Monday, March 02, 2015

How to get a record on the air or a Golden Globe

Here’s another one of those Friday Questions that became an entire post. It’s from Bill Jones (who did not pay me to answer it):

I was wondering if you could talk frankly about "payola" in the radio industry. From what I know, record labels and radio stations got caught in pay-for-play scandals in the 1950s or so, but the practice lasted for decades beyond (including on MTV, and may still last today in both media). Did you ever witness or hear of such conduct while you were a DJ? Who did the labels try to bribe--station managers? Playlist supervisors? DJs? And was it with money or, um, other substances? Just wondering -- thanks!

Payola was a big scandal in the late ‘50s. Record companies realized that only songs that got radio airplay became hits. Back then radio stations had huge audiences and great influence. There was no Pandora, and the only satellite was Sputnik and they only played Russian hits.

Disc jockeys in those days had much more freedom than they do today. They could select their own music. So needless to say, they were the targets of the record companies. DJ’s were paid under the table to play their songs. Many radio stations knew about this practice and looked the other way. In fact, they sometimes didn’t pay their disc jockeys very high salaries, knowing their income would be padded by the record companies.

But of course this practice was dishonest. Disc Jockeys were recommending crap just because their palms were being greased.

The result was a big scandal. Back in those days congressional hearings and witch hunts were quite the fad. Lots of DJ’s lost their jobs, including the great Alan Freed. Somehow, however, Dick Clark managed to escape unscathed. Clark didn’t take payola per se from record companies, he owned a whole bunch of them. He also received royalties from tons of hits that he essentially made by giving the artists exposure on AMERICAN BANDSTAND. Clark divested of all his record company holdings and walked away clean. Alan Freed was not so lucky. His career was essentially ruined.

Stations assumed more control over the programming. By the mid ‘60s most Top 40 stations had music directors and program directors who ultimately decided which songs received airplay. So to pay off a Disc Jockey was like the stupid starlet who tries to get ahead in Hollywood by sleeping with writers.

Record companies found other ways to “encourage” the PD’s and MD’s to play their songs. Women, drugs, trips, wining and dining, free T-shirts. Is it legal? No, not really. But is this practice any different from what Washington lobbies do to win favor? Is a free junket “payola?” Or an expensive dinner? Or tickets to the Super Bowl?

Does payola still go on? Of course it does. Maybe not as overt, and certainly not as widespread – not because the radio industry is cleaning up its act, but because radio now has way less impact. Why pay to get a record on a station when you could get just as many listeners with a boombox sticking out of your car window?

As for MTV, I don’t think they even show music videos anymore. I don’t know what Music Television means if they no longer play music. To court MTV execs is like that stupid starlet sleeping with writers’ assistants.

Personally, I never took money when I was a Disc Jockey. Hey, I was never approached. A record promo man took me out to lunch once when I worked in San Bernardino. So I played his record on every station I ever worked for from then on. It was a really nice lunch. Dessert too. (Of course it helped that the record was a monster hit and every DJ played it all across the country.)

No record people ever offered me girls. I would have played polka tunes on a rock station if someone offered girls. But alas, they knew I had a very strict playlist, and in some cases the actual order of the songs was predetermined before I got on the air. So there was no reason to court me. Plus, I made fun of most records.

The key is whether the person or organization or congressman can be bought. I’d like to think that most can’t, but then I see the Golden Globes.

27 comments:

Scott Cason said...

I would have played polka tunes on a rock station if someone offered girls. I would have played a 400 Hz tone for some hot chicks in my day!

sC

Pat Reeder said...

I was both a DJ and a music director, but never got offered any payola, darn it. Probably hurt that my only music director gigs were in oldies, and nobody was paying big bucks to play 30-year-old songs. I was happy just to get swag like free records, the occasional concert pass, and the odd T-shirt. I used to say that if record companies would just offer promotional pants, too, we DJs would have our entire wardrobes covered.

The payola that was still going on, at least until recently, was in the current pop/hip hop field, where DJs and PDs were getting everything from iPods to vacations for playing certain records. I seem to remember reading a few years ago that an investigation in NY discovered that the most paid-for hit was J-Lo's "Jenny From the Block." I think one station listed it as their "most-requested" song, even though there was no evidence that anyone, at any time, ever asked them to play it. I don't know if that's true, but payola on such a grand scale would finally explain J-Lo's entire recording career.

I often think of that when I hear the junk that gets radio play and even Grammy nominations these days, or see yet another mediocre talent become a huge star, with every song blown up into an uber-expensive production number that someone had to pay for. I also think of what Katy Perry said when someone asked how she became such a big star. She replied that she'd made a deal with the devil. I don't think she was joking.

Stoney said...

There was a WKRP episode that dealt with payola. A DJ hire was taking cocaine from a record promo guy and it took a hilarious turn when Johnny Fever covered for the DJ by telling Mr. Carlson it was foot powder.

The scandal was fodder for Stan Freberg's "The Old Payola Roll Blues" which I've always felt was kind of a cheap shot by Freberg; implying that Rock 'n Roll only became popular by the dirty deed.

Dan Ball said...

Pat, I love your last paragraph. My wife listens to a lot of pop and I frequently wonder how people like Meghan Trainor and Iggy Azalea and Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran and the like become 'stars'. They seemingly come out of the woodwork and they're instantly hailed as stars and yeah, their songs are these colossal productions with mediocre content. It's not like they flounder around for a few years putting out ATOM HEART MOTHER or MEDDLE before they do a DARK SIDE OF THE MOON. They hit DARK SIDE instantly and suddenly they're everywhere. The only logical explanation is that this is all inflated. The best talents rarely rise to the top anymore.

B.C. Christiansen said...

MTV DOES play music videos, at like 6 am, which I'll watch before work. Wouldn't you know it, I have actually been exposed to a few new artists this way. Yeah, I don't think they're changing the game anymore, though!

Anonymous said...

I remember one time in the 1970's on his national late-night program Tom Snyder had a couple of the top rock jocks from across the country, maybe it was Scott Muni, Charlie Tuna and Don Steele or if not them, some other similar combination of prominent guys.
And Snyder asked them about payola and they all said, "no, it was once a big deal but those days are over, industry has been cleaned up, no serious jock would do that, blah, blah, blah..."
then he turns to Uncle Lar, Larry Lujack and asks him about payola. And Lujack looks at him with mock gravity and says" Payola? you mean money to play records? Sure you pay me enough money and I'll play your record all day long."
The overly serious Snyder is speechless. His jaw drops and he has to cut to a commercial.
One of the funniest moments I ever saw

VP81955 said...

Alan Freed's career was indeed ruined, but it didn't end. He briefly wound up in Los Angeles (there is a fascinating aircheck of him from KDAY in late 1960 circulating in cyberspace) before resurfacing in Miami, IIRC. He lived to see the start of Beatlemania (though I'm not sure he was working at the time or if he ever played a Beatles record), but died Jan. 20, 1965. Ken, do you recall Alan Freed at KDAY, or was that a little before your rock 'n' roll time?

Dan said...

I am so naive, but I don't understand why this was (is) illegal.

Oat Willie said...

Dan: Payola is illegal because it interferes with The Corporation taking its cut of the vigorish.

Mike Barer said...

Payola is illegal, because in a perfect world, DJ's play songs based on taste and talent.

Dan said...

Mike Barer: Sure I (sorta) get that it is unethical, but illegal?

DwWashburn said...

I have several friends in the radio business and they tell me that payola is alive and well, but only for the higher-ups of the company.

Indirectly I guess you could say that payola also reaches the rank and file. Board jockeys are told that if you play the playlists you get paid. If you don't you don't.

Rich said...

I worked for Clark in the early 'Oughts' on one of his television specials. I was in the kitchen of Dick Clark Productions when somebody brought up this topic. I was interested to see that Clark himself was still steamed about having to divest his record company interests, and he had a interesting point of view about it. He pointed out that Lawrence Welk (!) was doing exactly the same thing he was doing -- signing artists, putting out their records on his own label, then booking those artists on his teevee show to promote them. Only nobody gave a shit because he was, you know, Lawrence Welk, and it wasn't Satan's music igniting the hormones of impressionable teens, it was a guy who was shucking MOR corn for their grandparents. He was, of course, right, and it made no difference....

Anonymous said...

Another reason it was illegal was because there were some, ahem, how shall we put it - dubious business influences - involved in rock and roll in those days, especially on the East Coast in New York and New Jersey. See James, Tommy; Seasons, Four.

Anonymous said...

Tried DJ, but will get back into it. Love the radio. Some talent out there. But not a lot. Most are DONE with trying to be epic or iconic.

Victor Velasco said...

I worked in the record biz in the 80's and how it worked then was to go to the PD's and MD's and later, the consultants; the best or worst way - depending on your POV - was the golf course bet; e.g. 'well, I say I can make a hole in one on this 450 yd. par 5; in fact I'll bet you $5000!...oops, shanked it, well, here ya go'

Loosehead said...

Rich you make an interesting point about Dick Clark and Lawrence Welk. Do you think there is any difference to what Simon Cowell now does, where to progress in his talent shows you have to sign to his label, and then the talent show effectively promote his acts.

Kosmo13 said...

I'd always heard (and it might even be true) that during the payola scandals, payola was illegal only in some states but not others.

Pennsylvania was allegedly one state in which payola was not illegal. Since Dick Clark's home base was Pennsylvania, any such activity he engaged in was deemed unethical but not criminal.

Anonymous said...

I guess the big question is how many times can you listen to a piece of crap song and decide "my god, I hated this song before but now I love it." In the end, I think payola really only works if the songs are good to begin with -- otherwise the public will decide. Maybe this is how "B-sides" and "lost treasures" were created -- these were the better songs that were blocked by the payola records.

In the early 1990s I worked as an intern for a a music management company in LA. Instead of payola, they literally had some guy in a conference room calling every top 40 radio station in the country and requesting the station play one of their artist's songs. I did many crappy jobs that summer (like driving in rush hour in LA to deliver MTV music award tix) but fortunately another schmuck got the radio-calling gig.

Anonymous said...

"Back in those days congressional hearings and witch hunts were quite the fad." Glad that doesn't happen anymore.

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Anonymous said...

You should see my wife's golden globes. Ima talking 'bout her TITS!!!

Cap'n Bob said...

does anyone remember when Margo St. James performed fellatio on an alternate rock station dj in San Francisco one night? She was promoting a hookers' union called COYOTE (Call Off Your Old, Tired Ethics).

JoeyH said...

Payola was actually legal if it was DISCLOSED. "Stone Brothers Records has provided promotional consideration to WABC." or whatever. So, by the 90s, plenty of stations were taking "promotional" money and burying the disclosure. The promo guys hired by the record companies were just interested in getting records tracked by the automated listening stations and a few "spins" tallied for the industry music charts.

Courtney said...

A music director in one of the Southern secondary markets in the early 70's, one Christmas I received a beautiful leather bag from a West Coast label that I suspect was really meant for a jock over in Atlanta, where considerably more people were listening to records on the radio. I always wondered what the guy at the Atlanta station thought when he opened his box and found the Instamatic camera I was supposed to receive...

Al Leos said...

The whole "payola" scandal was nothing but the big record companies trying to drive the indies out of business. Labels like Columbia and Mercury were driven off the charts by upstart rock labels like Sun and VeeJay. So even though the big labels were as dirty-handed as the indies, they backed the "payola" investigations. Read Fred Dannen's excellent expose of the record industry "Hit Men"; paying off radio has been around from day one.

rmc said...

The NY probe a few years back ended up costing someone a job here in Wisconsin. In dredging through the evidence looking for serious graft, they turned up an email message this guy had written about a station's completely legit concert promotion, where he said something like, "and how about a couple tickets for the poor PD?". As soon as the station saw that come out, he was gone in a flash.

It was a great station, and they guy was s longtime local fixture. My view of him from his on-air presence and a few brief meetings at events was that he was a nice, knowledgable, and cared about making the station good & interesting.

It's probable that his only mistake was putting in writing (and searchable writing, to boot) what would've been informal SOP in most places. But Wisconsin does have a low threshold for scandal. Our college sports world went nuts when players were getting discounted shoes. State legislators & staffers got jail sentences for doing some political party work on gov't time. Not that that's not illegal, but I imagine you'd get fired in Chicago if you didn't do that.