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Music Hype - The Payola Scandal

Most people know that the hype of music has been around for decades. You may have heard of "The Payola Scandal", but what is it?

Basically it is a term coined in the 50's for the practice of paying for a record to be played on the radio. Rather than go into it all here, you can get a good idea of what it is all about by reading these two web pages...

You'll note that this mainly refers to the radio stations in the USA. So does that mean we are safe from music hype here in the UK?

Well people don't seem to shout about it here, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it doesn't go on.

In the early 80's, an executive from a music marketing and promotions company, that worked for many of the major labels, revealed to me that record hype was common here in the UK. The executive told me that a record previously at number one in the charts had, in reality, only sold around 300 copies. Now, to get to number one in the UK charts at that time required sales of many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, from stores nationwide.

So how was this possible?

Well, the majors here didn't just bribe the radio stations like they did in the US. Perhaps they didn't need to, they found a much more effective way. At the time the UK charts was compiled from the weekly sales figures from a selection of record stores around the country. The stores chosen at random for this honour were supposedly a "secret". However, in the days before electronic exchange of information was done on a wide scale, it was relatively easy for those in the know to "paper trace" their way to the chosen stores and secretly bribe the owners or their staff to falsify the sales returns.

Their reward for this practice was that an artist high in the charts automatically gets invited to appear on the most popular music TV shows and also gets more airplay on all radio stations as a result. This exposure immediately skyrocketed the record to attain the actual sales that warranted their chart position.

When the news of this practice got out, there was a major scandal for a couple of weeks. The public were told that steps had been taken to ensure that this sort of thing will never happen again. Then it all got brushed under the carpet.

So the record-buying public can now be confident that the music they hear on the radio today, got there solely because it was good enough to gain the attention of the producers and deejays ... Or did it? Can we really be certain that hype has been wiped out?

A friend of mine in the USA, Tom Hendricks, editor of "Musea" magazine, has been campaigning for the majors to be brought to justice for the Payola scandal for many years.

At long last it seems that part of the battle has now been won. In Tom's own words, here is the latest news...

"OK media sources. Where is the story about the industry wide payola scandal that has been going on for decades? This is the biggest story in music. Time for fair coverage and finally fairplay airplay! Here is Musea's editorial on it (Musea E-mail Club #377 FCC confirms Industry Wide Payola)

This is a big day for me. Finally the truth has come out. First the facts...

For 15 years I've talked about the payola system in the radio industry. Now the FCC has confirmed all my charges against both the 4 major record companies (Sony/BMG Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, Universal Music Group, and EMI Group.) and four of the largest radio chains that control thousands and thousands of stations across the US: (Clear Channel, CBS Radio, Entercom Communications, and Citadel Broadcasting Corp.)

Though the settlement is not final, here it is as it now stands as reported from Wire Reports: The 4 radio conglomerates have agreed to pay the government $12.5 million (a slap on the wrist) and provide 8,400 half hour segments of free airtime for independent record labels and local artists. (Independent and local defined as not being owned or controlled by the Big 4 listed above.) These were separate agreements, all aimed at curbing payola, said sources at the Federal Communications Commission. ( It is all part of a consent decree between the radio stations and the FCC. They admit no wrongdoing under this 3 year settlement and details have not been made public.

Now for some comment. First of all the CEO's of these companies need to go to jail. If Martha Stewart goes to jail, then leaders in an industry wide payola scandal this extensive and covering all these decades, need to go to jail. Note that these companies were the same that went after teens who were illegally downloading their songs. Is that a worse crime than industry wide payola for decades? I don't think so. It is time for some tough sentences for these corporate crooks!

It is also time for all those naive critics of us who claimed industry wide payola, to admit they were completely and totally wrong.

It is time for the media to finally cover this scandal. It SHOULD be the biggest story in every publication from Rolling Stone magazine, to Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight. I seriously doubt it will even be mentioned. It should be the front page of every daily newspaper. I found this blurb buried in our hometown Dallas paper. And of course I doubt there will be any major editorial pieces against these abuses, no investigative stories, etc. It should be the major story on PBS. I doubt any mainstream musician will be asked a tough question on the radio, such as - "Well 'musician X', weren't most of the sales of your records in the 80's, 90's and this decade due to payola, instead of talent?"

What we can and should expect is big stories in the free press such as Punk Planet, Maximum Rock and Roll, Zine World, Clamor - if it was still going, and other indie media, media that does NOT depend on the massive advertising dollars that these companies spend each year.

And finally, as this story unravels. We must next look at the publishing industry. Remember many of these same companies own the major book publishers such as Warners, BMG etc.

What you will find is the same corrupt system whereby a handful of publishers get reviews, talk show interviews, etc. and the indies do not.

OK. Everyone that has been charging payola all these years - its time for a celebratory yell! Yeah.!!! Now the rest of the world knows they are and were corrupt all these years."

So, some good news at least for the many thousands of independent artists who have previously been denied airplay. Does this finally mean the end of illegal marketing methods?

Hype is now less prevalent than in previous years. But perhaps the reason for that is that now those same four major music companies now actually OWN most of the radio stations in the US, and probably some, if not many, of the independent radio stations in other parts of the World as well. They no longer need to bribe anyone. They can play their own releases on their own stations as much as they like.

So has record "hype" and corrupt "favouritism" finally been wiped out?

Somehow, I doubt it!