Cliff Doerksen has written an interesting history of payola for the Washington City Paper:
- the truth is that payola isn’t really back – it’s just back in the news. Payola has been a constant and universal part of the economy of popular music for about 125 years, and the likelihood that legislators will be able to do anything constructive about it is about as high as the odds of winning the war on drugs. It was old when ragtime was new, and it still will be going strong long after rock ‘n’ roll has died. Generations of reformers have gone up against payola – and those few who have accomplished anything lasting have succeeded only in making things worse.
American popular music first attained the status of an “industry” in the late 19th century, with Tin Pan Alley – the colloquial name for a centralized, horizontally integrated system for the production, promotion, and distribution of popular songs. The epicenter of this new business was New York, where a welter of competing music publishers maintained batteries of tunesmiths, lyricists, and arrangers. These assembly lines were responsible for grinding out thousands of songs a year in the hope that just a few would catch on, yielding windfall profits from the sale of copyrighted sheet music.
Turning a song into money requires repetitive exposure. No matter how infectious a tune might be, it won’t go anywhere with the masses until they get to hear it – a lot. Accordingly, a Tin Pan Alley firm with a promising new number on its hands was obliged to prime the pump by paying to have the song performed until such time as popular demand for it became self-sustaining and the bucks began rolling in ‘ a process known as “putting a song over.”
Prior to the advent of radio, song-plugging campaigns entailed the orchestrated outlay of cash bribes and/or other emoluments – a new suit or dress, some luggage, a crate of liquor, a piece of the song royalties, the services of a prostitute – to flesh-and-blood performers. By far the most important of these were itinerant vaudevillians, who, once paid, would carry a publisher’s song clear across the continent, exposing it one performance at a time from the stages of hundreds of theaters to a cumulative audience of millions. The bigger the star, of course, the more valuable were his or her services as a song plugger. Headliners working the big-time circuits stood to make as much or more from song plugging as they did from their theatrical salaries. But smaller performers were also in line to receive their share of the graft. This was true even of performers whose talents were not primarily musical. Dancers, jugglers, and conjurers, for example, worked to music, and music publishers found it worthwhile to assist them in selecting appropriate accompaniment for their acts.
On the local level, practically anyone involved in mediating between the music industry and the public stood to benefit from the largess of the publishers. Cabaret singers and dance bands were all on the take, naturally. But so was the blind busker whose one talent was winding the crank of a wheezing curbside barrel organ; ditto the guy in charge of stocking the rolls in the coin-operated player pianos in saloons and penny arcades.
Ever been invited to follow the bouncing ball across a line of lyrics on a movie screen? That’s a convention established in the early 1900s by a forgotten caste of entertainers called “illustrated slide singers,” paid by Tin Pan Alley to drill newly minted pop songs into the heads of nickelodeon audiences as they waited to see a silent movie. And when the movie eventually hit the screen, the house pianist would accompany the flickering images with a medley that incorporated current pop songs that he or she had been paid to plug.
There were a million other angles to the song-plugging racket, but the point stands: Payola was already a ubiquitous feature of urban life. It was also legal – although, mind you, it was interpreted even then as a symptom of the ethical bankruptcy of those in control of the music industry, who were “well known,” as a disapproving journalist put it in 1924, “to contaminate anything they come in contact with with bribes of various kinds.”
What payola’s moralizing critics failed, and still fail, to grasp is that the music industry has always felt itself a victim, and not the perpetrator, of the system. Tin Pan Alley hated payola, and with good reason: In the teens and ’20s, the major musical firms were obliged to gamble as much as $20,000 on the promotion of every hoped-for hit – an investment with a highly uncertain rate of return…..