Payola wasn’t new to the music industry when Rock and Roll arrived. Several factors seemed to come together at the same time, leading to a blowup that radically changed the course of Rock and Roll.
The term Payola is a contraction of the words pay and Victrola, a popular brand of record player. Sometimes called Pay To Play It’s the illegal practice of record companies paying money for the playing of records. This made a record appear more popular that it might have been, giving the artist more exposure, a better rating on the charts, and influencing other radio stations that might be on the lookout for the next hot record. It’s not as common or outright now as it was in the past, or maybe it’s just hidden better. The law prevents record companies from paying directly, but still allows payments through intermediaries.
- At most radio stations now, a music director or manager selects the songs to be played and, frequently, the order and time where they will be played. It was mentioned earlier that the Payola scandal arose due to several factors that came together at the same time. Consider these cultural changes:
- Rock was new, popular with the kids, and generally disliked by their parents.
The two large music licensing companies, ASCAP and BMI were at odds. They were always competitive, but ASCAP had a slow start in the Rock and Roll business and possibly saw a way to get even with rival BMI. One can only guess that they saw Rock and Roll as a passing fad!
- Technology was giving power to the independent radio stations. Radio was previously confined to the home where family standards controlled the dial. Introduction of personal radios, clock radios, and the portable transistor radio gave teens their own dial to control.
- By the late 50s, the post-war baby boomers were a sizeable economic force, and advertisers found that Top 40 radio was a good way to target them, leading to a boom in independent stations.
The inexpensive, newly introduced 45 rpm single allowed teens to purchase popular hits on a limited budget. Also, consider that the Payola scandal came along at a time that elected officials were just learning how to get free publicity from holding high profile hearings. This was the time of the McCarthy Hearings, and the Payola inquiries were carried out by the same commission that was working on the television game show investigations.
The Payola Congressional Hearings
Twenty-five witnesses were called, the most famous being Alan Freed and Dick Clark, and the list included other notables such as Les Paul, Bobby Darin, and Murray the K. Ironically, at the time, Payola wasn’t actually against the law, although Alan Freed was eventually convicted on 2 counts of commercial bribery.
Much has been written about the difference between Freed and Clark. Alan Freed resisted testifying on principle, claiming that he never played a record he didn’t actually consider worthwhile, no matter what was given to him. His attitude didn’t play well with the industry, and he was essentially blackballed, ending his DJ career. Freed died a few years later, broke, alcoholic, and depressed in 1965.
Dick Clark, on the other hand, testified freely and even brought a statistician with him to prove that payola had not affected the sales of records with which he was affiliated. He had sold his music related interests before the hearings.
His testimony included “I have not done anything that I think I should be ashamed of or that is illegal or immoral,” Mr. Clark said, “and I hope to eventually convince you of this. I believe in my heart that I have never taken payola”. At another point in the hearing, Representative Steven B. Derounian quipped “You say you did not get any payola, but you got an awful lot of royola”.
Others caught in the fray include Les Paul and Bobby Darin, both charged with paying to perform on Freed’s ABC television show, and DJs Joe Niagara (WIBG, Philadelphia), Tom Clay (WJBK, Detroit), Murray “The K” Kaufman (WINS, New York), Arnie “Woo Woo Ginsberg WMEX, Boston), and Stan Richards (WILD, Boston).