A Brief History of American Payola
Payola has been around as long as the record business and has long been an accepted, open secret.
Photo by Waring Abbott/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
This article is part of an editorial series sponsored by our friends over at HBO celebrating the launch of their new show 'Vinyl,' from Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Terry Winter exploring the crazy and fantastic world of music in the 1970s. Throughout the week, Noisey will analyze this iconic era with articles looking back in time.
Back in the 60s and 70s, the radio industry was flush with cash. DJs with greasy hair and greasier palms ruled the airwaves, passing judgement upon the thousands of records that slid their way courtesy of big, bloated labels with money to burn. Their job as official arbiters of cool was to pluck the chosen few singles destined for rotation out of the ever-mounting slush pile, the exposure of which to an eager listening public translated directly into sales. Given the glut of material that constantly flowed out of pressing plants across the country (with some labels releasing up to a hundred singles a week), record promoters had to work extra hard to make sure their clients scored airplay from the best-loved DJs on the choicest stations. Sometimes, phone calls weren’t enough—and that, my friends, is where payola comes in. Every time a label had a record really needed to push, it entered into a devil’s bargain with a chorus of disc jockeys singing the words that made Tom Cruise famous (before he went all batty): “Show me the money.”
Despite its long, colorful history and its rise to prominence in the 1950s, payola is now most closely associated with the swingin’ 60s and far-out 70s. arguably two of the most crucial chapters in the history of American popular music. Performing Songwriter estimates that even mid-level DJs could expect to clear at least $50 per week in bribes, with higher-profile jocks commanding much higher prices and much flashier swag. Some DJs and critics like Lester Bangs came out against the practice, but they were in a minority; money talks, and people listen. Most were more than happy to line their pockets and flood the airwaves with the good, the bad, and the awful—until they got caught, that is.
Bangs was especially troubled by the practice, less because of morality than due the effect it was having on the culture of music in general. “I can remember when most rock critics held the record companies and that in contempt, and just went and wrote what they wanted. Where now it seems like it’s really the opposite, that most of the people writing about the music are pretty much in the pocket of the record companies,” he’s quoted as saying many moons ago. “It’s not even a question of payola, you don’t have to give them payola, it’s really just a question of trendies, of like ‘Well, what am I expected to like this week and what’s the proper attitude about it, etc.’ Then it’s disgusting ‘cause it’s just one more example of people not thinking for themselves, and these are the opinion-makers not thinking for themselves!”
Payola itself—a catchy and hyper-literal contraction of “pay” and “Victrola” (i.e. record player)—has been around as long as the record business. It’s long been an accepted, open secret; the concept is woven into the very fabric of American pop culture, popping up in countless 70s-era films and television series, and has been shouted out by Desparadecios and Migos to Billy Joel (in the classic word salad “We Didn’t Start the Fire”). The practice stretches past the war-torn 40s, sashays through the 30s and Roaring Twenties, and goes all the way back to vaudeville, and to the silent movies of the early 1900s. Whether you’re a shill at a vaudeville revue hired to clap for a specific act or a smooth-talking DJ grown flush with ill-gotten coin, the song remains the same.
Outside the music industry, the word itself has lost much of its original meaning, morphing to mean simply “money” (which I think is what Migos is on about). However, if you’d like to peer into one of rock'n'roll seedier corners, we got you. Here’s what you need to know about payola.
Rock 'N' Roll
For some—musicians, young people, artists, free spirits—the arrival of rock’n’roll was a godsend, a brand-new sound that captured the frenetic energy and post-war euphoria that consumed America’s bright young things in the 1950s. For others, it was a problem, something threatening and uncouth that stood the risk of corrupting the nation’s youth and corroding society’s morals and values. There was a racial element to contend with, too—the sight of white teenagers rocking and rolling to music performed by (or inspired by) black musicians was too much for some older generations to stomach. That general distrust and animosity that some segments of society held for rock’n’roll helped to keep it dangerous (and thereby irresistible to rebellious youngsters) even as it rapidly climbed the charts and achieved dominance—if not respectability. No matter what their bigoted elders may have thought, the youth of America was obsessed with rock’n’roll—and that fact, coupled with the increase in availability of cheap 45 RPM records and radio’s shift to the Top 40 format, ensured that with every copy of “The Twist” they snapped up, the more the record labels’ wallets bulged.
The Hundred Dollar Handshake
The hundred dollar handshake (or fifty dollar handshake, depending on who you asked and how deep your pockets were) can be traced back to Hy Weiss, the Romania-born and Bronx-raised proprietor of Old Town Records who became known for handing out bribes like Halloween candy. Back then, payola was still legal; that wouldn’t change until 1959, when the Congressional Payola Investigations threw a wrench in the works. Like a true New Yorker, Weiss wasn’t one for mincing words when summing up the idea behind payola: “Why waste time going out with someone you don’t like and sit down and feast with them when you can’t stand them?” he once said. “Just give them the money and let them play the fucking record.”
Payola’s stranglehold over the radio industry was forcibly loosened in 1959, when a quiz show rigging scandal brought the issue of bribery into the harsh public eye. Beloved DJ Alan “Moondog” Freed and babyfaced Dick Clark were hauled into a series of closed and open sessions before the U.S. House Oversight Committee alongside over three hundred other American DJs who admitted to having accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes—framed as “consulting fees” (before the hearings started up, Chicago DJ Phil Lind, admitted to taking $22,000 to play a single record—that’s the scale we’re talking about here).
The whole affair dragged on and got increasingly complex, but in the end, not much came of it. Dick Clark, with his wholesome, all-American looks, good manners, and boyish charm charmed the committee and got off scot-free, while a disheveled, defiant Alan Freed paid the price. Of course, it can’t have hurt that Clark quietly severed a variety of business connections that might’ve tarnished his image, too (at the time, he was a part owner in seven indie labels, six publishers, three record distributors and two talent agencies). All he got out of the whole affair was a slap on the wrist and an important lesson: “Protect your ass at all times.”
It’s a damn shame that the man who’s credited with coining rock'n'roll's very name will forever be associated with payola; sure, he was as guilty as anyone else, but Alan Freed ended up taking the fall for an entire rotten network of sticky-fingered DJs. It’s speculated that Freed bore the brunt of the committee’s ill will because unlike the squeaky-clean Dick Clark, Freed was a heavy smoker, a jive talker, a rock’n’roll lifer who freely associated with black musicians and refused to betray his own principles by signing an affidavit swearing he’d never accepted payola. He was charged with 26 counts of commercial bribery and handed a bundle of fines and a suspended jail sentence. He lost his television show, his radio show, and found himself blackballed, rendered virtually unemployable by the fallout from the payola scandal. Five years later, he died penniless and alone. Dick Clark went on to become one of America’s most beloved cultural icons. How’s that for fair?
Payola was officially outlawed in 1960 when Congress amended the Federal Communications Act to outlaw “under-the-table payments and require broadcasters to disclose if airplay for a song has been purchased.” Payola became a misdemeanor charge. Thanks to a loophole—Congress didn’t say a word about undisclosed payments—the law had about as much of an effect on the less scrupulous radio jocks as Prohibition had on the gangsters sipping champagne outside Tammany Hall.
I’m going to assume that if you’ve gotten this far, most of your questions about why most of the big radio stations only seem to play the same ten songs from the same three labels over and over again have been answered, but if not, former president of Rykodisc and current Associate Professor of Music Business/Management at Berklee George Howard wrote an essential essay on the modern version of payola that’s well worth a read. To sum it up, labels hire indie promoters to flog records to radio stations, promoters pay radio stations in cash, giveaways, and assorted swag, and those same promoters often draw a second salary from the stations themselves to “consult” on which songs to add into the rotation. Bigger labels have bigger budgets, which gives promoters bigger incentives to get results.
It’s not quite as cut-and-dry as Hy Weiss’s fifty dollar handshake, but it’s still slimy, and brings to mind Lester Bangs’s fears of a sanitized, soulless music landscape, wherein the tastemakers are just regurgitating whatever they’ve guzzled down from the hands that feed. Look at the way major labels treat YouTube and Soundcloud: They can’t control those platforms with money or good ol’ boy charm, and so they do their best to muzzle them, or to shut them down outright.
Not only did payola ruin at least one man’s life and cause untold amounts of chaos within the music industry itself, it’s also to blame for Limp Bizkit’s career. In 1998, when they were having a hard time getting airplay in Portland, Oregon, before a big concert, the still-fledgeling rap-rock outfit’s management paid a local radio station, KUFO 101.1, to play their song “Counterfeit” for five weeks straight, cushioned by a “presented by Interscope” announcement before and after. The company framed it as a “pay-for-play” scheme while distancing itself from payola accusations, leading the New York Times to compare the move to paying for an infomercial.
“This is honest; payola was about fraud,” manager Jeff Kwatinetz told MTV. ““Payola was about DJs defrauding the owners of their stations and potentially hurting ratings by not making musical decisions. Then the FCC required people to say that a spin was paid for, so the fraud element was taken out of it. By us saying this is brought to you by Interscope, you know the money is going to the station. If stations want to make bad decisions, then their ratings go down.”
The record, Three Dollar Bill Y’all, went on to sell over 170,000 copies, launched Limp Bizkit’s career, and standardized the practice of pay-for-play for a whole new generation of greedy DJs and greedier record labels.
Limp Bizkit’s canny business team ushered in a new era for radio graft, one that we’re still operating within now. In the past decade alone, Clear Channel, Song BMG Music Entertainment, Warner Music, Universal Music Group, CBS Radio, Citadel, and Entercom have all paid millions of dollars in fines for flouting payola regulations, skittering through loopholes left and right to push product (there are those independent promoters again!).
As recently as 2014, Clear Channel’s On the Verge program provided an elegant example of how payola has evolved into more insidious forms when they required their 840 radio stations to play Iggy Azalea’s megahit “Fancy” a minimum of 150 times for approximately six weeks. The song went on to rack in a combined number of sales and track-equivalent streams to the tune of 9.1 million.
Take a second to think about the brutal irony of a white Australian hip-hop artist benefitting from the same system that destroyed the life of a rock’n’roll DJ who spent his career supporting the work of black artists, and of the way major labels used payola to ensure their white clients dominated the radio for decades, marginalizing black R&B, soul, and rock’n’roll artists and clogging the airwaves with throwaway singles. Think about the soul-crushing homogeneity that is Top 40 radio, and the untold number of artists who can never hope to hear their songs played outside a college station because they don’t have the money to buy into the machine. Think of the fans who miss out on all kinds of incredible music as a result, and of Lester Bangs’s dire warning.
There are multiple factors at play here, but at the heart of the whole ugly, tangled mess is pure human greed, and the most visual representation of that is the fifty-dollar handshake that still—after all these years—makes our world go ‘round.
Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.