See 3/4.6or7/03 Flash
Feb. 28-March 6, 2003
SAME OLD SONG AND DANCE
The recording companies are tired of paying radio to play their songs. No wonder: They’ve been doing it for 80 years.
Last month, the Senate convened a hearing on the presumed problem of “payola” in the radio industry. The hearing followed the re-introduction of a bill by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) to rein in the industry’s “new pay-for-play system.” The legislation, in turn, follows a spate of media attention—from the New York Times, ABC’s 20/20, and PBS’s Frontline—on payola.
Odds are that readers most familiar with this word will be graying baby boomers and that they will associate it with a national media scandal of the late ’50s and early ’60s, in the course of which certain unscrupulous DJs were drummed out of the broadcasting business for accepting bribes from record companies. And thank goodness, right? A record or song is surely a thing that ought to thrive or die according to its own merits, right? The notion that money could distort the market in a cultural field as sacred as popular music just seems inherently wrong...sinister...wicked.
Except now, the Times announces, “payola is back.” Aha! responds that portion of the brain dedicated to conspiratorial explanations for why things suck: hence the unfathomable success of that leather-lunged gorgon Celine Dion! And small wonder musical visionaries like Joe Integrity & the Obscuros never get any airplay! Clearly, all right-thinking citizens should get behind the recently renewed calls in Congress to stamp out this noxious practice once and for all.
But the truth is that payola isn’t really back—it’s just back in the news. Payola has been a constant and universal part of the economy of popular music for about 125 years, and the likelihood that legislators will be able to do anything constructive about it is about as high as the odds of winning the war on drugs. It was old when ragtime was new, and it still will be going strong long after rock ’n’ roll has died. Generations of reformers have gone up against payola—and those few who have accomplished anything lasting have succeeded only in making things worse.
American popular music first attained the status of an “industry” in the late 19th century, with Tin Pan Alley—the colloquial name for a centralized, horizontally integrated system for the production, promotion, and distribution of popular songs. The epicenter of this new business was New York, where a welter of competing music publishers maintained batteries of tunesmiths, lyricists, and arrangers. These assembly lines were responsible for grinding out thousands of songs a year in the hope that just a few would catch on, yielding windfall profits from the sale of copyrighted sheet music.
Turning a song into money requires repetitive exposure. No matter how infectious a tune might be, it won’t go anywhere with the masses until they get to hear it—a lot. Accordingly, a Tin Pan Alley firm with a promising new number on its hands was obligeÂ to prime the pump by paying to have the song performed until such time as popular demand for it became self-sustaining and the bucks began rolling in—a process known as “putting a song over.”
Prior to the advent of radio, song-plugging campaigns entailed the orchestrated outlay of cash bribes and/or other emoluments—a new suit or dress, some luggage, a crate of liquor, a piece of the song royalties, the services of a prostitute—to flesh-and-blood performers. By far the most important of these were itinerant vaudevillians, who, once paid, would carry a publisher’s song clear across the continent, exposing it one performance at a time from the stages of hundreds of theaters to a cumulative audience of millions. The bigger the star, of course, the more valuable were his or her services as a song plugger. Headliners working the big-time circuits stood to make as much or more from song plugging as they did from their theatrical salaries. But smaller performers were also in line to receive their share of the graft. This was true even of performers whose talents were not primarily musical. Dancers, jugglers, and conjurers, for example, worked to music, and music publishers found it worthwhile to assist them in selecting appropriate accompaniment for their acts.
On the local level, practically anyone involved in mediating between the music industry and the public stood to benefit from the largess of the publishers. Cabaret singers and dance bands were all on the take, naturally. But so was the blind busker whose one talent was winding the crank of a wheezing curbside barrel organ; ditto the guy in charge of stocking the rolls in the coin-operated player pianos in saloons and penny arcades.
Ever been invited to follow the bouncing ball across a line of lyrics on a movie screen? That’s a convention established in the early 1900s by a forgotten caste of entertainers called “illustrated slide singers,” paid by Tin Pan Alley to drill newly minted pop songs into the heads of nickelodeon audiences as they waited to see a silent movie. And when the movie eventually hit the screen, the house pianist would accompany the flickering images with a medley that incorporated current pop songs that he or she had been paid to plug.
There were a million other angles to the song-plugging racket, but the point stands: Payola was already a ubiquitous feature of urban life. It was also legal—although, mind you, it was interpreted even then as a symptom of the ethical bankruptcy of those in control of the music industry, who were “well known,” as a disapproving journalist put it in 1924, “to contaminate anything they come in contact with with bribes of various kinds.”
What payola’s moralizing critics failed, and still fail, to grasp is that the music industry has always felt itself a victim, and not the perpetrator, of the system. Tin Pan Alley hated payola, and with good reason: In the teens and ’20s, the major musical firms were obliged to gamble as much as $20,000 on the promotion of every hoped-for hit—an investment with a highly uncertain rate of return.
Seeking to free themselves from what they called the “payment evil,” Tin Pan Alley’s major players worked hard to organize a lasting industrial peace, forging multilateral agreements to withhold all promotional payments to all performers. But in every instance, the logic of the market undermined these boycotts, either because a few participating firms proved incapable of resisting the now amplified advantages of resuming payments on the sly or because the suspension of bribes left the honest firms suddenly vulnerable to “unfair” competition from smaller, nonparticipating firms. In any case, every anti-payola treaty struck in Tin Pan Alley invariably fell apart in a matter of weeks. Notwithstanding the preordained failure of these covenants, the statesmen of the music biz were still trying to kill payola when radio came along in the early ’20s.
Given the manifest inefficiency of the pre-electronic modes of song plugging, one might expect that the advent of broadcasting was an occasion for celebration in Tin Pan Alley. Instead, the publishers greeted radio with the same enthusiasm that present-day music conglomerates have shown for Internet file-swapping.
Then as now, the issue of copyright protection was of primary concern. Guarding the intellectual property of Tin Pan Alley was the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), a “performing rights organization” formed in 1914 to extract royalty revenue from ballrooms, dance halls, cabarets, and other businesses making commercial use of music. But when radio was brand-new, it wasn’t immediately clear whether the rules governing intellectual property here on earth applied once said property was beamed into the phantom land of the airwaves. At times, it seemed as if they might not.
In a 1924 test case, Remick vs. American Auto Accessories, for example, Justice Smith Hickenlooper of the Ohio federal district court—a strict constructionist if ever there was one—ruled that a radio station’s conversion of copyrighted music into inaudible and invisible radio waves and the subsequent reconstitution of those waves back into sound within the walls of private homes “across thousands of miles of space” in no way accorded with the definition of “public performance” as imagined by Congress. Hickenlooper was overturned on appeal, but the issues at stake in Remick were still being batted back and forth in federal courts well into the next decade.
Pare away its metaphysical dimensions and this dispute was essentially a legal standoff between ASCAP and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), a lobby group established in 1923 by radio-station owners determined to exempt themselves from ASCAP’s licensing fees. From the broadcasters’ perspective, it seemed wholly unreasonable for the publishers to expect payment from radio. The NAB party line held that radio was the best thing ever to happen to Tin Pan Alley, affording publishers the services of a song-plugging tool of unprecedented power entirely free of charge.
In August 1923, a satirical commentary on the obstinate stupidity of the publishers appeared in the pages of Wireless Age, a glossy radio-themed magazine backed by the Radio Corporation of America. Titled “What’s the Matter With Radio?” and cast in the form of a vaudeville sketch, it inserted the following imaginary dialogue into the mouths of a publishing executive and his subordinate:
MUSIC MAGNATE (putting down telephone): Well, I just closed with Blinks for that new song of his. Bought it for $10,000 and ninety per cent. Now we gotta make it, and make it BIG.
HIS MANAGER: Fine! I can get Scratchi Records to put it out on a special release for $1,000.
MAGNATE: That’s the stuff! Don’t spare no expense on this one, we gotta make it go BIG.
MANAGER: Then there’s Hootchie and Kootchie, I can quietly slip ’em $100 a week a piece to use it in their new act in the big-time vaudeville.
MANAGER: I ain’t seen Joe Jazzbo lately, but I guess maybe $100 a week ought to fix him up to use it every night...
MAGNATE: Make it $150; we gotta make this one knock ’em cold. Don’t spare no expense, that’s the way to sell a million copies.
MANAGER: Calcium and Claque are putting on a new girlie show, I hear they’re looking for an angel with some dough. Maybe if we—
MAGNATE: Now you’re talking, boy! Slip ’em $10,000 if they’ll feature the song and play it with reprises in all three acts; nothing like that to put a song over.
MANAGER: Then there’s the broadcasting stations. I’ll send ’em complimentary copies to popularize it. Everybody in the country’ll hear it.
MAGNATE: Hey! How do you get that way? Radio! Don’t you know that song’s copyrighted? Think I’m going to let ’em use it for nothing? Nossir: notify all the broadcasting stations that if they want to use a WOW number like this one, y’understand, they gotta pay us right away with a stiff license fee, get me? This is a business; not a charity institooshun!
Superficially, this skit seems incisive. But the anonymous author didn’t seem to get that the orchestration of a successful pre-electronic song-plugging campaign was a delicate and intuitive art, the goal of which was to pay for the exposure of a song just until the exact point when popular demand for it took over. Before radio, putting a song over had been a gradual process whose speed was set by the creeping progress of vaudeville troupes crossing the country by rail. Under these conditions, the plugging phase in the life cycle of a popular song extended over a period of several months. If the song went over, the publisher could count on it to remain profitable for a year or two.
Radio abruptly took control over the schedule of a song’s exposure away from the publishers, rapidly reducing the average life span of a hit to an interval of months—and, in subsequent decades, to weeks. Ultimately, radio’s accelerative effect would be o great benefit to the popular-music industry, yielding an exponential increase in the market for its goods. In the short term, however, the veteran strategists of old-style song-plugging campaigns, whose nerves and instincts were conditioned to slower and more organic modes of promotion and exploitation, experienced radio as a disaster. For several years, they would continue to construe broadcasting as a destructive force liable to kill promising songs overnight, overexposing them before they could reach their profitable prime.
Despite their collective dread of radio, the publishers could not leave the airwaves alone, for much the same reason they had never managed to sustain a lasting moratorium against “the payment evil.” Throughout 1923 and 1924, ASCAP officials worked hard at organizing a Tin Pan Alley–wide radio boycott, but time and again competitive self-interest motivated individual ASCAP members to break ranks. Late in 1923, for example, the minor Tin Pan Alley firm of Breau & Tobias seceded from ASCAP, informing Variety that “they preferred to broadcast where and when they liked.” A few months later, the defecting firm was begging for readmission, having found the airwaves to be unattractively overcrowded “happy hunting grounds” for even smaller firms.
By this time, however, even nominally honest subscribers to the ASCAP boycott were finding covert ways of circumventing the letter of the agreement. A standard method of cheating involved transferring legal ownership of a promising song to a shell company not affiliated with ASCAP and then plugging the number hard on radio. The moment the song went over, the real corporate parent of the song would “buy” it from the subsidiary. Such chicanery inevitably led to the collapse of the boycott. In mid-1925, Variety acutely summed up the mood of the industry: “The publishers’ attitude today is that ‘if we get off the radio it permits others to step in and make song hits in competition with us.’”
However painful, Tin Pan Alley’s adaptation to the new rules of business was quick. “It is hard to believe and impossible to remember,” declared Variety music-industry analyst Bob Landry in late 1930, “but at one time song pluggers devoted flattering attention to burlesque. Then there were the beer garden and music hall singer, the illustrated slide vocalist, later the vaude headliner, the big Broadway revues, the cabarets. Still later, the picture house presentations and public ballrooms.” Now, concluded Landry, these live venues were “of but minor consequence in the scheme of song pluggers....Nothing remains but the radio.”
“Impossible to remember” was a prescient choice of words. Pre-radio, the term “song plugger” was a part of everyday language, and the pay-for-play machinations of Tin Pan Alley were a well-known fact. There were even popular songs about song plugging, such as “The Song in the Gallery,” which lampooned the music publishers’ practice of hiring shills to sit in the cheap seats of vaudeville houses and sing along with a particular song to enhance public perception of its appeal. But in the broadcast era, payola began to retreat from public view, and as it did the popular illusion took root that songs succeeded or failed entirely on their merits.
There was a brief moment in early 1929 when it seemed as if payola might develop along a less furtive path. According to Variety, a notion was afoot among “the radio interests” that it would be a good idea to “openly legitimize the traffic” in song plugging: “Anywhere from $5 to $50 a number for a single station or national hook-up is the sub rosa fee for almost any number one hears consistently plugged via the ether. Taking this as a cue, the broadcasters have been smitten with the idea of making this bribing a legitimate business and charging for the exploitation of any new songs.” It’s possible that this was an idle threat on the part of the broadcasters, part of the NAB’s interminable quarrel with Tin Pan Alley over what constituted a fair annual price for an ASCAP broadcasting license.
In any case, the implementation of any such plan would have run up against a formidable obstacle: the self-interested determination of star bandleaders and singers to retain contractual autonomy over the material they played on the air. In the ’20s and ’30s, federal regulatory policy frowned on the use of “mechanical” music as broadcast content, construing it as a needless duplication of services already available to anyone who owned a gramophone. So the musicians—not the networks or the radio stations—remained the gatekeepers whom publishers were obliged to bribe.
But by the ’40s, the taboo on recorded music in the airwaves had started to fade, and in the early ’50s, television usurped radio’s position as the alpha medium. Big advertisers and star performers alike defected to the small screen. Demoted to an impoverished second place, even the biggest radio concerns could no longer afford to turn up their noses at the humble turntable. The golden age of the disc jockey had arrived—and, just like the big-band leaders and vaudeville headliners who came before them, all disc jockeys were on the take.
Anyone disposed to take that assertion as a groundless slur upon the honor of the American DJ ought to consult the researches of Duncan MacDougald Jr., which are to be found in Radio Research 1941, a compilation of radio-related scholarship edited by CBS President Frank Stanton and Columbia University’s Paul Lazarsfeld. Although MacDougald didn’t identify any bribe-taking jocks by name, his contribution to the volume, titled “The Popular Music Industry,” exhaustively documents the flow of bribe money from the publishing houses into the radio studios, piling up proof upon proof of payola’s pervasive influence on the hit parade.
Which influence was, to MacDougald’s mind, a very bad thing indeed: “While the accepted songs are being incessantly hammered into the listeners’ heads,” he warned, “the prestige build-up makes the audience believe that this constant repetition is due to the inherent qualities of the song....Thus it may be assumed that this controlled repetition and recommended manipulation seem to tend to the standardization of the tastes of the listener and the subsequent gradual eradication of these tastes.”
This accusation—that payola actually dictates mass musical taste—is as old as song plugging itself, but it’s a charge that has never made any sense to the people with their money on the line. A maxim dating back to the earliest days of Tin Pan Alley holds that “hits cannot be bought.” In other words, payola is a necessary factor in, but not sufficient cause for, the creation of a hit. The industrial folklore of every generation of the music business brims with corroborating anecdotes about fortunes gambled and lost on “surefire hits” that somehow failed to compel the public assent necessary to recoup their promotional costs.
But anecdotal evidence of payola’s failures has never cut it with the crusaders, who tend to concern themselves less with the fate of individual songs than with the overall condition of popular taste. As a class, these activist souls have always shown a weak grasp of the venerable scholastic dictum De gustibus non disputandum est (which translates roughly as “There’s no accounting for taste”). MacDougald is a case in point: Here was a guy utterly certain of his ability to recognize shitty music when he heard it, who didn’t balk at identifying Benny Goodman, Bing Crosby, Johnny Mercer, Rosemary Clooney, and Slim Gaillard as no-talent bums who never would have found a mass audience had it not been purchased for them.
Comparable aesthetic absolutism fueled the famous payola scandal of 1959, which had little to do with payola per se and everything to do with rock ’n’ roll and its sudden seizure of the ears, hearts, and minds of white middle-class youth. There’s a lovely irony to the way this affair succeeded in fixing payola in the public’s mind as an enduring symbol of illegitimate media manipulation, in that the “scandal” itself provides a far juicier illustration of the way powerful private interests can mold public perception to their own ends. Behind all the hype, the great payola panic was essentially an audacious gambit in a propaganda war waged by ASCAP against NAB’s own upstart performing-rights organization, Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI).
Between 1948 and 1955, roughly three-quarters of the No. 1 hits on Billboard’s chart were administered by ASCAP. But when the kids ditched Perry Como for Chuck Berry, ASCAP’s royalty revenues went into free-fall. By 1956, ASCAP’s share of the hit parade had plummeted to 23 percent, and all the cream was going to BMI. The fact that rock ’n’ roll talent was almost exclusively aligned with BMI was no coincidence, but rather the logical consequence of ASCAP’s exclusive membership policies: R&B artists, hillbilly singers, and other such riffraff needed not apply, and they ended up by default with the needier and therefore more democratic organization.
The rock revolution was equally disastrous for the major record companies. Between 1948 and 1955, three-quarters of the songs in the Top 10 were released by just four New York record labels: Columbia, Capitol, Decca, and RCA Victor. By 1959, the same labels could claim only about a third of the chart toppers, and the big profits were being spirited away by such fly-by-night indie labels as Chess, Sun, Roulette, Vee-Jay, and Imperial.
As profits slid, the old guard groped vainly for effective countermeasures. Finding allies was not a problem: Educators, newspaper columnists, clergymen, clubwomen, educators, editors, PTA officials, police chiefs, and other guardians of public morality were united in vocal opposition to the dreadful new “jungle music.” But the harder these straitlaced authority figures huffed and puffed against it, the bigger and badder the rock menace grew. Youthful defiance, after all, was pretty much the point—plus, it had a good beat and you could dance to it.
In their darkest hour, the anti-rock interests received a gift from the gods: the quiz-show scandal of 1958. Dramatized in the 1994 movie Quiz Showa the brouhaha was triggered by the disclosure that the producers of the ultrapopular TV program Twenty-One had fixed outcomes to maximize ratings. It culminated in a headline-making congressional probe into game-show corruption, spearheaded by Oren Harris, a Democratic representative from Arkansas. By 1959, the House subcommittee Harris chaired had pretty much mined out the quiz-show thing and was in the market for some new media-related issue. And so, with a little backstage guidance from ASCAP, Congress discovered in payola a comprehensive explanation for all that ugly, indecent noise American kids had been bamboozled into thinking they liked.
Preposterous though it was, the notion that payola was something new under the sun harmonized beautifully with the hysterical prejudices of the adult world. The print media, hungry for a good follow-up to the quiz-show rhubarb, uncritically swallowed the idea that payola had caused rock ’n’ roll. Soon, the Harris subcommittee was summoning DJs to Washington to account for their evil ways. Not every DJ, mind you, was subject to subpoena. Jocks who still programmed mellow fluff such as Andy Williams were left unmolested by the panel, which expressed a naive certitude that, as John Moss, a Democratic representative from California, put it, “good music did not require the payment of payola.”
By the time the payola donnybrook wound down, a handful of rock jocks had been driven off the air or busted for tax evasion or bribe-taking. The justice meted out was scarcely uniform, and the disparities say a lot about the real motives behind the purge. The heaviest sanctions were reserved for high-profile hooligans such as Alan “Moondog” Freed, the white DJ credited with first affixing the label “rock ’n’ roll” to the musical genre formerly known as rhythm and blues. A reckless serial promoter of racially mixed “record hops,” Freed openly avowed his aesthetic preference for original black rock ’n’ roll artists over white cover acts. In late 1959, he was fired from his radio gig at WABC because he’d refused to sign a company-authored statement saying he’d never accepted payola, calling it “an insult to my reputation for integrity” and complaining that Dick Clark, whose American Bandstand raked it in for WABC TV, had been permitted to write his own statement. He did sign such a form for WNEW TV, where he hosted his own dance-party program, but he got fired anyway, in an apparent effort by the station to steer clear of the scandal.
Freed admitted that he’d accepted “gifts” from record companies, but aggressively defended the practice: “If I’ve helped somebody, I’ll accept a nice gift, but I wouldn’t take a dime to plug a record,” he told a New York grand jury. “What they call payola in the disc-jockey business they call lobbying in Washington.” Testifying before the Harris committee, Freed repeated his defense, pointing out that the payoffs publishers still made to A&R men made the DJs’ cut look like “peanuts.” Moss later characterized Freed as “one of the few comparatively truthful men we’ve had before the committee,” but the rest of the panel either didn’t buy it or didn’t care.
As a reward for his candor, Freed was made the primary scapegoat of the payola scandal; he was convicted on bribery charges in 1962 and died unemployed and drunk three years later.
By contrast, the treatment accorded to Dick Clark was almost delicate. Clark was corporate synergy made flesh. His financial holdings were so prolific and complex that the subcommittee needed charts and diagrams to keep track of them all; on the witness stand, he enumerated 33 pop-music-related businesses (publishing companies, record labels, talent agencies, distribution networks, record-pressing plants) in which he had a stake. Unlike Freed, however, Clark knew how and when to keep his mouth shut, and he met all accusations with polite but unyielding denials that he had ever permitted financial interest in a song to influence his aesthetic judgment as a record picker. Confronted with evidence that he’d played tunes he had an interest in twice as often as tunes he didn’t, he told the Harris subcommittee, “The truth is, gentlemen, that I did not consciously favor such records. Maybe I did so without realizing it. I would note that until this committee’s activities no one had really pointed out the inconsistency of performing records and owning an interest in record and music companies.”
It all sounded pretty fishy to the brighter bulbs on the subcommittee, but Clark’s relatively hygienic taste worked in his favor. He tended toward the watered-down, white-faced version of rock ’n’ roll; and although black performers had appeared on American Bandstand, its studio audience had always been homogeneously white, and the on-camera dancing was held to a fundamental standard of pelvic decency. Clark voluntarily divested himself of some properties and walked away unscathed; at the conclusion of his testimony, Harris went so far as to characterize him as “a fine young man,” warmly assuring him, “I don’t think you’re the inventor of the system. I think you’re the product.”
After the DJ purge, Congress did some cosmetic fiddling with federal communications laws concerning payola—rules that were rarely enforced before and have rarely been enforced since. The new measure didn’t make payola illegal; instead, it placed limits on allowable contact between record labels and radio-station personnel, mandated that any pay-for-play arrangement had to be disclosed on the air, and decreed that a DJ had to notify his superiors of the arrangement.
A measure voluntarily adopted by the broadcasting industry was far more significant: the disfranchisement of the disc jockey. Never again would DJs in major radio markets be trusted with picking their own records; henceforth they’d be restricted to playing songs on the station playlist. This format, known as Top 40, already had a foothold, but now it became the industry standard. This, of course, did nothing to thwart payola—it merely moved the gatekeeping upstairs and further out of sight, into the offices of the faceless programming directors responsible for compiling the company playlists. And since the deregulation and subsequent consolidation of radio in the ’90s, that power has moved into the hands of even fewer people.
A parallel development in the private sector was the emergence of the field of independent record promotion. Big music concerns in the ’60s felt a pressing need to put themselves at arm’s length from the tacky practicalities of getting records onto the air, delegating this unsavory work to outside contractors. But in handing its dirty work over to the independent promoters, the music business was creating a real monster. Ever since, labels have complained bitterly about the expense and humiliation of dealing with “the network,” a pitiless cabal of shakedown artists who extract an estimated $3 million a week from the major music conglomerates. The power of the indies stems not from any magical ability to deliver hits on demand but from their collective capacity to keep a song from reaching the airwaves unless their terms are met by the record companies.
Except in black urban radio—where, according to a Salon exposé, cash is still king—present-day payola is no longer a clandestine affair. Instead, it’s all on the books as part of a station’s revenue stream. The money comes from the indies, who pay for the privilege of representing the recording industry to the station. Whenever a record gets airplay, the indie sends a bill to the record company. What shelters these arrangements from prosecution under existing payola statutes is the threadbare fiction that the middleman isn’t paying the station to play specific tunes—he’s just purchasing a generalized “access” to the programmers.
Tired of feeding the monster it created, the recording industry has recently begun clamoring for legislative relief from the Federal Communications Commission. But reform proposals put forth by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the trade group that represents the major players in the business, have been vague and unimaginative, a tired rehash of just-say-no mixed with calls for still sterner codes of interdiction. None of it is to be taken seriously. When the big music firms piss and moan about the evils of payola, what they’re really complaining about is the price, not the practice. The last thing those with the advantage want is for the playing field to be leveled.
Mitch Glazier, senior vice president of government relations for the RIAA, says that reform would allow recording companies to “engage in legitimate promotional activities that would create the most diversity of music over radio for listeners. We want to expose as many of our artists to our listeners as possible.” The RIAA has lined up behind Feingold’s legislation to outlaw current pay-for-play practices.
There are some things, however, that Capitol Hill cannot legislate. Payola will exist just as long as the number of songs seeking a mass audience outstrips the public demand for music—forever, in other words. Someone will always be in a position to make a decision in favor of one song to the detriment of a zillion others. And human nature being what it is, money will always play a part in the selection process. Analogous forms of consideration operate in just about any market where the number of competing brands exceeds the available shelf space. Supermarkets, for example, are monuments to payola: A bag of frozen peas shelved at eye level pays a healthy rent for its privileged position.
The average frozen-pea consumer is unlikely to find this information scandalous or even interesting. With music, however, it’s a different story. Music is a commodity of the spirit, and so it feels injurious to learn that the music we live by is tainted by connection to the dirty old cash nexus.
Then again, the music we love is never the problem; it’s always the music that other people love. When the anti-payola forces saddle up to do battle against the payment evil, their objective is usually to rescue other people—usually younger people—from their false musical consciousness.
Consider Robert W. McChesney, professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A vociferous critic of the commercial broadcasting industry, McChesney is a Duncan MacDougald for the modern age, a dour fellow haunted by the prospect that payola has destroyed the public’s capacity to know what it likes. “You can’t really believe the music you’re listening to is there because some of it actually is good music,” McChesney informed the producers of Frontline’s “Merchants of Cool” report: “It might only be there because someone bought a bunch of ads on that station and, therefore, earned the right to get their music played on that station....And that filter, that editorial judgment, the idea that there’s someone listening to the music who really knows music and cares about it [and] is making a decision this is something that the audience might like—it’s been corrupted.”
But an interesting variable complicates the analogy between McChesney and MacDougald. A protégé of Theodor Adorno, the Marxist cultural critic famous for his categorical contempt for American pop culture, MacDougald was a card-carrying highbrow with a consistently negative attitude toward pop music. McChesney, on the other hand, is a tenured hepcat who prides himself on his previous career as an underground rock writer. According to McChesney’s sprawling personal Web site, the founding of his rock ’zine, the Rocket, in 1979, “is credited as the birth of the Seattle rock scene of the late 1980s and 1990s.”
Street cred notwithstanding, McChesney still somehow clings to the notion that payola was a phenomenon specific to the early rock ’n’ roll era. In reiterating this fable as gospel to Frontline, the rock ’n’ roll populist saws away at the branch on which he sits. After all, was not Alan Freed, Mr. Payola, “someone listening to the music who knows and cares about it”?
“I’m not a great cultural theorist,” McChesney modestly asserts, but his iron faith in the objective existence of “authenticity” and “integrity” in music, as opposed to corrupt “commercialism,” more or less obliges him to make distinctions between the good and the bad. And so, with a little coaxing from his PBS interlocutors, he nominates Britney Spears, Eminem, ’N Sync, the Backstreet Boys, and Limp Bizkit as marketing creations while awarding palms of authenticity to Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam.
Let’s set aside all issues of seemliness that attend the spectacle of a 48-year-old academic harboring strong opinions about music tailored to the tastes of 12-year-old girls. Let’s even set aside the inarguable fact that Pearl Jam sucks. (Hey, this de gustibus jive only goes so far.) What terminally clean-minded types like McChesney fail to grasp is that Bruce and Britney are equally creatures of payola. Nobody can distinguish by ear the payola-tainted tunes on the hit parade from the pure ones, because none of them are pure. If it got big on radio, it got big with the help of payola. In fact, anyone who regards association with payola as proof of aesthetic bankruptcy would be well-advised to leave the entire American popular songbook alone. Rudy Vallee, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Barbra Streisand, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, the Coasters, the Supremes, the Beach Boys—all rotten to the core.
Compounding the ironies entailed by his analysis, McChesney further states that the aftermath of the payola scandal coincided with an abrupt decline in the quality of music on the charts. “Teen tastes,” he asserts, “were dumbed down in the early 1960s in rock ’n’ roll, listening to that garbage that was passed out from 1959 or 1960 to 1963.” Why this decline took place, McChesney doesn’t say. Going out on a limb, I’d say it had something to do with the payola system—and weak-kneed self-censorship on the part of corporate broadcasting interests spooked by the anti-payola hysteria.
So payola is forever—but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t tweak the system to better advantage. Much of the current uproar reflects the frustration of smaller music interests unable to afford the existing tariffs on airplay. I’m sympathetic: Why shouldn’t these yeomen get a chance to compete with the likes of Sony? Sun Records was able, however briefly, to give RCA Victor a run for its money, and I think the world of music is better for it.
Here’s my modest proposal for lowering the cost of radio exposure and opening the commercial airwaves to fresh blood and greater diversity: Turn the clock back to 1955, scrap the Top 40 format, and restore disc jockeys to their previous position as the affordable guardians of the airwaves. Let a thousand flowers of corruption bloom. Then, if the illusion of pop music’s purity absolutely must be maintained, we can all just avert our eyes and let the DJs fudge their tax returns as they choose. CP
Copyright © 2003 Washington Free Weekly Inc.