other inducement by record companies for the broadcast of recordings on music radio in which the song is presented as being part of the normal day’s broadcast. This new practice of “pay for play,” if used for the Superbowl halftime or for a television commercial or movie, is a legitimate form of payola, and it’s just around the corner. 

The only thing stopping it from happening is the artists (and record labels) having the courage to hold their ground and refuse to pay to do what they should be paid to do. 

Or, better yet, if those who once understood the value of music once again accept the idea that art has value, that art’s worth paying for.

Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.


Category: Art

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