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The Payola Scandal

by Erika Cox

The Payola Scandal is mostly associated with the situation between record companies and disc jockeys in the 1950ís. However, payola was also popular in the 1920ís and 30ís during vaudeville and big band times. Yet, the first court case came in 1960.

Payola means the paying of cash or gifts for radio play, and is a combination of the words ďpayĒ and ďvictrolaĒ, which stands for LP record player. Payola has been around since the inception of the radio, disc jockeys and radio stations were offered money or gifts to play a particular song.

Getting radio play would allow the songs to reach its expected audience and help launch the artistís career. This practice also helped small and independent labels break the stronghold of the music industry by major labels. To better understand what was behind the Payola scandal in the 1950ís, let me discuss a little history about the radio industry.

In the 1930ís and 1940ís, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) thrived on the sales of sheet music and recordings of Tin Pan Alley songs, but the creation of radio in the 1940ís was geared toward recorded music and things started to change in the industry.

After a fierce battle between radio stations and ASCAP over royalty payments, stations decided to refuse to play any recordings registered with ASCAP. So, in 1940 radio stations created and began operating their own publishing company called Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI). ASCAP didnít want to share any royalties with radio stations and they tended to ignore and refuse to play any music composed by Blacks and Hillbillies.

Remember, this was back in the 40ís and 50ís and this association was riddled with racism and ignorance at the time, to them black music or country music just wasnít good enough and therefore, not accepted. This allowed BMI to have complete control over songs in these two areas because many record stations supplied these songs to regional areas mostly ignored by the major networks, in particular, the Midwest and the South. BMI strengthened and enlarged its control when rock and roll music, which was at first the music of Blacks and Hillbillies, began and hit it big.

So, by the time 1960 rolled around you can see how ASCAP most have felt when BMI was increasing and becoming more powerful each year. Rock and Roll and Rockabilly Ė a combination of rock and hillbilly music Ė skyrocketed in the 1950ís and the big boys, ASCAP, had to do something to stop it. It was not surprising at all, in 1959 when urged and backed by ASCAP, the House Legislative Committee started investigating corrupt broadcasting practices.

The committee broadened its investigation, which had been focusing on the rigged TV game shows, to include the practice of payola in radio. ASCAP believed that once investigated it would show that songs copyrighted with BMI became hits dishonestly because of payola. As ridiculous and petty as this sounds, it was the way of thinking back in those days.

This type of thinking came from the fact that many felt rock and roll music was the music of the devil, it was corrupting teenagers morally, and that teenagers only were listening to it because they had been tricked by greedy DJs who pocketed money or gifts to play songs over and over again until the teenagers were basically brainwashed.

Also, many felt that rock and roll was a fad that would soon (hopefully) go away and the Payola hearings were an attempt to make sure this would happen. The committee went after several DJs but focused on one in particular, his name was Alan Freed. Alan Freed was a very popular DJ who loved rock and roll music and helped many black artists thrive by promoting them and their music at various shows and concerts, because of this Mr. Freed became public enemy No. 1.

Freed would later be indicted and charged with bribery and tax invasion, he paid only a small fee, but it cost him his career and in essence his life. Also, Dick Clark was targeted but on a lower level, he was forced to give up shares he had in publishing and record companies but was able to keep his show American Bandstand and he continued to have a successful long lasting career.

Nevertheless, the Payola scandal didnít serve ASCAPís and many others main purpose, and that was to eliminate rock and roll. After a brief victory by the powers to be and a three year period of some really dreadful pop music, rock and roll music came back strong in the mid-1960ís with the help of the British Invasion and has been riding high ever since. No rock and roll was no fad it was here to stay.

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