Planet Money Records Vol. 3: Making a hit - Transcripts

March 17, 2023

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Since we started Planet Money Records and released the 47-year-old song "Inflation," the song has taken off. It recently hit 1 million streams on Spotify. And we now have a full line of merch — including a limited edition vinyl record; a colorful, neon hoodie; and 70s-inspired stickers —

After starting a label and negotiating our first record deal, we're taking the Inflation song out into the world to figure out the hidden economics of the music business. Things get complicated when we try to turn the song into a viral hit. Just sounding good isn't enough and turning a profit in the music business means being creative, patient and knowing the right people.

This is part three of the Planet Money Records series. Here's part one and part two.

Listen to "Inflation" on Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube Music, Tidal, Amazon Music & Pandora.

Listen to our remix, "Inflation [136bpm]," on Spotify, YouTube Music & Amazon Music.

"Inflation" is on TikTok. (And — if you're inspired — add your own!)

This episode was reported by Erika Beras and Sarah Gonzalez, produced by Emma Peaslee and James Sneed, edited by Jess Jiang and Sally Helm, engineered by Brian Jarboe, and fact-checked by Sierra Juarez.

Music: "Inflation," "Superfly Fever," "Nola Strut" and "Inflation [136bpm]."

Help support Planet Money and get bonus episodes by subscribing to Planet Money+ in Apple Podcasts or at


This is Planet Money from NPR.

Remember this song? Listen to what I have to say. We're back. Cause inflation is in the nation.

And it's about to put us all away. It's been four and a half months since we released our single, Inflation, by Ernest Jackson and Sugar Daddy and the Gumbo Roo.

This is part three of the series. If you haven't listened to parts one and two, here's what you need to know.

We introduced you to a guy named Ernest Jackson. A lot of people say I sound like Satchebo now,

Louis Armstrong. Ernest Jackson has been trying to make it

in the music industry for more than 60 years. Yes, indeed. Cause that's been my dream since I was a little boy.

I've always wanted to be a superstar. So Planet Money decided to become a record label to release this one Ernest Jackson song from the 70s

and see if we can make a hit and make some money. We put the Inflation song out into the world in October

and then we waited to see if anyone would listen.

So how's our song doing? You guys are doing great.

Fans are really loving Inflation. This is Sam Duboff.

He works at Spotify.

Really impressive numbers for a first song released. Are you just telling us that?

Or is it like actually impressive? It's actually impressive. It's- It is? It really is.

Yeah, you guys are crushing it. Less than a month after our song dropped, Inflation had been listened to around 400,000 times. That was our total number of streams across all the sites. Apple Music, YouTube Music, Amazon Music, Title, Pandora, but Spotify was the big one. About 360,000 of those 400,000 streams came from Spotify.

And a lot of the people listening to our song there were very likely Planet Money listeners. But there were also people just listening to music on Spotify. They likely had no idea about our record label project. They don't know who Ernest Jackson is or Planet Money. And one day, our song, the Inflation song, just like popped up for them.

And Sam says they listened over and over. Those are listeners who are connecting with the song

who may not have heard your show and loving it. Except people didn't actually just stumble into our song on their own. We did this one big thing as a record label to try to get our song in front of more people.

Mm-hmm. We pitched the editors at Spotify to try to get what is called Playlisted. This is a free thing. We told them all about our long-lost song to see if they would add it to these really popular playlists that are, you know, they're kind of like mixtapes that millions of people follow. And they did. They added Inflation to this playlist called Blue's Classics. Ernest Jackson is up there next to artists like Etta James and Jimi Hendrix. And enough people ended up liking the song that it got onto other playlists.

It got added to Blue's Drive, Funky Blues.

Inflation started taking off a little bit.

Our song got featured in Billboard Magazine. People are listening to the song in Brazil, in Mexico, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Belgium,

Norway, Japan, Australia. Inflation is global, baby. By December, in our first two months as a record label, we had gotten more than 713,000 listens across all the streaming sites.

But we had not gotten any money. It takes a couple of months for the money to start trickling in.

Finally, on March 1st, four months and four days after our song dropped, we saw how much money we got for those 700,000-ish streams across just those few days in October, all of November, and all of December.

Yeah, I have an envelope here in PR. Boy, they got to seal mighty tight here. Heh, heh, heh. Oh, here we go.

Okay. Okay. I didn't expect that. Hello, and welcome to Planet Money Records. I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

And I'm Erica Barris. How you get paid for a song has been described as a black box, but we have our first check.

So now we can look inside that black box. Also, a hit doesn't become a hit just because it's so good. You have to promote it. And if you want to promote a song totally

and completely legally, it can get complicated. Today on the show, we find out what happens

when you throw some money at a song. Before we became a record label, we knew that on a song, you get paid based on how many people listen to it. But no one could really tell us how much money we would get per list. And we heard it was something like a third of a penny or half a penny for every stream, maybe more, maybe less.

But now that we have our first check, we can see how much our singer and songwriter,

Ernest Jackson, gets for 713,000 streams. Oh, okay. And I didn't expect that. It's over a grand, y'all. It's over a grand. Yes, indeed. Look at that. Yes, indeed.

I didn't expect that.

Ernest is genuinely really, really happy. You know, I recorded this song in 1975, and all of a sudden, you all get a hold of it.

And look what happens. Ernest made $1,098.82 for his streams. These are his streaming royalties.

Royalties are how you get paid if you own part of a song. Yeah, we, the label, we made $387.82 on those streams. And the band, the guitarist on the song, the keyboardist, the drummer's widow, they each get $274.70. And then we all get more for downloads.

So in all, Ernest has made $1,142.35.

We did do the math, and we have figured out that you, Ernest, are getting a six of a penny

every time someone streams your song. Oh, okay, a six, all right. That's how it goes. A six of a penny. Well, let it keep going, Lord, please, in Jesus' name.

Let those six of a penny add up. This is what he's getting with a record deal that we designed to be more favorable to the artist than the norm.

How does that feel as an artist to hear like, oh, to hear like, oh? A six of a penny. Well, it feels like it's not enough, you know,

but I don't know exactly how they calculate all this up. This is all calculated based on something called Streamshare. Basically on a song, you do not get paid per stream or per listen. You get paid based on how many streams your song gets in one month compared to how many streams every other song in the country gets that same month. And your share of streams is different in every country every single month. So, for example, we uploaded our song the same month Taylor Swift dropped her latest album. she got 184.6 million streams in one day. So our share of streams is a lot less than it would have been

if we released our song on a non Taylor Swift month. But then it'd be like a bad bunny month or a Beyonce month. You can't really game the timing.

There's just always gonna be something.

So our first check, it was not huge. But look, we haven't spent any money promoting the song. All the streams we've gotten, we've gotten for free.

So now we're gonna spend some money to promote it. We've already spent $10,000 on this project. For promotion, we set aside another $5,000. And for a while now, Ernest has really just wanted us

to focus on one thing. I want you all to get it in all the radio stations in America. That's the main thing that I want. You know, because everybody don't stream Spotify and YouTube and all that. So this is what I want to happen. And this jock is all over America. We're playing it.

We would all be getting checks for quite some time. Getting on the radio would bring in more money. It's a totally different royalty from the streaming royalty. It's like a radio royalty. And we want all these little pots of money

coming in from everywhere. You know, you all are new in this business. You need to talk to somebody that's really been

in the business who could direct your path. Okay, to direct our path and to figure out how we can get our song played over and over on the radio, we call up a music law professor at the University of Colorado,

who's also a former D.D.R.I.S jockey. Like turntables, sliders, like that kind of DJ?

Yes, brief sliders, like that kind of. In college and law school, yeah. So you were like a cool girl. I don't know. Maybe the quieter one.

I think so. Cristelia Garcia used to work at Universal Music, MySpace Music, she managed bands. And Cristelia says, songs do not just get on the radio because they are just so great.

That is just what artists like to believe. I think it's romantic. It's romantic to believe that the reason your song is getting all this airtime is just because it's just so good, right?

As opposed to because your record label has a lot of clout. To get a song on the radio, Cristelia says record labels pay someone called a radio promoter. They're essentially a middleman. Their job is to put songs in front of radio station DJs and say, hey, do you wanna consider

playing the song on your station? They say, okay, here's all the new stuff. This is the hit track. And so we'd love to see you spin that in your whatever the popular driving home from work program, whatever the case may be.

And that would be it.

That's how you get a song on the radio?

Yes. So this is what we're gonna try to do. We actually spoke to a real radio promoter. They charged like $10,000, which is double our total promotion budget. So we're gonna have to do this ourselves. There are three radio stations we really wanna get. And apparently we needed to talk to Mookie in LA, Russ in New York, and Dan in Philly.

So we emailed them with our best pitch and like 20 other stations too.

And nothing, crickets for months. Right, so it's not easy to be a radio promoter, right? You have to already have relationships with these people because a cold email does what cold emails usually do, right? It plummets.

Yeah, yeah. But also when we emailed these radio stations as part of a network of radio stations, asking these DJs to like, you know, come on, please, please just play our song on the radio. We may have been putting out these like weird, briby vibes. And in the music industry, weird, briby vibes are known as payola. And no one wants to be seen as payola-ing.

Payola, yeah, simply is paying for placement, right? We're talking about paying a DJ to play your song on the radio.

People have been paying to get songs listened to since the days of vaudeville. Like paying a performer to sing your song on stage. But Cristelia says paying to get your song played started to get a bad reputation when rock and roll came on the scene in the 1950s.

Yeah, in the beginning, rock and roll was considered black music.

Most radio stations weren't playing it. And most radio stations forbid their DJs from playing it. But there were a couple of DJs, Alan Freed in particular, he really liked rock music and didn't seem to have a problem with playing black music. So he would play it.

So black artists were like, okay, I mean, I guess we should just go straight to the DJs. Pay them to play our song.

There was just no other way to get exposure for your music.

And white artists had been paying DJs too. They just didn't like it when black artists started taking some of their airtime.

Who they argued were just paying their way to get onto the airwaves, which is technically correct. But not because their music was no good, but just because it was the only way to get in,

like kind of to get their foot in the door. All these bad feelings around paying for placement lead to these big payola investigations in Congress in the late 50s and early 60s. And Congress decides officially that, no, it is not illegal to pay for placement. You just have to disclose it. Radio stations have to say, we got money to play this song. And I mean, if you have to disclose that you paid to get your song on the radio, I mean, you're probably not gonna do it, right? Cause like, oh my gosh, how embarrassing, right? You had to pay to get your song played? So embarrassing.

Except how radio stations disclose that they're paid is kind of up to them. They can be a little sneaky about it, say something like sponsored by such and such records. By the 1970s, paying for play is out of control. White artists, black artists, everyone is doing it.

And not always in the legal way. It could look like backstage access plus tickets for all your friends to go to the show. It could look like, you know, the traditional sort of, you know, girls and drugs. It could look like any sort of, you know, in kind payment in exchange for...

Sorry, sorry, you just said girls and drugs and it took me a minute.

I was like, girls and drugs? Ah ha right, right.

Maybe we can send a DJ a concert ticket. You can send them some NPR tote bags, you know.

Uh, not quite drugs, but yeah, we could offer DJs money or tote bags to play our song and see if anyone bites. That kind of payment would be okay as long as the stations disclosed it.

But Cristelia says, in 2023, there is a new and better way to get a song played. There are people with really popular playlists. Thousands of people listen to the songs they have up. And you can literally Venmo these playlisters like 200 bucks to add your song.

Cristelia has talked to artists and labels who pay all the time to do this. They didn't pop this as like a line item in their marketing budget, right? This was something they were doing secretly, hush, hush, again, because of this feeling that like, if the song was good enough, then we wouldn't have to pay someone to play it. It would just like somehow be heard drifting from a window and then the influencer would pick it up and just love it, right? Which as you know from having tried to promote a song is impossible, like there's so much

out there. The point of trying to get on all these playlists is kind of to trick the algorithm on Spotify. The algorithm sees a song popping up on a bunch of playlists and it goes, okay, clearly people are liking this song, let's feed the song to more people. It is all about the algorithm.

Should we do this? Should we like reach out to some of these third party?

Yeah, 2023, that's what we do. Under payola rules, you don't even have to disclose when you pay to get playlisted because the payola rules were set before playlists and streaming music existed. They only apply to radio or TV. But this is kind of murky territory because Spotify does say very clearly if you are giving

someone money for guaranteed placement on a playlist that is against our policies. No, you cannot pay to put your song on any Spotify playlist.

Don't do it. We will not.

We promise we won't do it. We promise we won't do it. That's Sam again from Spotify. Now some services say they don't guarantee your song will get on a playlist. They just say there's a possibility of it. But even Spotify is like, okay, maybe that's not a violation of our definitely don't pay

to play rule. Yeah, but this rule does feel like an arbitrary line in the sand a little bit because Spotify is saying, no, you definitely cannot pay for a 100% guarantee that your song will be put in front of more people in the form of a playlist.

But they do let you pay to put your song in front of more people in these other ways. When we first released the Inflation song, Spotify had told us we could pay them to promote it.

But our song had to get to 5000 listens first, and we did. You sure did.

Yeah, by a mile.

But it turns out those listens would only help us on some future song.

You'd be set up for his next single, a remix and any sort of new release. We consider putting out a merengue version of Inflation. But then we decided to do what lots of musicians are doing these days. Just speed it up and re-release it. And we have dropped that remix. It's out there. Same song, just a little faster. Dropping this remix lets us pay for a little pop up to appear on Spotify. It'll cost us 35 cents every time someone clicks on it. And remember, we make less than a penny every time someone streams the song. But whatever.

The hope is they listen again and again. Also, we're spending another thousand dollars on ads on Spotify for our original song.

When you're listening to the free version, you might hear this. Hello, everybody. This is Ernest Jackson. I have this song called Inflation with a band called Sugar Daddy and the Gumbo Roo. It's been in the can for 47 years. I want you to check it out because it's with that funk. Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum. Yeah, that's that real groove. That's that New Orleans thing, you know? The song is called Inflation by Ernest Jackson.

Take the funk out. After the break, we find a loophole, a way to legally pay for some play on TikTok. Also, we have merch, including vinyl records.

Just a few. We're back. It's Planet Money Records. And we've been trying to figure out how to get our song Inflation played and streamed and monetized. And these days, one of the biggest ways to find new music is on TikTok. It's where songs like Old Town Road exploded.

And where songs like Love Nuantiti went totally viral. People were making TikToks of themselves dancing with these songs in the background. It's how a lot of people discovered these songs. And then those people went on to stream the songs.

And that's what we want.

And there is a person at TikTok whose job it is to advise record labels.

My name is Marissa Jeffries. We tell Marissa, we want to get on TikTok.

And Marissa tells us you kind of already are. So if you type in Ernest Jackson Inflation, you'll see that there's videos that will

pop up. Oh. Wait, people have made videos of our song? Yes. Okay. I'm on TikTok. You'll see there's like a crocheting video. Okay. It says, why am I crocheting a scarf per day in November? Inflation is in the nation. Oh, that's amazing. That's cool.

But it's also like if you read the comments, this person is saying, I'm trying to do my part to make sure that people have warmth as winter approaches.

So it's like people are just taking this song and the lyrics in different ways. There's also this informational TikTok where some guy just has five tips to fight inflation and our song is playing behind it all.

One of the other videos, someone is literally using the song and the only thing that they have put in their video is a picture of a stack of plates at the grocery store, like paper plates.

Oh my God. This guy with the paper plates. Right?


La Sara to TikTok.

It's a stack of plates for $19.72 for paper plates. We get royalties every time someone uses our song on TikTok too. So far we've gotten one penny. Very, very little. But if we go viral, maybe it can add up to something big. So Marissa says we should have Ernest Jackson make some TikToks.

But Ernest, you know, he's pretty offline. Or Marissa tells us we could also distance ourselves from inflation completely and lean in to this other part of the song, the intro, which kind of just speaks to like the day

to day grind of life. I could totally envision a parent doing something mundane, right? Making the lunches, brushing the hair, and they're just mouthing the intro to the song.

Oh, I like that. And you know, we could just wait for people to make these videos totally on their own. Like it's already kind of happening, right? But we could also pay people to make these videos. Like people would just think, oh, everyone in the world just happens to be making videos using the inflation song. How nice. When really people were paid to make them.

This happens all the time. There's actually a company called Playlist Push that approaches TikTokers for you. They say $515 can get you up to 10 custom TikToks probably within a week that can reach a million people, which is exactly what we needed. Except if we want to be on totally legal ground when it comes to just general advertising on the internet, we would want the TikTokers to disclose that planet money records paid them. Which is a problem because Playlist Push very clearly tells its TikTokers you're not allowed to disclose that you got paid to make videos.

That's your Playlist Push rule.

You are not supposed to disclose that you were paid to make this video.

Typically that's how we've done it, yes. George Goodrich is the CEO of Playlist Push and we tell him, listen, the only way that

we would do a Playlist Push TikTok campaign is if people disclose that we paid them.

We are journalists after all. Yeah. Unfortunately, we're like real straight laced around here at NPR.

Well, I guess, let me ask you this, what's the doomsday scenario for you guys if you

run the campaign and you don't say that they were compensated to make the video? We don't know because we're not lawyers, but we don't want to get NPR in any kind of trouble. They would just... It's a bad look for us.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's a bad look for us.

We do a bad look for us. Yeah, fair enough. I totally get where you guys are coming from.

You got to check all of those legal boxes. Playlist Push actually made a special exception for us.

Oh, yeah. I mean, you know, I think the song is cool.

The song is very timely.

Every TikTok that is made will include sponsored by Planet Money Records in the video itself. And the first person paid by Planet Money, the real Playlist Push to make a TikTok is this woman with 154,000 followers. She's in gardening gloves, planting some some leafy greens, what looks like tomatoes, and she's kind of like, it is too expensive to buy healthy food these days, so let's grow our own.

And the inflation song is playing in the background, so creative. She got $50 for this video because it got 80,000 views. Playlist Push pays based on how many views you get. And so now we're just like waiting for all the other TikToks to start flowing in, flowing in.

But a month goes by and only two more people make TikToks. I think a lot of it is really just the, you know, the ad thing. They don't want people to know that they got paid to make the video right at the end of

the day. Yeah. Influencers literally won't take our money. This like buy the book disclosure thing is really messing things up for us. So I don't know, Planet Money listeners, why don't you make some TikToks for us? Record yourself with your shopping list or whatever and just use Earnest song in the background.

Awesome. Awesome. We have some merch.

We have something to show you. Okay. Yeah.

That's a hoodie. Yeah, we got hoodies. We have a Planet Money Records coffee mug, some inflation stickers.

They're all like neon and have like a little 70s feel. I like the colors, baby. I like the colors.

I really dig that hoodie, you know, where can I get one, where can I get one?

And then we show Earnest the big one. This is the thing that I am most excited about. This was like my dream from the very beginning. Well, that looks like me back in the 70s. That is you. This is the jacket for the vinyl that we are releasing of your song. So we're releasing inflation as a little 45.

Oh, really? So this is your album cover. Oh, wow.

We are releasing it. Yes. We are releasing it. Yes, indeed. I think that's great. I'm happy, baby. I'm happy.

That's beautiful. Those vinyl records are for sale now. You can pre-order them on, Planet Money. They should arrive in June.

Then we tell Earnest, this is kind of it for Planet Money Records. You know, this is sort of the end. Okay. We've done, I think, everything we can do for right now.

Okay. Okay, dear.

Sounds good. But yeah, it's been really fun working with you on this.

It really has been. It's been a gas, man. And I love you both, okay?

We love you back. And as of this recording, inflation has been streamed about 1.2 million times. Over a million. That puts us in the top, like, 1% of songs streamed on Spotify ever.

And Earnest probably won't get much more than $2,000 for that. Yeah. And after months of inserting ourselves into the music industry, the kind of heartbreaking thing we've realized is that we probably would have gotten to a million streams even without all the paid promotion we did, because we had this one big advantage. You, our Planet Money listeners, and the, companies literally bent the rules for us and

gave us way more attention and handholding than most unknown artists would ever get. So after the inflation song dropped, Sugar Daddy and the Gumbo Roo and Earnest Jackson released another song. They recorded it the same day, same studio, same group of guys that recorded inflation.

And that song has gotten just enough streams to earn them each $3.

This is the much more common experience for artists. Today's show was produced by Emma Peasley and James Snead. It was edited by Jess Jang and Sally Helm, fact-checked by Sierra Juarez, and engineered by Brian Jarbo.

Emily Kinslow managed our record label project. Thank you also to Josh Rogison for remixing our inflation song, Sasha Fomenzkaya for our merch, Ashley Benson and Susannah Salazar for figuring out all of our royalty splits

and getting all of our artists paid. Thank you to WRKF in Baton Rouge, and thanks to the folks at Toonkor for helping our little indie label. I'm Erika Barris.

And I'm Sarah Gonzalez. This is

Thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.