NEW YORK -- Music you've never heard before is turning up in the strangest places.
You can hear it over the loudspeaker at minor league basketball games, on TV sets displayed in department stores or in movie theaters before the trailers begin.
Every note is a measure of the desperation that record companies feel about having their new music heard by possible buyers in a radio climate in which decisions on what to play are made by fewer and fewer people.
The search for new ways to expose music even revived a practice that once shamed the industry: a record company paying a radio station to play a song. The practice was called payola decades ago. Now it's called business.
Songs will always be able to capture the public imagination, like this summer's duel between Brandy and Monica on The Boy Is Mine or Shania Twain's genre-smashing You're Still the One.
But for every hit, there's a bigger pile of misses. The business of making a hit record is complicated today by changes in how radio stations operate, the fragmentation of public tastes and the sheer volume of music competing for air time.
"You can't just count on people hearing it on the radio and going to the store on Saturday," said Ron Shapiro, executive vice president and general manager of Atlantic Records.
Subject to the whims of public taste, creating a hit record has never been a science. Who knew that so many teen-age girls would swoon over My Heart Will Go On,or that teen-age boys would reject the new Van Halen?
At least the process was relatively simple: Get a few key radio stations to play the record, make sure MTV airs the video, and let music fans decide.
Consolidation of the radio industry has changed the rules. Dominant companies like Chancellor Media, Jacor Communications and CBS have bought hundreds of stations across the country. Executives for these companies often decide what songs will or won't be played on dozens of stations.
It's rare now for one disc jockey to take a liking to a song, champion it in defiance of industry experts, and see it catch fire. That's how a hit like Marc Cohn's Walking in Memphis got its start a few years ago.
"What made music exciting is when a station somewhere decided to play one song that nobody else was playing. Now it's so well-organized and so well-researched," said Andy Allen, president of Alternative Distribution Alliance, a company that delivers music to record stores.
This year, Flip/Interscope Records reportedly paid a radio station in Portland, Ore., $5,000 to repeatedly play Counterfeit by its band, Limp Bizkit.
The arrangement raised uncomfortable memories. In the late 1950s payola scandal, popular disc jockey Alan Freed's empire collapsed in disgrace after it was revealed he had accepted money from record companies to play their songs.
The practice was made illegal, but not if the arrangement is disclosed upfront to listeners. A radio DJ might say, for example, that the song is "brought to you by" the record company -- much as a corporate sponsor would be announced for a commercial break.
Is this a smart way to get music heard? Or will consumers reject a song so tainted by commercialism? Interscope executives wouldn't talk about whether they considered the experiment a success. Similar deals reportedly have been in the works for country radio stations, but none has materialized.
"The idea of a cash transaction for airplay so scares them that they run to other practices that can't be accounted for," said Sky Daniels, general manager of Radio & Records.
Murkier methods could be record companies giving radio executives free concert tickets to use or give away, or flying in a hot band to play at a station-sponsored concert -- stunts that don't show up on a spreadsheet.
Some companies are bypassing radio altogether and becoming their own music programmers.
This summer, Island Records produced a half-hour TV show on two of its artists, Tricky and Pulp, who have achieved critical acclaim but little radio airplay. The show aired on local access cable channels in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and elsewhere.
Columbia and A&M created their own radio or television shows to spotlight their artists. A&M calls its program Cafe Sound.
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