Hey DJ, Keep Payin’ That Song!

1984 Disc Jockey (via EOS_Boy of Flickr)

Radio is known as the necessary playground for all aspiring artists. It may not determine who the best are but it certainly dictates who is popular.


As of now, radio has a few different ways of determining who gets played the most. The first is by demand. The second way is by the deejay’s discretion. The third, though the most prevalent, is essentially illegal. Payola, the unlawful practice of record companies paying deejays for artist play, is something that has been going on for decades. Since the 1930s and the 1940s with jazz big bands taking over, on down to the 60s and 70s with the emergence of rock ’n’ roll, record labels have hired promoters to do their dirty work of getting their artists heard by any means.

The payola scandal of 1959 was one of the biggest bangs to hit the music industry of all time. After Congress announced its plan to begin holding hearings on payola after a television game show scandal, radio stations began a major sweeping of disc jockeys engaged in the act.

The entire event blew up after one of the performers’ rights organizations, Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), was subjected to investigation by their rival PRO, The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) of using payola to secure their artists’ spots for airplay.

Phil Lind, a deejay in Chicago, revealed that $20,000 had been given to him to play a record. This caused uproar from the industry and the public, resulting in him receiving death threats and being granted police protection. Other deejays accused of this act eventually lost their career and their respectability, such as Alan Freed. Freed, the legendary deejay that coined the term rock ‘n’ roll, plead guilty to his accusations, became blacklisted from broadcasting and died penniless and miserable ten years later.

Why so much drama over paying deejays?

Radio play is the easiest, most efficient way for artists to gain exposure and sell records. With hundreds of new singles released weekly, DJ’s are expected to unbiasedly select which ones will best suit their audience. The more a record is played, the more fan-base it gains, and the more popular the artist becomes, the even more money everyone makes.

For the past 80 years, the H.R. 848 Performance Rights Act has been benefiting the likes of composers, songwriters, record labels and publishers alike. The only component missing from this line-up is the musician. Over the past few years, the debate over the “pay to play” musicians has been heavily deliberated upon, and as of this year, has finally been handed down to the government. Most recently, on October 15, 2009, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed their vote in favor of the bill.

Future of Music Coalition

The Future of Music Coalition, a national nonprofit organization that fights for the rights of artists and fans, are also in support of it. “Remember, this right already exists for digital performances, including satellite radio, webcasts and those music-with-no-video channels at the high end of your cable TV dial,” reads a post on their blog on the subject. “Yet terrestrial broadcasters get to spin these tunes without [paying] performers who breathe life into these compositions.”

National Association of Broadcasters

An opposing team, the National Association of Broadcasters, differ on the topic. “In recent years, the record labels have seen sales of albums decline as more listeners opt for digital downloads,” reads their nationally published letter. “However, radio remains the number one promotional vehicle for music–it’s not responsible for the label’s resistance to the digital age, and it shouldn’t be on the hook to fix it.”

With the decline of revenue for artists, songwriters, publishers and record labels due to the extremity and popularity of illegal downloading, the music industry has been in shambles in attempt to compensate for the funds they lack.

The number one issue, which is also the number one motivation for the bill, is money. Every year, the radio provides $1.5 to $2.4 billion dollars to music sales annually. This new bill would demand an additional expenditure from stations from $2-7 billion dollars yearly.

For smaller, local, and/or minority-owned stations, this expense will most likely prove to be too much. The variety of deejay selections would decrease. Established artists such as Jay-Z and U2 would be easy picks, while emerging artists like J. Cole and 2am could easily be seen as a risk of lost revenue.

The National Association of Broadcasters refer to the bill as a “tax,” but in actuality, the artists would be paid directly. Most likely this would happen through SoundeXchange, the non-profit performance rights organization that already collects statutory royalties for artists from satellite radio, internet radio, and cable TV music channels.

For artists who are not songwriters, composers, or publishers, this bill will make a world of a difference. But for radio stations, it may cause the need for budget cuts and standardization. Even so, radio is the key element to any musician’s career. If this bill were to be passed, although the changes are only speculated upon now, they would most definitely cause a change to the industry we know today.

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