OM231 - Snow Valley, Oklahoma

This week, Ken and John talk about:

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Payola (OM231)

Payola has always been a big part of the music industry and it still is now, but it depends on how you define what a ”payment” is. Early in the era of Rock'n'Roll and record labels there was a scandal where unscrupulous manager types were paying off radio stations and DJs to play certain music. Because chart rankings were determined by airplay this goosed sales. Individual DJs dictated playlists back then and why wouldn’t they play the platter that came with a little bit of a bonus? Eventually it became a standard so much so that the FCC cracked down on it and new legislation declared it to be a form of bribery. The problem is that you can’t keep payola out of the entertainment business.

Record labels pay to have their records displayed on end-caps in record stores and supermarkets, although customers think that in independent record stores those are something like employee picks. Today people don’t buy records in record stores anymore but they get music online and there are all kinds of ways to play with the algorithms that put things on the charts. Bands will put their album on Amazon for $0.99 for the first couple of days, which gooses sales and lets them sell 100.000 copies and suddenly the record is in the Top 10, although it was a loss leader with the presumption it will drive further sales.

When John went to see Prince at the Key Arena back in the 2000s, everybody who walked in the door got a copy of his new record and he counted all of those for his SoundScan. Because he was selling 15-20.000 tickets in every market in the country on his national tour he was boasting these incredible sales, but eventually SoundScan told him that he couldn’t do that anymore. He had baked the album price into the ticket price and if you were paying $70 for a ticket anyway it doesn't matter if it now costs $80. It was pretty genius and pretty obviously a Prince-level innovation, but if everybody was going to do that it would negate their completely imaginary set of rules.

John has never engaged in Payola, but as a band you do so much in-kind work and you drive out of your way to appear on somebody’s Internet radio show or you spend a precious hour of your time making content for some influential DJ somewhere. It is not money unless you think that your time is worth anything, but all of that is under the heading of promotion, and that is also what Payola looks like to most people. They are promoting their record by throwing a party.

Payola is still a concern in the industry and as recently as the early 2000s Sony had to pay $10 million in a settlement because they had made backdoor deals with large commercial radio stations, including iHeart Media, Ken and John's former corporate overlords then known as Clear Channel. A lot of this is surely money from one pile being used to create money in another pile within the Sony accounting universes and they can spend $1 million to earn $10.000 because of the way they have it conceived.

We see payola in book publishing, too: Donald Trump’s father will buy 100.000 copies of Donald Trump Jr.’s book and the New York Times had to add a symbol to their bestseller list to indicate what items have been goosed by bulk buyers. Bookstores also got tired of people coming to an author event and on their way out the door buying the book on Amazon, so now your ticket to the event is the $17.99 cover price of the book.

The Omnibus is a purely academic project and they have only ever admitted entries on their merits and have never allowed Payola to color the coverage they give to a certain cultural trend. They talked about the Noid for an hour, but Domino’s didn’t send them a single pizza. After the transition from How Stuff Works to iHeart Media they got pitched quite a bit on branded shows, but it would not have let them just do a show and sell ads on it, but their show would have been an extended opportunity for ads, and that was where Ken and John got very skeptical and started looking for the ripcord.

John’s music being used in ads, Ken being hired for a Domino’s Pizza ad (OM231)

One time John did a tour through New York City advertising agencies. His label and publicist walked him around Manhattan and he played three songs in five different big advertising agencies where he would say: ”This next song, which was about a terrible relationship I had that resulted in an ectopic pregnancy and death to all commerce would be a great theme song for your new M&M campaign!” John’s label paid for a lobster roll lunch to keep the ad executives in the lunch room while John was playing. They are all super-rich and those lobster rolls came of course right out of John’s royalties, but a couple of ad agencies used Long Winters songs and it ended up paying off.

These people can choose from an awful lot of songs and you need to put yourself in front of them. John cannot point to any ad that came as a direct result of having done that stuff, but the general idea is that you need to not just network, but you also need to provide lobster rolls to Manhattanites in order to get them to listen to your songs to get them to consider using your song on a FIAT ad. John is not the victim, but the lobster is, and the bunker Ken and John are sitting in right now was paid for by a FIAT ad. The best case was a Miller beer ad where they paid John the money, but then never ran the ad.

One time Ken was paid an insane amount of money to be in a Dominio’s Pizza ad in which he pressed a comically large buzzer on the wall of the room and a pizza was delivered. It was a smart home thing and Ken 100% and successfully avoided the Noid by doing this ad, but it also never aired because they couldn’t get the buzzer to work and they ran some version of the ad without Ken and his button. Yet, the cheque was the same! This was planned as a thing for people to have at home and when they press it it would order their favorite Domino’s order, but who would want that? They probably missed the fact that you have a smartphone that essentially has that button at all times.

Ken’s son pitching the topic for today’s episode for a Pokémon card (OM231)

For the first time since they started the podcast Ken introduced the grubby Spectre of Payola to the previously impeccable integrity of the Omnibus. His 17-year old son Dylan occasionally pitches Omnibus ideas, like the Blowout College Football episode (see OM117), a story where he has not come off well and by implication they complimented Ken’s daughter Kaitlyn, the child Ken prefers. She prefers to be called Kate and in school she is ”K” because there is another Kate and also because it sounds cooler, but all you have to do is watch Godfather 2 to have a very different feeling about the name ”K”. Ken would be able to say: ”Now who is being naive, K?”, which would be fantastic for a 13-year old girl.

A few months ago Dylan pitched the show idea of Snow Valley, Oklahoma, a failed ski resort with an interesting story. Ken had to look it up to see what the deal was because his son doesn’t ski and has never been to Oklahoma. There are 11 states Ken has not been to and Oklahoma is one of them, although his people are from Oklahoma and Mindy has friends in Tulsa and has spent time there. John recommends Oklahoma and sells it as a fascinating state with a great variety of geography and less of a variety of culture.

Ken couldn’t find out much about this obscure bit of Oklahoma lore and Dylan told him that he got the idea from his friend Hayden. A couple of months later Dylan would pitch the same idea again and Ken was really wondering why he was so interested in this Oklahoma ski story, but it turns out that Hayden had promised Dylan to give him some really rare Pokémon card if his dad’s podcast would cover a story on Snow Valley, Oklahoma.

Hayden’s grandparents are from the region that the story concerns and he thought that Dylan’s dad should talk about it. As it didn’t happen he sweetened the deal with a Delphox EX, a Groudon EX, and an Yveltal EX. As Ken told him he was going to mention the exact cards on the show because detail is the engine that drives journalism and storytelling he was absolutely backtracking.

With the wisdom of an adult instead of a child he would have contacted John about this story because John would have taken it immediately, but instead he went to his dad! Ken would have taken a story about how calculus is used as an aphrodisiac, but a ski story in Oklahoma is John’s wheelhouse and Dylan picked the host that was going to turn it into an episode about embarrassing his kids. It is an example of the combination of two impulses that a lot of teens have, specifically Dylan: His desire for things like Pokémon cards, and his fear of intimidating adults like John.

Dylan obviously has not found that collecting and playing Pokémon inhibits his appeal as a potential mate and it is not going to inhibit his ability to breed. Even if your nerd friends are into your nerd hobby, the girls may not be into your nerd hobby, but that may be a relic of John and Ken’s generation. John knew kids that spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make a broad sword and the assumption was that they would never have children.

Turning tech into an exclusively male province disenfranchised generations of women, a problem we still see today in STEM fields where old boy’s networks are built up around a lot of these professional angles, but the real victims are nerdy teenage boys who could have been dating all this time if their potential girlfriends had just been into Star Trek Deep Space 9 as much as they were.

What helped John in the dating world of the 1980s was skiing. For whatever reason the 1970s and 1980s were an era where skiing was ascendent as a sport communicating preppy upper-middleclassness, primarily because the gear is expensive and it often requires that you travel long distances to do it and have a place to stay when you are there. Everything about skiing makes it not accessible and it was a signifier of status. It is a sport that tries to keep people out and it is hard.

In addition to wealth you exhibit prowess in a sexy / glamorous way because James Bond could never play soccer against an adversary, but he could try to out-ski the henchman. What appealed to John so much is that skiing is a solitary sport. You are racing on a team, but as soon as you start to move on skis you are by yourself. You can be surrounded by other skiers, but you are alone until you come to a stop and are in the lodge, drinking hot cacao.

Ken’s son and his girlfriend, young people today (OM231)

John wondered if 17-year olds shouldn't graduate from playing with Pokémon cards to girls or cars or something else. Dylan once had an amazing Pokémon card collection, but when he turned 9 he decided he didn’t need those anymore and gave them to a buddy or to Goodwill. In today’s money they would have been worth quite a lot. They were once being made by Wizards of the Coast, the local Magic the Gathering collectible card outfit where John and Ken know some of the people, and these cards are now rare, just as stamps and coins are rare when they have different trim or when the look of the cards changed, or just like the 1957 Chevy that was made by Ford is extremely rare.

Since then Dylan had gotten into the Pokémon fad again two times over, a third time for Pokémon Go and now he got a girlfriend and they are playing Pokémon Go with her parents. She is a sweet gal and a very nice lady and it is unclear why she is dating Dylan. She has been welcomed into Ken’s family and vice versa and Dylan often wants to bail on whatever their activity is because his girlfriend’s parents are playing Pokémon Go at the Seattle Center and that is as close as they get to some wholesome family activity, so they allow it.

John finds that extremely wholesome on one level, but also very concerning at another level. If they were playing Backgammon he would be all for it, but your girlfriend’s dad playing Cops & Robbers with you seems a little weird! ”We are going to the Seattle Center to play Cops & Robbers with my friend’s parents. Wanna go?” - ”Yeah, I will just drive down and meet you there because I am 17 years old!” Hayden is also in this strange group of people who almost could fight in a war, but are instead collecting virtual Pokémon. Many of these kids are months away from being able to vote in the 2020 presidential election, but not Dylan, he is a week away, which is good, because that means one less vote for Trump and one less Jill Stein vote.

There is a Gen-X / Boomer trope happening in the culture right now where there is a lot of virtue-signalling / praise for young people: ”The young people are smart and amazing! Let’s give the young people power!”, but John’s reply is: ”Do not give young people power! What are you talking about? You remember being a young person!” They seem virtuous because they only have 5 ideas.

Ken trusts several young people, like a-neurotypical Scandinavian children who are concerned about global warming (Greta Thunberg), but John would not give that child the keys to his house: ”Will you look after my house for a week?” Ken might give her the password to his computer because she seems very capable and maybe she will do his taxes or get his charitable giving in order.

John’s High School girlfriend Kelly would have absolutely been trustworthy, but she also was John’s girlfriend. She would have invited him over to Ken’s house and she would have been doing Ken’s taxes while John would have been licking the frosting out of all of Ken’s frosted goods. As a parent you come to enjoy what the media calls the perpetual adolescence of the rising generation: You don’t want your kids out there trying rave drugs and doing daytrading. Peyote and Penny Stocks, that old combination! Instead you want them playing Cops & Robbers at the Seattle Center because that keeps them out of trouble.

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