"He it is, who by all arts of persuasion, intrigue, bribery, mayhem, malfeasance, cajolery, entreaty, threat, insinuation, persistence and whatever else he has, sees to it that his employer's music shall be heard."
-- "Tin Pan Alley," by Isaac Goldberg
A description of today's much-maligned independent record promoter? No, a description of a professional Tin Pan Alley song plugger, circa the '20s. Although payola seems to be linked to rock 'n' roll, the phenomenon goes back a lot further, according to Philip K. Eberly's "Music in the Air: America's Changing Tastes in Popular Music, 1920-1980" (Hasting House). Eberly traces payola back to the 1890s. He notes that the first major effort to combat it came in 1916, when the entertainment weekly Variety helped organize the Music Publishers Protective Association of publishers who had been in fierce combat bribing vaudeville performers to sing their songs. The independent promoters of that day were song pluggers, and they were given bonuses for placing songs with the more popular artists. Al Jolson was rumored to have received a horse for doing one number.
Song pluggers were particularly evident when sheet music was popular music's chief medium. They didn't just go after the stars of the time; they also wooed the owners of piano parlors and music stores, since what was demonstrated to prospective buyers or used to entertain partygoers was often what the public ended up buying -- not unlike what happens to the songs played on Top 40 radio.
The term payola (it comes from the contraction of pay and Victrola) didn't gain currency until the '50s and the rise of R&B and rock 'n' roll. Accusations were usually directed at deejays, who surely would never have played this music unless someone was paying them to. As part of that hysteria, ASCAP, the dominant performing rights society, made up of the old-line Tin Pan Alley songwriters and publishers, accused the then fledgling BMI of paying disc jockeys to play BMI-licensed compositions, many of which were on small independent labels and written or performed by blacks. Since the late '50s was a time of investigative mania, it's not surprising that payola was finally addressed and redressed by law.
Few people in the music business will deny payola exists in some areas (actually, if it's on the record, they will), but the industry's indiscriminate severing of ties with the many legitimate independent promoters is a less than noble gesture. It smacks of panic and disingenuity, as if those real instances of payola have suddenly sprung up in the last six months. The 1984 preliminary congressional investigation failed to find any evidence of payola and recommended against a full investigation; neither event generated major publicity. That changed with "NBC Nightly News" and the subsequent rush of media attention. The practice of financial incentives and gifts given to top clients may be reprehensible, but it's certainly not limited to popular music. Raging Libido
Forget the fuss being paid to "9 1/2 Weeks." The steamiest thing around these days may be Prince's "Kiss," and that little piece of erotic rock can be found on television. The song, with its brittle, sparse rhythm and swooping falsetto, harks back to the "Dirty Mind" era. But it isn't half as salacious as the video, in which the Minneapolis funkateer does a bump and grind that takes a catchy single and turns it into one of the most erotic videos ever made . . .
Another intriguing video comes from German pop star Falco, whose "Rock Me Amadeus" suggests what the Mozart biography would have looked like under Ken Russell's direction, imagining the composer as punk provocateur. Sung in German and camped to high heaven, it's hilarious . . .
Having lured Barbra Streisand back to television, HBO has just signed Bob Dylan for a one-hour concert special. Shot recently in Australia with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, it was directed by Gillian Armstrong ("My Brilliant Career" and "Starstruck," an engaging Australian rock film now available on videocassette). Dylan, meanwhile, has written and will perform the title song for Michael ("Miami Vice") Mann's new film, "Band of the Hand . . . "
Two more rock extravaganzas are on the boards: A daylong fundraiser for Amnesty International June 15 at Giants Stadium, with U2, Sting and three or four other major acts. It will be carried live on MTV and is intended to focus on worldwide human rights violations. It will be preceded by five other U2/Sting concerts in sports arenas around the country, in what is being billed as a "Caravan for Human Rights."
The other is Rock for Liberty, a four-hour multiartist benefit concert for restoration of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Not to be confused with the July 4 gala reopening of the statue which will feature primarily middle-of-the-road artists like Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie. This will feature a half dozen rock bands with special guests and will take place at Madison Square Garden April 28. It will be syndicated live on 250 radio stations and cablecast live on MTV, with a 900 phone number for audience pledges and merchandise sales.