Money Changes Everything

(Illustration by Alex Fine)

Meet The New Payola. Same As The Old Payola?

Psst. Hey bub. Yeah, you. You wanna know a secret? This is gonna blow your mind: The music business is corrupt. A stinking, rat-infested pirate ship rife with graft, greed, grifting and deceit. Shh. I know, I know. I couldn’t believe it either when I first heard. But don’t tell anyone-especially not Mariah, J. Lo or Audioslave.

When the news broke last month that Sony BMG Music Entertainment agreed to pay a $10 million fine and stop buying off DJs if New York state attorney general Eliot Spitzer would call off his dogs, the worst-kept secret in rock ‘n’ roll high school was officially out of the bag.

Payola — the practice of paying DJs and radio station employees to give songs heavy airplay — has been technically illegal since 1960, punishable by a $10,000 fine and a year in jail. The term was coined back at the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll-a contraction of “pay” and “Victrola,” those antique turntables dogs like to listen to. The first payola scandal, back in the ’50s, took down Alan Freed, the godfather of rock DJs. His career in tatters, Freed drank himself to death.

After that record companies found a loophole in the law big enough to drive the Grand Canyon through: If they gave their bribes to a third party — let’s call him an “independent record promoter” — who then passed said bribes under the table to the radio stations, it wasn’t technically illegal.

Upward of a quarter million per song would be spread around to various flagship stations around the country, propping up sagging bottom lines and invariably used to send listeners on jet-set rock ‘n’ roll vacations. “You can win a trip for two to see Pink Floyd on the dark side of the moon!” — that kind of thing.

Up until last year when Clear Channel, of all things, declared they were no longer accepting “promo dollars” from independent promoters, this was business as usual. “What do I have to do to get Audioslave on WKSS this week?!!? Whatever you can dream up, I can make it happen,” goes one Sony employee email message leaked during the Spitzer investigation. Laptop computers, PlayStatons and plasma-screen TVs all turned up on the desks of radio playlist gatekeepers.

At a time when indie auteurs had figured out a way to make cost-free pop masterpieces in their bedrooms and others had learned how to atomize albums and send them out over the Internet like transporters on Star Trek, the major labels were still putting an Apple on the teacher’s desk. Craven ass-kissing: the sad, pathetic domain of the idea-less.

If there’s any redeeming social value to this whole tawdry tale, it’s that one good song became a hit: Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out.” That’s right, bought and paid for, alongside Celine, Mariah and J. Lo. Besides calling into question to the prevailing conventional wisdom that payola equals crapola, the news that “Take Me Out” was bribed into the charts will likely have little to no effect on the career of these great Scots.

Franz’s super-excellent follow-up album You Could Have It So Much Better … With Franz Ferdinand hits stores Oct. 4. Call it poptastic, call it ’80s-rific, call it the cucumber in the skinny black pants of rock. Just don’t call it money in the bank.

Finally, consider this modest proposal: What if some filthy-rich lefty, like George Soros or Michael Moore, bought up the charts and stocked them with the kind of free radicals that flicker across Pitchfork‘s radar. Can you imagine a world where Wolf Eyes is as big as J. Lo’s butt? What a wonderful world that would be.