Payola is alive and well in the US radio business

Back in the spring, I had dinner with a couple of old friends who work in the American music business. When asked about trends in the US, they got a little quiet.

“It’s back,” one of them said glumly, “Independent radio promoters are up to their old tricks.”

In other words, payola–the illegal practice of paying (i.e. bribing) a radio station to play certain songs–is alive and well in America.

[Quick aside: I’ve been in the Canadian radio business for almost forty years working in some pretty prestigious and influential positions. In that entire time, there hasn’t been a single attempt to sway by opinion on adding a song to a radio station’s playlist through offers of money, drugs, gifts, or whatever. Not. Once. Ever. From my perspective, the Canadian industry appears to be completely clean. And I believe it. My US friends are also 100% clean. They believe that records should succeed on their merits, and not on who writes the biggest cheque.]

America, though, is a different story. They invented payola back in the 1950s. Every once in a while, some scandal erupts, the authorities investigate, some people are fired/fined/sent to jail, things settle down for a while, then repeat. It’s been that way for over 60 years.

It works like this. Record labels subcontract people to promote their releases to radio stations across the country. Every time the record promoter succeeds in getting a station to add a song to their playlist, they get paid. When it comes to the methods they use to convince stations to do this, the labels don’t want to hear about it. All they care about is results.

Here’s a typical example. An indie promoter will approach a target radio station. Noticing that the station could use a new van, the promoter might offer to hook them up with a new vehicle. All they need to do is play the song they’re being offered.

Some are even less subtle. There are stations that actually budget for revenues (i.e. bribes) that come from indie promoters.

Why is this illegal? Because it warps the marketplace. Getting a song on the radio is the quickest and most efficient way of making it a broad hit. Instead of making it on the merits and artistry of the song, the song gets play for pay. That’s illegal.

Rolling Stone has a new investigation that reinforces what my friend told me earlier this year.

One manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, recently spent approximately $10,000 through a third party directly paying radio DJs in the “urban” and rhythmic formats to play a single. The payments were strategically employed to boost the singer’s spins. When a label signed the artist, the manager was able to earn his money back.

That was a relatively cheap investment. Another music-industry veteran who requested anonymity claims that he spent five times as much to try to break a record in the rhythmic format. “I bought all my spins at the right places,” he says. “We spent about $50,000.” He got around 800 plays, mostly in mix shows.

Read more here.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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