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Pay To Play: San Diego Filmmaker Aims To Fix Music Industry

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Do you remember when you bought your first record album? Or maybe it was a tape, or a CD.

Many shoppers now skip brick and mortar stores, like record shops and buy music files online or subscribe to streaming services such as Pandora, or Spotify.

That move has caused some to blame Silicon Valley and the digital age for the downfall of the music industry.

But a San Diego filmmaker says not so fast.

Scott Kirby is the writer and director of the documentary "Music Matters." He traces the decline of the industry to a U.S. bill passed in 1960 called the "Payola Act." The law made it illegal for record companies to pay radio stations to play their records, unless they disclosed the transaction on air. It was designed to level the playing field, so musicians and smaller record labels would have the same chance as bigger acts for airplay.

But Kirby argues in his documentary that the real reason the Payola Act was passed was racism, and it was an attempt to keep black artists off the radio. He said the law does the opposite of what it was supposed to do: ensure diversity on the public airwaves.

“It just made discord between the people who make music and the people who distribute music,” Kirby told KPBS Midday Edition on Tuesday. “The Payola Law was a kneejerk reaction to the 1960s.”

Kirby also touched on the failure of the music industry to capitalize on the Internet. He uses Napster, an online music-sharing service that launched in 1999, as an example.

“Napster showed the world that music can be sent out with the click of a button at basically no cost,” but the music industry failed to take advantage of the service, Kirby said.

Instead, the industry raised costs for CDs.

Kirby said he hopes his documentary will force viewers to re-examine the Payola Law and the music industry.

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