Saturday, May 8, 2021

What killed rock n' roll? Payola 2.0

There is an interesting article titled "Bob Dylan Lays Down What Really Killed Rock ’n’ Roll." I don't agree with the thesis that rock was destined to stay locked into the modes of the 1950s, but the insidious successor to the Payola scandal had a lasting impact on popular culture, and by extension youth and mainstream culture.

So, what did Bob Dylan lay down in his interview with AARP, cited in the article above? 

Dylan said that this was very threatening to city fathers, so "they had to dismantle it." The black element became soul, white elements became English pop. And then there was payola controlling what was played, Bob noted.

Here's a short history of early Payola, from  

Aware of their rising status, jocks established flat rate deals with labels and record distributors. A typical deal for a mid-level DJ was $50 a week, per record, to ensure a minimum amount of spins. More influential jocks commanded percentages of grosses for local concerts, lavish trips, free records by the boxful (some even opened their own record stores), plus all the time-honored swag. As Cleveland DJ Joe Finan later described the decade, “It was a blur of booze, broads and bribes.

As payola escalated, Variety and Billboard did lengthy features, calling for reform and government intervention (to its credit, Billboard wrote, “The cancer of payola cannot be pinned on rock ’n’ roll”). ASCAP was also vocal in their opposition to payola, using it as a means to lambaste their competitor BMI. At the time, the larger ASCAP represented the old guard of mostly white composers from the Tin Pan Alley days. BMI was associated with the young, racially mixed writers of R&B and rock ’n’ roll, as well as indie labels such as Aladdin, King and Chess. By the mid-’50s, BMI single releases outnumbered ASCAP’s by almost two to one. The older organization cried foul, accusing BMI of promoting payola.

So here's my take. I agree with some of what Dylan said, but he got a few things wrong in my humble opinion.

Popular music has been on a fast-track evolutionary cycle since the invention of the radio and LP. Other factors have contributed, from the music press to cable television to more disposable household income in the United States after WWII. The idea that popular youth music would stay locked into the modes of mid-1950s America while culture and society shifted, millions of new teenage humans entered the scene every year, musicians absorbed new influences, and musical trends crossed borders and linguistic barriers -- and sometimes came back -- seems like a stretch.

But one thing that is not a stretch is what might be called Payola 2.0, after the 1.0 scandal described in the article died down. Record companies couldn't give outright cash payments to DJs, but there were many other ways of exerting influence on influential media gatekeepers. In my opinion, this is where the suits really were really able to promote biases and sideline non-mainstream musical trends.

Some of the influence was obvious. Picking artists that had the "right" look. Promoting "safe" artists. Selective access and backstage benefits for powerful DJs and music journalists and other influencers. Ignoring, sidelining, or co-opting trends bubbling up from the underground, from proto-metal in the late 60s to punk in the 70s to rap in the 80s.

And then there are the charts, which were segmented according to race and other factors aligned with the needs of the music "industry." Did you know that until the early 90s music charts in the United States were based on a sample of self-reported sales from record store managers? Can you imagine the bias and BS that went on with those numbers? As soon as soundscan was implemented, there was an immediate realignment, with rap and grunge and techno and country storming the pop charts:

When Billboard, the music industry's leading trade magazine, began publishing new pop and country album charts last month using a new computerized method, the change set off alarms in the record business that have not stopped ringing.

Pop albums by a number of new artists whose careers major record companies were trying to establish suddenly plummeted, while a bunch of country albums took dramatic upward leaps. A chorus of record company executives charged that the chart, prepared by Soundscan, a research film in Hartsdale, N.Y., would seriously undermine their efforts to promote new talent.

Boo hoo!

Since then, the digital transformations have resulted in an interesting fragmentation of pop music and youth tastes ... but with the music industry literally controlling major streaming platforms and paying for social media influencers, we're shifting into Payola 3.0, and with whatever algorithmically dictated patterns that will entail.

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