Topic: Business & Commercial

Payola...Again
(8/7/2005)

Some forms of corruption are like Dracula in the movies: you think a stake has been driven through their hearts, but after a little while they rise again, as disgusting as ever.

In the 1950s a "payola" scandal rocked the record industry when it was revealed that record companies bribed disc jockeys to play certain rock 'n' roll records. The public was horrified, and careers were ruined. Allen Freed, one of the true pioneers of rock and one of its most influential figures who discovered many pop and rock recording stars, ended up in jail after admitting that he had accepted payments. Even Dick Clark was sullied by the affair. Now, thanks to New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer's investigation of Sony's business practices, we know that payola has indeed risen from the grave, and is alive and flourishing.

Spitzer found juicy e-mails from Sony record promoters that were startling in their directness:

  • "Please be advised that in this week's Jennifer Lopez Top 40 Spin Increase of 236 we bought 63 spins at a cost of $3,600."
  • "Please be advised that in this week's Good Charlotte Top 40 Spin Increase of 61 we bought approximately 250 spins at a cost of $17K "
  • "We ordered a laptop for [disc jockey] Donnie Michaels at WFLY in Albany. He has since moved to WHYI in Miami. We need to change the shipping address."
  • "Can you work with Donnie to see what kind of digital camera he wants us to order?"
  • "Gave a Jessica [Simpson] trip to WKSE to secure Jessica spins and switchfoot."
  • "I am trying to buy a walkman for Toya Beasley at WRKS/NY. Can PRS get it to me tomorrow by 3 p.m. I really need to get the CD by then or I have to wait a week or two before she does her music again "
  • "If a record receives less than 75 spins at any given radio station, we will not pay the full rate. We look forward to breaking many records together in the future."
  • "Two weeks ago it cost us over 4000.00 to get Franz [Ferdinand] on WKSE."
  • "WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO TO GET AUDIOSLAVE ON WKSS THIS WEEK?!!? Whatever you can dream up, I can make it happen."

These and hundreds of other revealed messages paint a system in which plasma TVs, expensive trips and vacations, computers and out-right cash pay-offs were used between 2002 and 2004 by Sony executives from its Columbia and Epic records divisions to "persuade" programmers and disc jockeys across the country to goose chart rankings and thus manufacture hits for such artists as Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Simpson and Franz Ferdinand.

What's the matter with this? It's deceptive, manipulative, dishonest and unfair. The radio stations give the impression that records are being played because of quality, popularity, sales and requests, not because their producers ponied up. This system not only deceives consumers; it also cheats superior artists whose producers are playing by the rules. And it makes stars out of singers who don't deserve to be stars. Just imagine the lousy J-Lo movies we might have all been spared if Sony hadn't paid through the nose to make "I'm Glad," "Get Right" and "Get Real" phony hits.

Sony has agreed to pay $10,000,000 as penance for its bribes, and probably still made money in the bargain. Jessica has a new movie, and J-Lo still rules the tabloids. The radio stations, disc jockeys and programmers of many stations are still undoubtedly ready and willing for the next round of payola, which may be going on right now, for all we know. Spitzer has promised to investigate the other record companies, and nobody believes that Sony was the only cheater in the business, or even necessarily the worst. There is scant evidence that the music industry has any ethical values at all, or that their consumers care very much or are even surprised when its corruption becomes obvious. Of course, this is the same industry that cries foul when the electronic files of their songs are traded illicitly on the web by individual users.

In a nation with many industries that possess widely differing ethical cultures, the recording business is obviously near the bottom of the barrel. Reform, if it occurs at all, is a very long way off, and perhaps a fantasy. In the absence of a history, desire, or comprehension of ethical business practices, and with a market that has neither the will nor the values to insist on honesty and fairness, the recording industry can only be monitored, investigated, and punished.

It certainly can't be trusted.

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