Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



'It was general knowledge in the industry in 1955 that payola flourished,' wrote Russell Sanjek, a retired BMI executive. He meant specifically the bribing of disc jockeys to play records, but the music business had always been dirty. In 18th-century England composers sold songs outright and never received royalties; they offered whatever inducements they could to get songs performed so they could sell new ones. When top bananas from Al Jolson to Elvis Presley sang a song in exchange for a piece of it, they were demanding payola (or in Presley's case, it was his handler, Tom Parker). The term was coined by Variety, which headlined 'Plug Payola Perplexed' in 1938 (maybe that was the case of two West Coast bandleaders listed as co-writers of a song neither of them had yet seen); Time carried a story in 1953 about 'cut-ins' (performance shares of a song) and 'hot stoves' (outright bribery). At record companies, if one looks at the B sides of singles released over a period of several years during the 1950s by a major label, there will be a run of one publisher dominating the copyrights on the B sides, being in turn replaced by another publisher who made a better deal with the A&R director: the B sides made as much money as the hits, from the publisher's point of view. 'Videola' was less well-known: guests on quiz and variety shows were introduced with a drum roll or a simple fanfare; producers copyrighted the fanfares and made extra money: $6m was being paid out annually by ASCAP in 1958 for theme songs and background music, chosen not by the public but by producers. The theme tunes of radio soap operas were music that was out of copyright: the big tune from Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony for Road of Life, the old Italian pop song 'Funiculi Funicula' for Lorenzo Jones and so on; but radio advertising suddenly fell in 1954 and radio drama vanished in the USA as TV took over, freeing thousands of hours a week on local and national radio for the playing of pop records just as Top 40 programming was coming in. Payola skyrocketed because radio had become a showcase for record companies.

Top disc jockeys in big cities earned as much as $35,000 a year, a lot of money then; men like Bill Randle in Cleveland and Howard Miller in Chicago had recognizable personalities, but anybody who could keep talking between records could be a disc jockey, and most of them weren't paid much. They had long been courted with drinks, meals, and small amounts of cash; Martin Block had pioneered the disc jockey format in 1935 (retired in 1960) and described the $10 that came with a new record as equivalent to a headwaiter's tip for a good table in a nightclub. Alan Freed never denied accepting gifts, but denied taking them in front: 'If I've helped somebody, I'll accept a nice gift, but I wouldn't take a dime to plug a record ... I'd be giving up control of my program.' Howard Miller said that he could name people who took money or paid it, but that it would be unfair to put a few on the rack for a practice that was so widespread, and, he might have added, that wasn't against the law anyway. Willie Dixon, a power in Chicago R&B at Chess Records, wrote in his autobiography that as well as having to give free records to juke box operators and distributors, supposed to be promo copies, though everyone knew they were sold, ' disc jockey was going to play your record then without you paying him ... They would play 'em two weeks, three times a day and that was it unless you came up with more money.'

There was a scandal when TV quiz shows had been rigged in 1959 in order to keep the most popular contestants on week after week; Congressional Representative Oren Harris of Arkansas, Chairman of a Special Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, decided to dig deeper, hoping to find more scandal to keep the subcommittee in the public eye, good for votes. Songwriter Burton Lane, president of the American Guild of Authors and Composers, wrote to the Chairman of the FCC urging it to require owners of broadcasting licences to divest themselves of conflicting business interests, such as music publishing companies. Payola was only a symptom of the disease, wrote Lane, which was 'the involvement of the entire broadcasting industry, networks and local stations, in a deliberate and successful distortion of music programming for their own financial gain'. This was true as far as it went, and not a bad definition of Top 40 programming, but Congress wasn't going to do anything about it; there was more publicity in going after disc jockeys, and Lane didn't mention videola, because that put money in his members' pockets.

Despite reactions against rock'n'roll (banned by some stations) Top 40 programming continued to spread while record companies stepped up releases to around 100 records a week. On the first day of 1959 the CBS radio network cut back programming again, leaving affiliates with 20 more hours a week to fill with music; the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission both started investigations, and soon Representative Emanuel Celler was gunning for BMI, seeing public unrest about 'dirty songs' as a ticket to a seat in the Senate. It was clear that complainants were often connected with ASCAP, using unease about rock'n'roll as a stick with which to beat BMI, but if it was a conflict of interest that some broadcasters had holdings in BMI, ASCAP itself had brought this about in the first place with its historic strike against the broadcasters (see entries for ASCAP and BMI). One witness stated that a record company had paid to have its recording of a Tchaikovsky symphony favoured over another, but the committee was interested only in corruption as it applied to 'bad' music. Burton Lane ranted about BMI, but admitted that ownership of radio stations by such members of his organization as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Pat Boone might also be a conflict of interest. Sinatra had got into the act, still blaming Mitch Miller for the downturn in his career some years earlier, claiming that he had been forced to record substandard stuff at Columbia; but Miller had only to point out that Sinatra's contract had given him control over what songs he recorded; that of 57 tunes Sinatra recorded for Miller only five had been BMI songs, two of them published by Sinatra's own BMI company; and that 'Young-At-Heart', the ballad that was one of Sinatra's biggest hits (on Capitol in 1954), was a BMI song. ASCAP's general counsel Herman Finkelstein stated that the 'artificial ratings' for BMI songs would be substantially reduced if Congress acted, claiming that ASCAP hits broke through on 'sheer merit'; but he also did not know how top ten tunes were chosen, so could not be more specific (Variety headlined, 'Put Up Or Shut Up'). Sydney Kaye for BMI refuted much of this: the percentage of BMI records in broadcaster-disc jockey charts was lower than that in retail record sales, and the performance rate of BMI music had been lower in 1958 than in '57; and Kaye also brought up the subject of videola, pointing out that a snatch of an old song accompanying the closing of a door in a melodrama brought in just as much money as if an artist sang the whole song, while in '57 more than 42 per cent of all ASCAP's payments came from TV networks. Kaye said that if BMI were held in greater esteem by broadcasters than ASCAP it was because BMI did not habitually vilify them. A total of 335 disc jockeys admitted receiving $263,245 as 'consultants' in recent years.

Celler proposed a bill which would have prohibited disc jockey interviews with recording artists leading to a playing of the artist's new record, or a 'Salute to ASCAP' on the Ed Sullivan show involving appearances by songwriters whose songs would then be used. The bill would have required radio stations to buy all their records, playing free ones only if it was announced on the air that they were free, but this was simply silly because of the way the economics of the industry had changed: when so much airtime had to be filled with recorded music, buying new releases would have cost small stations too much and would have made it even harder for an indie label or a new artist to be heard. The real problem was that hitmaking had been handed over to radio by circumstances, and with perhaps 20,000 tracks a year on singles and albums being released, restricting a lot of playlist to only 40 or so records was bad for American music as well as making payola worthwhile, but neither Congress nor the FCC was going to address that problem. There was an amendment to the Communications Act of 1934 outlawing play-for-pay, but committee lawyer Bernard Schwartz had wanted a more wide-ranging investigation, writing in the New York Post that improprieties other than those of disc jockeys remained buried in the Harris Committee's files: 'Those fully aware of the material involved know we are really deceiving ourselves to believe that the Congressmen carried out anything like the really thorough investigation of the federal agencies that is so urgently needed.' Schwartz was fired for his pains.

In the middle of the unsuccessful war on rock'n'roll came news of the international popularity of it: in the Soviet Union, rock'n'roll records were being bootlegged on exposed X-ray film, while other bootlegs on 7-inch 78s made from short-wave broadcasts were being sold by the GUM department store in Moscow. As far as anyone knew, there was no related bribing of disc jockeys in the Soviet Union. For more recent corruption on American radio, see Frederic Dannen's excellent Hit Men (1990). In 2005 New York City District Attorney Elliott Spitzer fined record companies for paying payola; nothing had changed.