September 30, 2023
"Vinyl" Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale. photo: Macall B. Polay/HBO
Music History

American Payola: Radio’s Darker Moments

Courtesy of our friends at Noisey, this will help if you’re watching HBO’s Vinyl. If you pay attention to music history you will know this story. Still worth the read. And if you are too young to know the word, well, this will be a great eye-opener!

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!”

You can read the whole thing here.

Larry Lootsteen

Music is life and I love to write about all things music. Independent music blogger. Writer in general. I am a big fan of alternative and indie music but there's no genre I haven't found something to like.

Larry Lootsteen has 630 posts and counting. See all posts by Larry Lootsteen

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