I’m in a New York City hotel room right now – a very cool one, actually, and I picked up a discarded Wall Street Journal today and was somewhat surprised to read about Clear Channel Entertainment announcing that they will no longer be dealing with independent radio promoters. I’m not sure how to react to this, but first let me give you a a quick history lesson
Clear Channel is a Republican-heavy conglomerate who owns a very large piece of the music business pie. Chances are they own and operate at least 4 major radio stations in the city you live in – and Clear Channel determines what gets played on those stations. Please don’t think that local DJ’s have one iota of input as to what gets played on your radio – all those DJ’s do is hum-along to the music, broadcast from a local bar on Friday nights and point-and-click the mouse to the next song scheduled in the computer database. I’m generalizing, but believe it. Seriously. Now, Clear Channel also owns many music venues. You know that outdoor venue that has those great summer concerts you can watch from the lawn seats? Here in the Boston area, ours is called The Tweeter Center. You know why those tickets are $100 bucks and over now? Clear Channel. Some of the blame can be directed at artists here, but 80% of it is Clear Channel’s heavy-handedness in the business backrooms.
Now, back in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, record labels simply paid radio stations to play their records. That’s just how music got played. The practice was actually legal or, I should say, there was no real, specific law against it until the great payola scandal in 1960 when Alan Freed, a DJ based in Cleveland, was indicted for accepting $2,500 to play certain music. Furthermore, the world’s most annoying teenager, Dick Clark, who was also a local DJ at the time, was also heavily investigated, but for some odd reason he only received a slap on the wrist and he promised to never work with music-related businesses again, a promise he has somewhat honored when you stop and think about it. Harumph.
Now, fast-forward to the 1970s: the “independant music promoter” was a really genius idea for slimeballs – since the law specifically stated that record labels could not pay radio stations to play their music, why not become a broker? The law says nothing about the record label paying a third-party independant promoter, who then pays the radio station. The “currency” used was hard cash, hookers, drugs or a combination of all of these treats, which brought about the still oft-used music business cliche of “I’ll do it for hookers and blow.” By and large, with the exception of some governmental hand-wringing in the ’80s, that’s how it’s been since – don’t think for a second that 99% of what you hear on the radio isn’t paid for. It is.
So it was with much amusement that I read this article in the Journal tonight. Clear Channel – the company that everyone just loves to hate, is trying to untarnish their image by going public with these type stories. Cursory glances at this bit of record business news will cause some people to think that Clear Channel is coming clean and really trying to clean up their act, as in “nice to see that they’re finally putting an end to those snakes,” but let’s get real, shall we?
Payola will live on and it will be that way forever. Independant promoters may get squeezed but Clear Channel will continue to get that money in one way or another. Granted, these dolllars are a small piece of their pie and they may claim that losing that money is something they can deal with, but they’ll get it. How, you ask? Well, the record labels, of course! Ever listen to the radio and hear about these great giveaways? “Enter now to win! You can fly to four different cities and see four different bands! We’ll pay for everything!” Who do you think pays for those? Record labels. What about those “summer concert” series? Who pays for those? Hmmm…….record labels, you say? Yep. You’ll see more and more and more of this. Just watch. It’s why I’m not in the record business anymore – the music doesn’t mean a damn thing – and I loved music too much to be a part of that. It took me a while to let the bitterness wear off, but I’m back, baby! Back to being a hardcore FAN. It’s a great feeling. Clear Channel can go to hell – I find my own music and you should too. It’s fun.