Payola: The Genesis and Revelation of Celebrated Criminal Act

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The word ‘Payola’ may sound strange to most music lovers and obviously will makes no meaning to most of Nigerian shinning and aspiring music stars, who are desperate to hit the lime light in no time. However, it is a strong word, which means, payment of cash or gifts in exchange for music airplay. It remains the root of wisdom to veterans and professionals in the broadcasting world. Though, ‘Payola’ might not be that popular in Nigeria due to insatiable appetite of most artistes, who are battling for the proverbial ladder of success, it is a criminal act that has ended career of many great voices and famous faces on air-waves.

Going by history, the first court case involving payola was in May 9, 1960 when Alan Freed was indicted for accepting $2,500, which he claimed was a token of gratitude and did not affect airplay. Alan, the man who popularized the term  rock ‘n’ roll, saw his career ended after he testified at the hearings that he had accepted payola. Artistes like Les Paul and Bobby Darin had to defend themselves against charges that they had paid to perform on Freed’s popular TV show. He was blacklisted from broadcasting and his career suffered a setback, as he drank himself to death in 1965.

Before Alan Freed’s indictment, payola was not illegal but it was a known as commercial bribery. After the trial, the anti-payola statute was passed under which payola became a misdemeanor and penalty which attracted up to $10,000 in fines and one year in prison. The question was how best to exploit that fickle market. At the time, a major record company might release upwards of a hundred singles a week. Then as now, maybe, 10 percent of these would become hits, or at least, make a profit for the label. Radio airplay was the easiest way for an artiste to get exposure and sell records, but with singles pouring into the stations at such a fast pace, labels needed a way to distinguish their songs from those of their competitors. Since this was before the era of MTV and slick promotions, bribery seemed the way to go. Record labels hired promoters who paid Deejays to feature songs by favored artistes.

Why did payola become such a big scandal? The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) accused Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), a performers’ rights organization, of using payola to ensure airplay for BMI artistes. BMI at the time represented most of the black and Southern musicians who were the leading force behind rock n’ roll.  Interestingly, by the mid- fifties the independent record companies had broken the majors stranglehold on airplay and BMI licensed songs dominated the charts. In the wake of the quiz show scandals ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) urged House Oversight Subcommittee’s chairman, Oren Harris, to look into the recording industry’s practice of payola. Congress announced that it would hold hearings on payola. Fearing the taint of scandal, radio stations across the country held a house cleaning of sorts and fired many disc jockeys. Others quit before the axe could fall.

Some contend that payola helped smaller labels break the majors’ stranglehold on the market, and the scandal offered a way to fight back. Still, there is argument that airwaves needed to be cleaned up. Apart from prsenters, Disc jockeys were involved in payola as exchange for airtime, an airplay decisions, which were based not on whether a song was good but on the wad of cash that came with it. Even if you accept the idea that it is okay for radio stations to sell spots on their playlists, keeping the public in the dark about the practice was deceptive. “Pay-for-play,” in which airtime is bought but the payments are disclosed, is still around.

In January 1998, Flip/Interscope Records paid a Portland, Oregon radio station $5,000 to play one Limp Bizkit song 50 times over a five-week period. The band was able to generate enough interest to play a successful concert there. Other stations showed interest in their music, and Limp Bizkit broke into the music biz in a big way. Interestingly, even with a bad products (songs / artistes), big record labels are having a swell time paying to have their artistes in number one spot of most popular music charts, while the helpless and poor products have ended up in a trash can. ‘Na so we go dey dey? Will the practice continue? It is debatable. (You can send drop your comment or send your contribution to [email protected])


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