The NFL Wants Musicians to Pay for the Honor of Playing the Super Bowl

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Aug. 19 2014 6:08 PM

The NFL Wants Musicians to Pay for the Honor of Playing the Super Bowl

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Would this reunion have ever happened if Beyonce had to pay for the honor?

Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

The Super Bowl is the greatest advertising event of the year, and we should fully expect the National Football League to wring every bit of cash from it possible. That said, news that its officials have  asked at least some of the musical acts under consideration for this year's halftime show to pay for the privilege of playing the big game is a bit irksome. Citing "people familiar with the matter," the Wall Street Journal reports that NFL has narrowed down its choices to three contenders: Coldplay, Rihanna, and Katy Perry. However:

While notifying the artists' camps of their candidacy, league representatives also asked at least some of the acts if they would be willing to contribute a portion of their post-Super Bowl tour income to the league, or if they would make some other type of financial contribution, in exchange for the halftime gig.
The pay-to-play suggestion got a chilly reception from the candidates' representatives, these people said.
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The NFL's logic, as the WSJ explains, isn't anything surprising. When artists play the Super Bowl, their music sales often get a short-lived pop. Some, like Beyoncé, have used the appearance to promote a new concert tour. Since the NFL already doesn't pay halftime acts, there's already a tradition of playing for exposure. Now, the league is simply saying that exposure is worth paying for, which—considering we're talking about fabulously successful and wealthy pop stars—isn't exactly a crime. While I'm sure some might look at this as payola on a grand scale, I don't think the comparison really holds. Radio stations may be businesses, but they use the public airwaves and are still the way plenty of Americans discover music—which creates a need for trust. Most viewers tuning into the Super Bowl, on the other hand, aren't there to learn about cool new bands.

So no, I'm not offended on behalf of Coldplay, Rihanna, Katy Perry, or the TV-watching public. What bugs me is that, if the NFL really does make this a policy, it's going to end up with acts that need the advertising, as opposed to the kinds of stars who've actually made the whole production watchable (or at least memorable) in recent years. Would Destiny's Child have ever reunited for a live audience if Beyoncé had to pay for the privilege? Would middle America have ever gotten to watch Madonna, dressed as a Roman goddess, paraded out by a retinue of muscle-y legionnaires? Would Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake have conspired to give us the phrase "wardrobe malfunction"? I'm not confident the answer is yes. And at some point, culture ought to come before commerce. Even on Super Bowl Sunday. 

Jordan Weissmann is Slate's senior business and economics correspondent.

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