The Cost of Fame - Payola the Price for Popularity
Ever wonder why that really terrible song keeps getting played on the radio? That one that everyone knows, and everyone loathes.
I mean, it’s awful - annoying nursery rhyme of a melody and all! And the beat… Imagine your grandfather dancing the Mashed Potato in slow motion, and you’ll know how that song makes me feel...
And yet --!
Every time you turn on your car - every time you go into the coffee shop on the corner - every time that commercial for the trendy department store plays - there’s that same damn song!
Did it ever occur to you that maybe some nefarious force - the mafia, the same people who assassinated Kennedy and faked the moon landing - that SOMEONE has conspired to make this song more widely heard than should ever the laws of nature and good taste should allow? You’re not crazy…
That song isn’t getting played because it is beloved - it is getting played because someone is getting paid.
It’s called payola.
It’s how record companies manufacture hits - by paying cash to radio stations, DJs, and other tastemakers to push their songs over the would-be hits of others. Instead of natural selection and survival of the fittest, you have a rigged ecosystem. Those who are already rich and connected stay popular. Any challenger is at an automatic disadvantage - they have to rise on their own merits and in the limited airtime left over after the major labels have bought their fill.
All of this is legal, too - as long as the radio station makes a cursory acknowledgement that it’s happening. Consolidation of record labels and the vertical integration of media companies have only compounded the issue, making the line between illegal payola and corporate synergy much blurrier.
Payola first came to public attention in the early days of rock and roll radio. Kingmakers like Alan Freed and Dick Clark came under scrutiny for receiving cash payments and honorary songwriting credits that earned them royalties - on songs that were then featured during their wildly popular shows. There’s a major thread of rock and roll that thrives on rebellious individuality - on authenticity. The idea that these men weren’t picking the hits based on good taste, but towing a corporate line - well, it ended more than one career.
Clark abruptly divested himself of these interests in an effort to save his lucrative career as host of American Bandstand. Freed was less lucky - his image as an intuitive DJ playing by his own rules was dashed away in one fell swoop. He lost a succession of jobs in a short time and drifted into a fatal bout of alcoholism.
And none of this even addresses the murky, sometimes violent scenarios that transpired when the mob got in on the game. Some say they effectively owned the careers of such stalwarts as Jackie Wilson and Tommy James.
(I’m sure the Shondells would have done fine on their own.)
In our fictional Flashback to Never world, it’s possible that WF2N DJs could have fallen into the habit of accepting the kind of cash considerations that felled Freed. Those early rock and roll DJs were not always well paid, and that made them cheap targets of opportunity for those trying to orchestrate the careers of their artists…
So, what do you think? Which songs from F2N can only be explained away by payola? Which songs get your goat - and force it to dance right under your skin?