where do the poor go when all the tenements are gone?


now playing: pure prairie league, “something in the night”


there’s been a lot of publicity, a lot of dialogue of late, about elliot spitzer and his crusade to rid the music industry once and for all of the payola cloud that has hung over radio since (presumably) the halcyon days of rock an roll…

assuming he’s able to accomplish this, i can’t help but wonder what will take its place…what mechanism becomes the accepted means of delivery to the aimlessly wandering program directors who are accustomed to being told what to do when they show up to work every day?

before i get both feet on my soapbox, i want to share a couple of recent articles on the subject (those who wish not to read can place their index finger on the scroll button now):

Broken Record


THIS is not a pretty picture,” declared Eliot Spitzer, the New York attorney general, at a press conference on Monday to trumpet his office’s yearlong investigation into corrupt dealings between big music companies and broadcasters. “What we see is that payola is pervasive. It is omnipresent. It is driving the industry and it is wrong.” But the picture might look a little different to Mr. Spitzer were he to pick up a few history books.

The music industry’s use of bribes to buy exposure for songs actually long predates broadcasting and was one of the defining traits of the New York-centered empire of melody known as Tin Pan Alley. To reach as many ears as possible, music publishers in the late 19th century would ply itinerant vaudeville performers with gifts to carry their most promising melodies across the country by rail. If audiences liked what they heard, the publishers would profit from the sale of copyrighted sheet music. Star singers stood to make as much from pay-for-play as they did from their theatrical salaries; even essentially nonmusical acts like jugglers and dancers that had musical accompaniment enjoyed some trickle-down benefit from the system. So did the shills who were paid to sit in the cheap seats and applaud for or sing along with a given song.

With the advent of silent movies, Tin Pan Alley publishers took measures to motivate theater organists and pianists to incorporate specific melodies into the medleys they played. A payola-supported class of entertainers called “illustrated slide singers” projected still photographs subtitled with song lyrics before the movie showings and invited the audience to sing along while “following the bouncing ball.” When movies switched to sound, the organists and slide singers disappeared, but the music publishers struck up new promotional romances with Hollywood studios.

When radio came along in the 1920’s, Tin Pan Alley greeted it about as warmly as today’s music conglomerates have greeted the Internet. As far as songwriters and publishers were concerned, all broadcasting did was overexpose potential hit songs before they could reach their profitable prime. In fact, radio was magically expanding the market for musical goods: it used to take months to infect the public with hunger for a particular tune, and hits would remain current for up to two years. Radio shrank the life cycle of a hit first to months and eventually to weeks, meaning that more songs could be turned into moneymakers.

By the early 1930’s, the NBC network was openly musing about formalizing the covertly entrenched pay-for-play practices by charging music publishers a flat rate for each exposure of a new song. The weakness of this plan was that the era’s star bandleaders and singers would have never put up with it because that would have interfered with their own payola arrangements.

But by the 1940’s, singers and bandleaders had to share the take with the emerging disc jockeys, with the latter coming into their own as the gatekeepers of pop music in the 1950’s, when television usurped radio’s place as the nation’s alpha medium and encouraged the courtship of a youth demographic. Around 1955, middle-class white teenagers decided en masse to tune out the likes of Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney and Andy Williams in favor of Chuck Berry, Wanda Jackson and Elvis Presley. Soon thereafter, politicians, the press, the clergy, P.T.A.’s and other moralists seized on pay-for-play arrangements to explain the unfathomable success of such a degraded musical idiom as rock ‘n’ roll: the poor innocents had been bamboozled by corrupt D.J.’s into thinking that Elvis could sing. In a ludicrous series of Congressional show hearings, rock D.J.’s who spun records by black artists got pilloried, while those who favored the white-faced pop à la Pat Boone walked away unharmed.

The moral panic over rock ‘n’ roll brought about incoherent legal changes that would only worsen payola’s worst effects. Radio companies handcuffed their D.J.’s by forbidding them to broadcast songs not on approved playlists, but that only shifted the song-picking power higher up the corporate ladder and further out of sight, thus raising the price and favoring large record labels over small ones of the kind that led the rock revolution. Nonsensically, the rewritten rules also permitted music companies to lobby broadcasters generally while forbidding them to make specific efforts on behalf of individual songs.

Music professionals have always agreed that hits cannot be bought. To this day, when a label backs the wrong song, it loses money. Moreover, systems of “bribery” analogous to payola operate in many retail markets. Most supermarket chains, for example, make a chunk of their revenue from “slotting fees,” which are the rents that food distributors pay them for shelf space. That such rents are paid says nothing about the flavor or nutritional value of any given item on the shelves. Where music is concerned, however, the concept of payola somehow seems intuitively revolting.

Yet, like it not, every popular song you’ve ever loved has reached you via some chain of pay-for-play machinations. The technological landscape has changed over time, as have the laws supposedly governing music promotion, but payola has been as constant and pervasive a force as gravity for more than a century now. A rational set of regulations would probably acknowledge this reality and aim at leveling the playing field so that small players can compete against big ones, just as they used to do in the early heyday of rock ‘n’ roll, when tiny labels like Sun briefly had the likes of RCA on the ropes.

Mr. Spitzer is doing his duty by enforcing the existing laws. But he might want to at least acknowledge that earlier attempts to kill payola, when they had any effect at all, have tended to leave the beast stronger.

Cliff Doerksen, a film critic for Time Out Chicago, is the author of “American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age.”

The Price of Fame

WHEN Eliot Spitzer, New York’s attorney general, announced this week that his office had settled payola allegations with Sony BMG Music Entertainment, he documented how record companies get songs on the radio as part of a corrupt system that few understand.

I certainly didn’t understand it – until my band, Semisonic, found itself flying around the country in 1996, visiting radio stations and ingratiating ourselves to program directors, just as our debut single, “Down in Flames,” was about to be released.

Knowing that our record company, MCA, would deduct our promotional expenses from the band’s share of future record sales, I kept tabs on our costs – flights, meals, hotels. After visiting stations in a few cities across the country, I estimated we had spent close to $20,000. If that figure was accurate, we’d have to sell tens of thousands of records just to pay for this transcontinental jaunt. I called our manager. How much had we spent on promotion overall? Close to $500,000.

This was my introduction to the pay-for-play system, one element of which is broadly referred to as payola. As I learned, the bulk of our promotional dollars had gone to independent record promoters, gatekeepers who control access to the airwaves. The promoters pay commercial radio stations, putatively to look at their playlists, but in reality, as those in the business know, to get their clients’ songs on the air. Then they charge record companies for their efforts.

Thus, the cost of promoting a new song, nationwide, can be hundreds of thousands of dollars – money that is taken out of whatever the musicians earn from their recording. This standard method of getting airplay circumvents payola laws, which forbid a radio station from accepting a payment to play a song without disclosing that payment to its listeners. Because the promoters pay the stations up front and collect later from record companies, the lines are sufficiently blurred, making it hard to prove that any quid pro quo transaction took place between a label and a station.

We also played at radio-station festivals, where our appearance assured us at least a modest degree of airplay. (One executive referred to this practice as “Show-ola.”)

Other shady methods were employed on our behalf – “You don’t want to know,” one person on the MCA promotion staff told me. The goal, of course, was to get a single on the radio and keep it there as long as possible to win over listeners. (The longer something new is on the air, the greater the chance that people will grow to like it.)

Thus, I was not surprised by the details from his investigation that Mr. Spitzer shared: memos outlining payments in return for spins; contests where a station flies lucky listeners to exotic destinations to hear a band perform, sponsored by a record label in return for airplay; a flat-screen television that was supposed to be given away on air finding a home in a program director’s living room.

That’s not to say there isn’t another side to the story. One person I know, a man with a long history of taking unknown bands to platinum sales, does not look forward to the day when money can’t buy airplay. “How will new bands get played?,” he asked, talking to me on the condition that I not name him.

It’s not an unreasonable question. I know from personal experience that most program directors are reluctant to find slots in their playlists for new artists.

That same person complains that payola is misunderstood: “You can’t buy a hit. You can only buy a chance for a song to become a hit.” Again, his point is valid. There are countless artists who have seen their future sales revenues eaten up by promotional costs for singles that went nowhere. In the case of my band, MCA spent more than $1 million in radio promotion on our behalf, and we had only one big hit.

In 1998, MCA released our song “Closing Time.” As with our previous singles – which failed to win over the public’s ears – the early research by radio stations seeking to gauge how listeners might react to the song was not promising. However, MCA’s promotional efforts kept it on the air until listener responses swung in our favor. Once “Closing Time” took off, radio stations wouldn’t let go of it. When MCA wanted to release our follow-up single, the promotion department asked program directors to ease “Closing Time” out of heavy rotation to make room for our next song. Many stations refused, citing its continued popularity.

Payola gets a song on the radio. If it becomes a hit, radio works it to death. In this day of consolidated radio ownership and programming, my friend suggests, eliminating payola could mean that commercial stations would become even more monotonous, if that can be imagined.

To my mind, however, the difficulty of picturing a world beyond payola is reason enough to cheer Eliot Spitzer along. Payola restricts access to the public airways; only artists whose labels are willing and able to pay get played. Listeners who might enjoy something else won’t hear it from stations on the take. And when fans go to the record store, they’ll find that payola has driven up the price of CD’s.

By the end of our three-album run with MCA, Semisonic had sold close to two million records, but we were a long way from recouping the costs of radio promotion. Thus musicians, even some who have benefited from payola, will applaud Mr. Spitzer, even as they wonder what chance he has of bringing about vast structural reform. Knowing what it takes to get their songs on the radio and watching their share of record sales swallowed up along the way, most recording artists would love to see the current system brought down, even if they can’t imagine what would replace it.

Jacob Slichter is the author of “So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful of Record Executives and Other True Tales From a Drummer’s Life.”

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