Choose Your Words Carefully

Those who know me at all well know that I love words. I delight in a beautiful turn of phrase. I am amused by oxymoronic combinations (“Live Chickens Fresh Killed” remains a favorite storefront sign from my days in Somerville, Mass.) And I can get agitated when words are misused, and worse, abused for the sake of drama.

It was amid that agitation last week that I began a post challenging bloggers to avoid ill-advised use of language.

An excerpt from the offending post:

AlwaysOn conference payola: only $1,000 a minute! 1/3rd the cost of DEMO’s payola!

The DEMO conference isn’t the only payola game in town…. looks like Tony Perkins is trying to get a $1,000 a minute from startup companies to present at his conference. Now, that’s like $2,000 less than DEMO charges per minute, so I guess it’s a deal!

Here’s how they get you… first they send you a “congratulations!” email (just like a spammer), then they break the news of the fee to you.

Let’s ignore for the moment the ridiculous calculus and focus instead on what I have to believe is the misuse of the word “payola.” It sounds good. It’s even kind of fun to say. Payola. It kind of rolls around in your mouth. But it is exactly the wrong word to describe a business model as transparent as that of DEMO or AlwaysOn. Both companies do ask their clients to “pay” for the services rendered to them. But there is a tremendous difference between “pay” and “payola.”

pay 1 (p)

v. paid (pd), pay·ing, pays

1. To give money to in return for goods or services rendered: pay the cashier.

Giving money in return for goods or services is a common business practice. Good businesses work to ensure that they deliver value to their customers in equal or greater measure than the price paid. Business has worked this way for millennia.

pay·o·la (pl)

1. Bribery of an influential person in exchange for the promotion of a product or service, such that of disc jockeys for the promotion of records.
2. A bribe or a number of bribes given to an influential person in exchange for a promotion of a product or service: “I do not mean to imply that most Wall Street analysts typically receive payola for touting particular stocks” Burton G. Malkiel.
And to be certain we are absolutely clear:
bribe (brb)


1. Something, such as money or a favor, offered or given to a person in a position of trust to influence that person’s views or conduct.
2. Something serving to influence or persuade.
Payola is not a standard business practice. In fact, in most instances, it is a crime. So in an attempt to be cute or perhaps incendiary, this writer has allowed his language to become libelous.

Certainly, it’s true that this particular malapropism is apt to perturb me. After all, a business and brand that is practically pseudonymous with my career and good name is being painted with a poisonous brush. But it’s just not DEMO or AlwaysOn or me or Tony Perkins that is affected by careless language.

Anyone -and there are tens of thousands of us – using social media to be taken seriously as thinkers, writers, and analysts are affected when small numbers of bloggers mangle the language and the blogosphere’s credibility with it. These days, words are tossed about carelessly. A blogger engages in outrageous language to make his writing more entertaining. Entertaining posts attract more readers. More readers embolden the blogger to amp the crowd-pleasing hyperbole and so the cycle continues. And thus, the blogosphere – a platform that could as well support and encourage civil discourse and intelligent debate – has devolved in too many instances into a circus of words tossed about to amuse the masses.

We can do better than that. We must do better than that if blogs are going to be taken seriously by the mainstream masses.



  1. Jim Forbes said

    the first time I saw two bloggers use the term “payola” in reference to Demo, i challenged them to document and post a single instance of my committing Payola in conjunction with the shows. I frankly reminded two of the three of the bloggers who used the term “Payola” in reference to Demo that I cared about my reputation and byloine a great deal and that I felt they were in slandeerous territory without a valid legal defense. Both stopped using the term “Payola” in conjunction with Demo and they both admitted to me that they had never heard anything about me other than I was a “tough and objective reporter.”


  2. Seems like payola to me.

    It seems like only after the uproar of transparency surrounding these conferences has the ‘demonstrator fee’ been talked about by organizers.

    The website structure and copy mostly discusses how they are looking for the best products, the best presenters, the best ideas. They spend their time reviewing all submissions and getting in contact with startups… and then if ‘they’ select ‘you,’ you are granted their publicity for $18.5k.

    As pointed out elsewhere on the web today… can you get on-stage without paying?

    This post is mostly about semantics and specific terminology. I think the widespread usage of payola comes from the way DEMO presents itself: as a platform with non-influenced integrity, recalling the idea popularized by professional journalism.

    I haven’t seen too many newspapers that only write articles (all positive) about their sponsors.

    If companies can get on the stage without paying… no problem.

    You say that we should call it simply ‘paying:’ giving money in return for goods or services. How is that also not ‘payola?’ A bribe is still a payment for a good or service…

  3. Dave said

    Maybe another music biz term, “Pay to Play” is a better? It would the serve the writer’s opinion better (this is a negative to term to bands that have had pay to play a club instead of the other way around). And is more accurate as presenters are paying to play at this event. In other words, the presenters are providing content for the presenters show and are paying to do so.

  4. Hi, Andrew,

    DEMO has never been anything but transparent about its business model and it has, for years, published its fees on its web site.

    The widespread use of “payola” comes from a music industry practice of paying DJs to give airtime to songs in order to popularize them. These were back channel bribes and few radio listeners had any idea the songs they were hearing and influenced to buy were being promoted to them in this fashion.

    On the contrary, as the executive producer for DEMO for more than 12 years, I can assure you that I have never accepted a bribe by any company in order to invite them to the event and/or give preferential treatment to them at the conference. It just doesn’t happen. Never.

    It is exactly the ‘semantics and specific terminology’ that are so important, and I thank you for helping me make my point. If you – or anyone – equate “pay” with “bribe” then you fail to distinguish the ethical difference between a clear and transparent business transaction and a behavior designed to curry favor. And that, I’m afraid, is a bigger problem.

    – Chris Shipley

  5. Dave,

    I’m not sure I *like* the term “pay to play” as its traditional use and connotation smack of thuggery. But for the sake of argument, let’s use it. Now, the onus is on the venue to perform for the payee, rather than the other way around. If a club doesn’t bring in record producers and the like to hear the music, if those producers don’t sign bands with enough frequency to give a hopeful musician a sense of value, well then why would a band pay for the privilege of helping a club owner sell drinks to customers?

    By the same token, a band isn’t going to play for free so that the club owner can make money on cover charges and cocktails. But if a band doesn’t draw a crowd or is just so awful that it drives paying, drinking customers from the club, it may not get paid for a gig.

    In other words, it’s a value exchange. The gives and gets are obvious in a transparent business model. When something is “free” you can be sure someone, somewhere, somehow is paying for something.

    In the case of DEMO, we strive to be very transparent. And because we charge selected companies $18.5k, there is an incredible responsibility on our organization to make sure we deliver equal or greater value for the price paid. I take that obligation very seriously, and I have to think we must be doing something right; we’ve had companies and serial entrepreneurs come back to DEMO again and again to launch products with us. If we weren’t delivering on our value proposition, I doubt they’d do that.

  6. We, e.g. ActiveWords, presented twice at Demo. We found it to be an invaluable experience. The event, the production values and the entire experience were extraordinary. The event was first class and very much worth our investment.

    The reality that the event producers were a for-profit business was clear to us up front. Demo was and is a success business providing an invaluable service to small companies seeking invaluable exposure.

    It seemed to me that most, if not all of the companies presenting, were delighted with the experience.

    I have met a number of companies who sought to be at Demo, but in the best judgment of Chris and her team their technology did not meet her criteria. I have never heard anyone complain about the cost of Demo other than to wonder whether Demo is the best place to showcase their technology.

    Demo worked for us, and to the best of my knowledge has worked for a number of other companies.

    The insinuation of “payola” is absurd. “Paying to play”…not sure that doesn’t ring hollow, simply acknowledging a lesson that I learned a long time ago, e.g. tuition is what it costs to learn a lesson.

    We learned an enormous amount at Demo, we concluded the experience was invaluable, and I recommend Demo to anyone who asks.

  7. Jason said

    Actually, from my experience most folks have not been aware of DEMO’s fees (of course, the comparison with TechCrunch50 which is free has certainly pushed this out into the sunlight). The DEMO site buries the notation of fees four pages down in fact. you really have to search to find it. As such, I think it’s highly deceptive and qualifies it as conference payola.

    So, while you may not have completely hidden it you’ve done a great job of keeping it on the DL.

    If you like “pay for play” better we can all switch to calling it that…. or even better, why not drop the $18,500 fee and we can call it merit based! 🙂

    The Always On conference hides it really deep down. In fact, it took me a couple of emails after my congratulations message to get it out of them.

    If you are in fact proud of the service why not put the fact that people pay $18,500 on the home page instead of four pages down?

    all the best,


  8. Jason,

    hear, hear…i’ve been like friggin john the baptist out there in the wilderness, saying this for years. But TC 50 ain’t exactly free either. You have your “pay-pit” too. The only entirely merit based, free to presenters events I know of are the technology ventures events put on by Dow Jones. Originated by Dick Shaffer, former tech editor of the WSJ, as Technologic Partners…Dow Jones purchased it from him a number of years ago. While they also have a table top evening soiree, at least there’s no competition from other presentations and it’s generally sponsors who purchase those spots. Just about any company that has a decent story can get a presenting slot. I’ve yet to have a client turned away.

  9. Andrew Spoeth said


    I applaud you and Mike for putting together TC40/50, as last year’s event was a huge success. However, since you’re big on the topic of transparency, you should disclose the fact that most of the 40 presenters (>80%) from last year were companies that were already funded.

    How is this not misleading?

    “We created a platform where early-stage, and frequently unfunded, companies could take center stage based purely on merit, without regard to their own financial resources.”

    I’m sure Mint didn’t really need that $50K.

  10. I’ve personally never heard anyone complain about the quality of content at DEMO. But I have heard people express surprise that exhibitors pay a fee, and I do think when people learn that, it takes some shine off the apple. Who would have been there if there hadn’t been a fee? How different would the lineup have been? Was this really a parade of second-string companies with deeper pockets?

    But instead of drilling DEMO, I’d love to hear a discussion of event models among some of the very experienced producers joining this discussion. How, today, do you balance all of the competing expectations and interests of attendees, exhibitors and sponsors, and at least cover your costs? Maybe Dow Jones can afford to run a totally merit-based event, but unless you also have Dow Jones’ other streams of revenue, that’s not realistic for most event producers. If you don’t charge exhibitors or sponsors, you have to drive up the registration cost for attendees. Good luck making that fly.

  11. The only problem I’ve ever had with DEMO is the acting. Its SOOOOO bad. Aside from a technology show, is there a chance Chris and gang could audition some of these people who go on there and make these demo scenarios less “fake”. If you’re curious, just go watch some of the past video’s on DEMO’s website, especially for software companies.

  12. Jason,

    You’ve been very vocal about DEMO’s business model while saying virtually nothing about how TC50 makes money. I’m pretty sure you’re not a non-profit, so just what do you give your sponsors in return for their (and let’s use the correct language here) payment?


  13. Marcy Hoffman said

    I don’t know if the silicon valley insiders understand what DEMO does for companies, such as mine, who are not CA or Boston based. i-Lighter presented at DEMOfall 06 and the exposure, the connections (Hi Jim) and the experience that Chris and her team provided us was indescribable. From the day we were invited to present through the event itself, the DEMO team coached us, advised us and guided us through what could have been a daunting few days. I reached out to Chris even after the event for advice and, as always, she was there to help.
    We were self funded and this was a huge expense for and the decision to apply was not an easy one. DEMO gave us a platform and winning a DEMOgod award gave us validation that we could not have easily replicated- at any cost.
    Marcy Hoffman

  14. Jason said


    The conference makes money primarily through ticket sales, and we make a little from sponsorships.

    Yes, it is a business. 🙂

    The partners get promotion, tickets, host a sponsor breakfast/lunch panel *or* have a booth (panels are clearly labeled of course), the chance to network with the startup companies (at least the ones that opt into that), and the like. Standard stuff:

    At the end of the day I don’t have a problem with you Chris. I actually think you’re very smart and cool. What I do have a problem with is the $18,500 fee. Intelligent folks can disagree about these fees, and the different models of our shows. I believe we have a better model and that the marketplace will vote with our model and “conference payola” (I know you don’t like the term) will stop. As an entrepreneur myself I want to kill the “pay for play” model.

    If you could do your even without charging 18,500 would you do it? I’m sure you would. If you’re interested in something like this I’d love to have you come work with Mike and I on TechCrunch50. That’s a real offer… leave DEMO after this year (or whenever your contract is up) and put your big brain and great gut for startups to work on TechCrunch50 which has figured out a model that doesn’t require charging people.

    I know this whole thing has gotten really charged up, but the truth is you and I are not so different–we both love startups and this format of event. Come work with us and you’ll never have to turn down a company which can’t afford the fee again.

    all the best,


  15. Thanks, Jason, for the offer, but I’m not looking for another job. We may both love startups, but I think that’s about where the similarity ends.

    – Chris

  16. Wow. Whatever argument you were making, Jason, just evaporated in a dazzling cloud of hubris.

  17. […] fact, Jason Calacanis commented on a post on this blog earlier this week: At the end of the day I don’t have a problem with you Chris. I […]

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