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Episode 27. A bit about Payola and a day out for Glenn

A rather unusual thing happened at the country music WCMS Radio station in Norfolk, Virginia on November 24th, 1959: Four DJs played one song continuously for 24 hours. The record was a Turkish song called Pacalafaca and it was played 320 times in one day to prove that constant airplay could not make a hit. The record of course wasn’t a hit, no doubt firstly because their audience liked country music – not Turkish - and secondly because they were sick to death of it by the end of the day. The result of their publicity stunt was that all four DJs were fired. This in itself was another publicity stunt as all four were quietly re-instated in the next few days.


All this was done in protest at the payola scandal that was currently rocking the US music business, that being the money given to DJs, by a record label, to play a certain record on their radio or TV shows to help get it into the charts and back in the 50’s almost every label and DJ were doing it. It is of course, a bribe and therefore illegal and although it had been pretty much going on from when radio stations first started broadcasting the sales charts (which in its early years were based on sales of sheet music) nobody really cared about it very much but that all changed with the Rock and Roll era and to find out why Rock and Roll brought it to prominence, we have to go back to before World War II.

Pacalafaca. Try listening to this 320 times and see if you’d like to buy it.



In 1939, there was only one performing rights organisation in the USA and that was ASCAP – The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. It was founded on February 14th, 1914 by Victor Herbert and was essentially to protect the music of the Tin Pan Alley writers. When radio started to become very popular in the 1920’s, this became a very useful source of  income for ASCAP and its members, as they started to collect licence fees from all the radio stations but they became greedy as more stations opened, increasing their rates 400% in the 1930s. Bear in mind that his was just after the great depression and the economy was still in a desperate state so by 1939, the broadcasters had had enough of constant increases in their fees and formed their own performing rights group called Broadcast Music, Inc. or BMI.


This didn’t bother ASCAP very much because they owned the great songwriters of the time such as George Gershwin and Irving Berlin as well as the entire film industry while BMI signed the lesser profitable black music artists and Country singers. Throughout the war, and up until the mid-fifties, the two companies lived side-by-side happily but then Rock and Roll happened. County and Rhythm & Blues fused to create Elvis who sang black music and sold millions of records to teenagers who wanted to hear their hero on the radio. The radio stations happily obliged and it soon followed that Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino and a hundred other black artists started to have success, receive more airplay and that meant only one thing for ASCAP, a huge loss of revenue and by 1958, many stations were playing BMI’s artists for 80% of the airtime.


Suddenly in November 1959, just after the American Quiz show scandals where popular contestants were given the answers to the questions before the show so they were guaranteed to win, the House Subcommittee on Legislative and Foreign Commerce (HSLFC) announced they have received information that led them to believe there was bribery in radio programming and that they were going to investigate the allegations: The documents and letters of supporting evidence of payola had been delivered to HSLFC by an ASCAP songwriter. In December, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) accused Elvis’ record label RCA Victor and two others, London and Cameo-Parkway, of making payments to DJs although the charges were later dropped. There was however a simultaneous investigation by the State of New York and on 19th May 1960, a court charged eight men of accepting a total of $116,580 in bribes. One of those men was Mr Rock and Roll himself, Alan Freed.

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Alan Freed publicity photo

Freed is the man who is credited with coining the term Rock and Roll for the style of music we know today and the establishment hated him. Freed stood for rebellion, the young generation and the uniting of black and white people through music. As far back as 1952, he put on concerts featuring black and white performers and the shows sold out to black and white kids but the media called him a ‘race-mixer’ and a ‘nigger-lover’. When Rock and Roll really kicked in, he became an enemy of the major labels and particularly ASCAP because of his support of independent labels and BMI which led to ASCAP losing sales along with airplay time. At the same time Rock and Roll was also branded obscene by parents, churches, and ‘all decent people’; The New York Daily News even called the music “an inciter of juvenile delinquency” and pointed to Freed as it’s chief offender. Freed didn’t care but given that the majority of record sales were now to teenagers and because of his power over the younger generation – the record-buying public - he had to go.


At the time of the investigation, Freed was working WABC Radio in New York and the station sent an affidavit around to all their DJs asking them to sign it. It stated that the signatories had not taken any bribes for playing records but Freed refused to sign it and informed the press that what broadcasting called Payola, the Government called Lobbying. This did not go down well with the establishment as Freed by saying this, had effectively accused all members of congress and US government officials of taking bribes. It was the very excuse they needed to make an example of him and he was accused of 26 charges of commercial bribery totalling $30,000. In December 1962, he received a six-month suspended sentence and a $300 fine but that was nothing compared to the legal bills he had acquired during the trial. He continued to broadcast finding a job in Los Angeles at KDAY but they refused to let him promote concerts and not long after, was then charged with Income Tax evasion for $47,920 on income received between 1957 and 1959. He moved to Miami where he worked briefly for WQAM radio before going back to Los Angeles and KNOB radio but by now he was a chronic alcoholic which led to his death there on January 20th, 1965. He was 43 years old.

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Dick Clark publicity photo


By contrast, the other important DJ at the time of the scandal, Dick Clark, was treated leniently because he bowed to the system. It could be said that he was more influential than Freed as he hosted his own TV show with an average viewing figure of ten million people every week, often peaking at twenty million. The majority of Clark’s guests were white representing the nicer side of Pop music and he often mixed in interviews with old school entertainers during the show that Mums and Dads liked. When his employer, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) asked him to sign an affidavit about payola, Clark refused but agreed under pressure from the ABC, agreed to sell his shares in the 33 music companies that he had and he also had his lawyer draw up a more favourable affidavit that he did sign. He also relinquished the song writing credits he had for over 150 songs, many of which were aired on his TV show. At one point, in court, he even admitted to accepting fur and jewellery from a record company president so it was clear that the man was guilty of taking payola, if not as obviously as cash in a brown envelope but he gave the impression that Rock and Roll was just a business interest and the court concurred. "Obviously you're a fine young man," is how the committee chairman, Oren Harris described him adding "I don't think you're the inventor of the system, I think you're the product." Unlike Freed, Clark survived and continued his career without blemish.


It would be nice to write now that the hounding of Alan Freed had one good outcome, namely the removal of payola from the music industry but it is not to be. In fact, it expanded and grew into its own business using loopholes in the law and other methods to ensure radio play and hyped sales that still continue and evolve to this day. I witnessed this first hand in the early eighties.


A Day Out for Glenn In 1983

Around this time I was fortunate in that even though I was only a roadie, I was allowed and encouraged to go to meetings between the management and record company as well as many social functions usually reserved for band and management, this gave me a great insight into how the business worked. One lovely sunny Friday, I was invited by someone at one of the major record companies to go around with him for the day, visiting some of the record shops to see how a new release was selling of a band I was close to. I forget the gentleman’s name so we’ll call him Jim for convenience and as we set off with a car-boot full of 12” singles - half of the new release and half made up of the big selling label’s artists - Jim started to explain to me his role in the music business. Jim was a ‘plugger’, a promotion person whose job it was to try and get the label’s records in the charts.  Jim was not an employee of the label, he was freelance but having said that, worked exclusively for said label. This meant that technically, if Jim did anything illegal, the label would not be responsible for what he did and could deny any wrongdoing. Jim knew this and happily accepted it because the label paid him a lot of money. 


Our first stop was well-known record chain in South London where Jim removed a copy of the new 12” single from the boot and five by other artists. Greeting the manager with a hearty handshake and a big smile, Jim introduced me and we were led into the office at the back of the store. The manger asked Jim what he could do for him and Jim explained that he was promoting the new band and would he very kindly help in the usual way: The manager said of course and the deal was done. A quick handshake later, we were on our way to the shop. After a couple of minutes driving, I asked Jim what ‘the usual way’ was and he explained that shops we were visiting were all chart shops meaning that they contributed sales figures to the Top 75 album and singles charts every week. When the shop sold one of the best-selling artists’ records which he had given for free, the shop would register that it was for the sale of the new band’s single. It’s important to note at this point that the singles given for free, although best sellers, were going down the charts and unlikely to rise again so the artists who recorded the free singles, did not lose a chart placing. The effect of this little deal can be summed up like this; The shop gets five records it can sell easily for free and therefore make a big profit and the new artist appear to be selling a lot of singles when they actually aren’t, thereby getting hyped into the charts.


We visited seven stores in that one day and each store had the same arrangement. Some stores were selective about the singles they wanted for free but most didn’t care. Our last stop was at a radio station where Jim took one single from the car boot and several new band T-Shirts which the DJ happily accepted and promised that the single would be played. On the way back to the car, Jim explained that DJ’s preferred T-Shirts, sweatshirts, restaurant coupons and other useful items rather than free records. Jim would continue to do this for one week around London after which he would drive north and go to other major cites offering the same deal. Jim wasn’t the only plugger doing this either. At that time, every record company had someone doing the same thing.


That was forty years ago though and these days there are very few record shops left so has hyping and payola gone for good? No, it hasn’t but the method has changed. In 2002, Epic Records in America offered Celine Dion fans the chance to fly to Las Vegas to hear her perform and meet her. The competition could only be entered by listening to any of the thirteen stations owned by the Infinity Broadcasting company and her latest single - Goodbye’s (the Saddest Word) – was used to promote the competition; it eventually reached No.27 on the Billboard chart. However, in 2005 it was revealed that Infinity only had this competition because they had agreed to add the single to their playlist which was technically payola. Epic record’s parent company Sony BMG were fined ten million dollars and the Warner Music Group were fined a similar amount for similar practices in November the same year.


In the last decade streaming sites, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook have become the prime source for music lovers to get their news and listen to new music and the record companies are already finding new ways to exploit it to their advantage. One record label I spoke to a few years back told me that they paid someone to sit at a computer and continuously make comments about their new artist on any accessible social media pages even if the subject on the page was irrelevant. Another person at the company suggested setting up several computers and inventing a machine to click on a YouTube video for one week to increase the views and thereby sending it into the top 25 weekly ranking. Fortunately, this idea was rejected but it probably won’t be long before another company thinks of it and tries it. Major blog sites are targets for record labels and many labels have struck deals with bloggers for invites to parties, tickets, backstage passes, etc to favour their artists. Even iTunes has been questioned. In 2013, Tamar Braxton’s Love & War rocketed to the top of the iTunes chart knocking off Bruno Mars’ hit Locked Out of Heaven and then dropped out of the Top 30, never to return, two days later. How could that happen?

I shall leave you with the last words Jim said to me as we arrived back at the label’s office all those years ago. I thanked him for the day out and for teaching me a few lessons. I also said that I had no idea that payola and hype were still so prominent and he replied “Payola and hype have always been a large part of the music business Glenn and as long as there is a music business, there will be payola and hype.”

27 - 03 Me circa 1983 (not a publicity photo).jpg

Me circa 1983 (not a publicity photo)

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