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Payola, The Illegal Practice That Never Went Away


You may have heard the term ‘payola’ being thrown around in the music business. For those of you that don’t know it’s meaning or even those that are looking to see if it still exists, we’re going to delve into this subject and perhaps give you a little clarity.

So, what is payola, also known as “pay to play”?

Well, payola first appeared during the 1950s when record labels would hand off cash to a DJ or the station’s program director, this cash would get the labels records played at that particular station. It was as if they were renting the air time to play the track, or, put another way, sponsoring the song.

Payola has grown over the years and has always been prevalent in the music business, yes it’s illegal, but for record labels, it was worth the risk as payola helped some artists become stars, and with even more cash splashed, those stars became superstars.

With money being exchanged between the labels and radio station/streaming services, songs that probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day became a hit. Terrible right? Well, this dirty under-the-table secret isn’t so secret anymore, the only real difference is that today it’s called “corporate sponsorship” instead of payola. Here’s our attempt to explain how this process worked back in the day and in the modern day arena.

Payola is supposedly banned in the music business, and yet it is as prevalent today as it was in the ’50s. It was made a crime to use the practice, so, with that knowledge in hand, labels turned to “independent promoters” and had them do exactly the same process with the radio stations as they did, this way the labels could say that they had no involvement, and of course, protected themselves legally.

The payments to radio and TV stations evolved over the years, cash was often substituted for drugs, vacations, high-end electronics, and even sex, all in return for heavy rotation and airplay.

So, when did Payola become common knowledge?

Payola became a serious problem for record labels and radio stations in 1959, when one of America’s biggest radio stars at the time, DJ Alan Freed was caught up in a payola scandal.

Freed and his counterpart Dick Clark played a huge part in making rock ’n’ roll a household name, but Freed was accused of taking cash in order to play certain songs on heavy rotation.  He always denied ever accepting payola, in fact, he even refused “on principle” to sign an affidavit saying that he’d never accepted payola. You have to admire the guy for sticking his feet in, but ultimately his station WABC fired him, and he was charged with 26 counts of commercial bribery. Freed was eventually hit with fines and a suspended jail sentence and sadly died five years later, broke and in the wilderness. Payola was now out there and ever since people have wanted to know how and why it works, and more importantly, how it can be stopped?

Payola hit the headlines again in 2005, when one of the biggest labels in the world, Sony BMG, were handed a hefty $10 million in fines by the state of New York when they were found guilty of using the practice of payola.

The charge said that Sony had been rewarding DJs with cash and goods for playing Sony artists, in particular, the massive amount of airplay for the latest Jessica Simpson album at the time. Like many before them, Sony hid their use of Payola, in this instance, they ran fake promotional competitions giving all the prizes to DJs as payment.

So, what about the present day, does payola still exist? You betcha.

Whereas radio “pay for play” will always be a problem, the attention now has been turned to playlists. Independent promoters are now turning to influencers to get them to include songs on their playlist, and a newer version of legal payola now exists in the form of corporate sponsorship.

The game has certainly changed over the years and securing airplay on radio stations is tougher than ever. Now owned by huge conglomerates, these stations can pick and choose their playlists, so, with that being said, bands, artists and labels have now turned to sponsorship in order to secure airplay.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen Pepsi launch and re-launch “The Sound Drop” in conjunction with heavyweights MTV, Shazam, and iHeartMedia. This particular platform has proven successful, pushing along the careers of artists already on major labels and have major rotation on iHeartRadio. Dr. Pepper’s “One of a Kind Sound” is based around artist promo spots that look and sound like pre-release album videos, in fact, all of the “One of a Kind Sound” artists performed at dozens of live shows across the country giving multiple shout outs to Dr. Pepper for supporting their music. And let’s face it, Warner Music and “Universal Music Group’s partnership with iHeartRadio also screams monopoly. Add the fact that these same partnerships put on huge festivals that showcase their “chosen” acts, payola looks alive and well but with a different skin. Oh, and as for those festivals, they took in $1.5 billion in sponsorship money in 2017 alone.

So there you have it, a brief history and an update. Oh, and if all of this is all new data is starting to sound very familiar, we have to agree, payola looks to be alive and well in the 21st century.


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