Payola — bribing disc jockeys to play records — first became a public issue in 1959, when a Congressional subcommittee announced an investigation of the practice. Before it was over, this probe would all but end the career of Alan Freed, a man widely credited with inventing if not a new genre of music then the popular term for it: rock & roll. That Freed’s business practices were shady few would dispute, and yet he has entered pop history not as a crook but as an admirable maverick nailed by frightened old pols for bringing the glad tidings of black music to white kids.
Freed’s popular image (memorably evoked in Floyd Mutrux’s 1978 film American Hot Wax) expresses a crucial part of rock’s outlaw appeal. But as Fredric Dannen shows in his eye-opening new book, Hit Men, rock’s ”kick-ass” ethos doesn’t stop there, for ever since the heyday of Alan Freed, the rock music business has also tended to glorify con artists and reward thuggish behavior. Using fascinating profiles of its archetypal power brokers — from Morris Levy, an unscrupulous rock pioneer of the ’50s, to Walter Yetnikoff, the CEO of CBS Records since 1975 — Dannen advances his theme: ”The (rock music) business reveres only two types of people. One is the ‘record man,’ the person with an innate sense of a hit record. The other is the colorful ‘character,’ the streetwise hustler…” Yetnikoff, for example, is tone deaf (he is a lawyer by training). But, as Dannen puts it, ”Walter adapted.” After his appointment to the presidency of CBS Records, ”he became wild, menacing, crude, and most of all, very loud.” He became, in short, a typical rock ”character.”
Dannen traces Yetnikoff’s coarse new style to such colorful rock pioneers as Freed and Levy. These men also bequeathed to the record industry a ”shaky moral foundation,” Dannen says. In the 1950s, corrupt business practices were widely regarded as the only way to get exposure for the new music being produced by independent labels such as Levy’s Roulette records. But ”if the early rock and roll labels were unspeakably crooked,” Dannen notes, ”at least they did not spend tens of millions in protection money. It would take the big lawyerly corporations of the Eighties to bring that about.”
The story of how the major American record labels came to spend these millions begins, according to Dannen, in 1978. In that year, a group of veteran record promoters, working independently of the big labels, informally joined forces, becoming known as ”the Network.” At first, executives like Yetnikoff welcomed the new cartel: For a fee, the independent contractors in the Network would help companies like CBS Records ”buy market share” through uninhibited promotion, meanwhile insulating the companies themselves from criminal liability. Not all of the indie promoters were corrupt; but some of the most powerful, as Dannen shows, used the time-honored ploys of payola, plying radio station program directors with cash, cocaine, gifts, and girls in an effort to ensure airplay and stimulate sales.
In 1981, when Warner and CBS briefly tried to cut back on costs by bypassing the Network, their new records — even those by their most popular acts — mysteriously vanished from the airwaves. Fearful of being blacked out (and responding to complaints from the affected rock stars), Warner and CBS buckled under: By 1985, says Dannen, ”the U.S. record industry was spending at least 30 percent of its pretax profits on indie promotion.”
That year, Joseph Isgro, a kingpin in the Network, made $10 million. Four years later, in the wake of an NBC television news expose, Isgro was indicted by a grand jury on over 50 counts of payola, drug trafficking, racketeering, obstruction of justice, and tax fraud. Some record companies still use independent promoters (CBS, for instance, though not Warner), but the Network has disappeared.
Despite abundant evidence of criminal wrongdoing, many insiders are inclined to minimize the problem. After all, they point out, not everyone was corrupt. True enough. But anyone who still believes that payola was an essentially innocuous element in getting outlaw music aired should read Dannen’s book. It is the most revealing look yet at the ”characters” who ran the rock music business. A