“When I first started, it was hookers and blow [to help get songs on the air],” Donnelly says. “Then that disappeared and it became sports tickets, trips, sneakers and the like. It changed over time so that it became much more sophisticated. At the end of the day, the labels still wanted hit records and the radio stations wanted cash.”
While some radio promoters today liken those days to the Wild West — a distant past — conversations with more than 30 people in the music industry familiar with the modern radio business indicate that payments to influence airplay are still a significant feature of the radio landscape. “It never went away,” says Paul Porter, a veteran of “urban” radio who discusses his experiences with payola in his 2017 book, Blackout: My 40 Years in the Record Business. “The old days of coming in [to a radio station] with a 12-inch [record] full of money [and offering] trips and cocaine are all gone. Now everything goes to LLCs and cash apps.”
Pay-for-play is at least as old as rock itself. The first congressional hearings on payola in the radio industry were held in 1960, resulting in the prohibition of undisclosed pay-for-play. But pay-for-play did not end. Donnelly heard so many stories from fed-up artist clients about payments to DJs and radio stations that he decided to alert Eliot Spitzer, then New York’s attorney general, to the state of the industry in 2004.
Spitzer’s investigations revealed that payola was rampant in radio. To influence airplay, money and other “valuable considerations” moved among labels or middlemen known as “indie promoters” and radio stations. “It was the early stage of people using email, so [labels and radio programmers] were pretty straightforward in terms of what the deals were and the transactions that were being cut,” Spitzer tells Rolling Stone. In 2003, for example, one program director asked Columbia Records, “Do you need help on Jessica [Simpson] this week? $1,250? If you don’t need help, I certainly don’t need to play it.”
As a result of the New York investigation, each of the major labels agreed to pay multimillion-dollar settlements. Radio chains like CBS and Entercom also paid financial penalties. In addition, the major labels committed to significant “business reforms” in the ensuing deal with the New York attorney general’s office. The most important of these was a promise to “not use … [contests or giveaways, commercial transactions, advertising, artist appearances and performances] in an explicit or implicit exchange, agreement or understanding to obtain airplay or increase airplay.”
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