by carl wilson

Payola, ooh la la

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This weekend's Overtones column in The Globe & Mail, titled "Plug It Again, Sam," reflects on the unfolding prosecution of the new payola scandal in U.S. radio, why payola is like the poor ("always with us"), why there's probably no payola in Canada (everybody knows everybody - you don't have to pay your friends off to do you favours), why the FCC inquiry could yet turn into an attack on hip-hop (at least it's not an election year!), and the sweet romanticism of imagining we make our own tastes. Letters of complaint from Canadian radio programmers are rolling in: I do regret the word "hacks," which was too cheap a shot.

By the way, the film alluded to in the first paragraph is the Miranda July movie. And a note on the origins of the term "payola" - articles constantly claim it's a conflation of "pay" and "Victrola," which always seemed weird to me, since Victrolas were outmoded by the time the word was coined. Turns out it's actually a typical example of midcentury slang'uage in Variety magazine. As Kerry Segrave writes: "Variety was quite taken at the time with the ending 'ola.' For example, rather than write 'on the cuff', Variety would style it 'cuffola.' A successful act was a 'boff click' or 'boffola.' " Ah, for the showbizzle of yester-yizzle.

And so, read on ...

Plug it again, Sam
Pay for play is back in the music business

CARL WILSON
OVERTONES
The Globe & Mail
Saturday, August 13, 2005

You and your date come out of the movie house agreeing the flick was bold, buoyant, brave. The next day another couple, people you respect, tell you they both thought it forced. You wonder if you'd admire it so much if you'd seen it with them, or if you'd also be calling it “as aspartame as Amélie.”

Recognize this phenomenon? I call it taste magnetics: People experiencing art together are apt to concur on its merits. When you laugh, I'm more prone to smile. When you flinch, I grimace. We're swayable.

Taste magnetics also helps account for the persistence of payola, or radio “pay for play.” That bogeyman of the music biz is back this week, with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) pledging to take New York Attorney-General Eliot Spitzer's investigation national. His first strike already wrested a $10-million (U.S.) settlement from Sony-BMG, with a humiliating dossier of label e-mails begging for “spins” for Celine Dion, Franz Ferdinand and Audioslave, offering plasma-screen TVs, fancy sneakers, plane tickets and more.

Reaction seem split: Camp 1 cries, “Aha! See why the radio is so full of lousy music?” while Camp 2 yawns, “Same as it ever was; you can't buy hits.” Each has a point.

Pay-for-play, according to Kerry Segrave's study Payola in the Music Industry: A History, 1880-1991 and Frederic Dannen's exposé Hit Men, predates not only radio but the record player, too. It goes back at least to the 1880s, when publishers would funnel kickbacks to singers to promote sheet-music sales of certain songs. Soon “song pluggers” were being paid to swagger into saloons and pound out marketable tunes on the piano, whistle them in diners or belt them out in five-and-dimes. In vaudeville audiences, paid-off plants would sing along to specified songs to make them seem popular (just as “viral” agents are hired to phone in requests today).

As influence shifted from singers to band leaders to DJs and station heads, favours and flattery followed. Transitions were marked by crackdowns — the rock 'n' roll-payola hearings of the 1950s, the 1970s FCC drugs-for-play investigation, the mobbed-up promoter trials of the 1980s, and now Spitzer's corporate sting. But payola always comes back in a new form. The latest phase has taken millions out of artists' pockets for “independent promoters” who became the only conduit to U.S. stations.

Yet paid spins guarantee nothing. No one knows what makes a hit. In 2002, Universal spent $2.2-million promoting 18-year-old Carly Hennessy's debut album, but it sold fewer than 500 copies. Payoffs are just a buy-in to the roulette game — and a means of keeping other players out.

Good hardy capitalism, right? Book, grocery and other retailers take payments from wholesalers to give their products special display space. Payola just moves a particular tune to the front shelf in radio's imaginary supermarket of song.

But grocery stores are private. The airwaves are public property, licensed partly to serve the common good. If payola is the American way, it's after the fashion of Halliburton and soft-money contributions.

(The Sony-BMG settlement limited acceptable graft to event tickets, contest giveaways, meals and modest personal gifts — the status quo in Canada. In our small industry, chumminess between label and radio hacks seems enough to stack the deck.)

A promo man's job is to create self-fulfilling prophesies. There are too many decent songs to go around — so if you rig the system so that yours briefly looks like a hit, people may begin to hear it as one.

That process can be bewildering for a fan; imagine being the musician. Ex-Talking Head David Byrne recently recalled that experience on his website diary — the disillusionment when he discovered his band's 1983 hit Burning Down the House was primed with payola. The revelation led him to suspect his own prior tastes, his band's worth and the gullibility of his fans. I think you can hear the resulting sour condescension on some of his subsequent records.

Like Byrne, many of us romantically believe our tastes are original expressions of our souls, but the truth is our fun is fungible, influenced by our friends, background and, yes, fashion. The reason payola keeps resurfacing is taste magnetics: When you consider how easily a cinema companion affects you, how can you claim immunity from million-dollar stealth campaigns? It's remarkable, through it all, that pop music turns out to be as good as it is.

In fact, the anti-payola campaign may make it worse. It lowers costs for major labels, which is good for their artists, but could lead to even less diversity on the radio. Indie record labels rarely can afford to commission promoters, but if they really believed they had a hit, they could ante up — a contributing factor to the recent “rock revival.” Now that option is vanishing. The road is jammed again with well-connected label staff, a resource indies lack.

(Segrave documents a time-honoured pattern: Big labels advocate payola bans to keep costs and competition down. Then they cheat.)

Past payola inquiries have been racially and politically targeted: In the 1950s they shut down upstart, black rock 'n' roll labels; the 1970s hearings targeted Philly soul. While Spitzer has been impeccably unbiased, the tone may change as the FCC brings the case to Washington — and politicians seize the chance to grandstand against hip-hop.

That could dovetail all too neatly with the FCC's planned “decency in broadcasting” campaign, and drown out some Democrats' wishes to discuss how payola is exacerbated by radio deregulation and ownership concentration.

After all, the survival instinct of every large enterprise draws it toward a Mafia state, and the pay-for-play in politics is rich indeed.

Yet this may be the last scandal for radio as we know it. Satellite radio, Internet radio, podcasts and other new audio alternatives are verging on commercial viability — which should come when they invent their own forms of payola, and money again remakes us.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, August 14 at 3:16 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

COMMENTS

Nice article, Carl.

"Taste magnetics" is a very nice coinage.

I *try* to allow positive magnetization to affect me, and try *not* to allow negative magnetization to affect me. Not always successful in either direction. (My sister loves Jimmy Buffet, and I tried, but I still don't get it.) (By the way, why isn't it pronounced "buff-AY"?)

Posted by John S on August 15, 2005 6:44 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson