Payola and the Politics of Rock and Roll: 1959

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer

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The genre of rock and roll originated in the early 1940s and 1950s. Its influences varied,  ranging from R&B and gospel, to folk and country. The unique sound was a combination of these aforementioned styles, while also improving upon many of their iconic attributes. One of the most notable changes from these genres to rock and roll was the evolution of the Frying Pan Electric guitar into the Gibson Les Paul Electric guitar. The genre also yielded some of the most influential artists of the decade — such as Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry — and became a central aspect of music of the 40s, 50s, and beyond. 

 Evolution of electronic guitars. Source.

Along with the development of rock and roll came its critics. Social critics, specifically, despised the genre’s relation to genres that were traditionally dominated by Black artists — such as R&B — as well as controversial figures like Elvis Presely. The rise in popularity of the genre raised many eyebrows within the mainstream pop industry — especially when radio stations began playing rock and roll songs instead of mainly pop songs. The increase in radio play stemmed from two main reasons. First, the genre was, in general, becoming more popular, with more rock and roll songs hitting the charts like Elvis Presley’s “Houndog.” Second was the phenomenon of payola. Payola refers to “undercover or indirect payment (as to a disc jockey) for a commercial favor (as for promoting a particular recording).” 

Smaller independent labels would give radio station disc jockeys either gifts — or literal money — to play their rock and roll artists. During that time, the genre was considered unserious and untrustworthy as a business venture. It was thought to be a fad; unsuitable for public consumption. This meant that larger mainstream labels and copyright holders (i.e., ASCAP) that were already successful did not need to take on rock and roll bands, leaving them for smaller independent labels and artists unions (i.e., BMI). These indie labels would sign rock bands and use payola to secure artists’ airtime on the radio. Interestingly, payola at this time was not illegal and was, in fact, encouraged as one of the main ways to promote music. Almost every aspect of the music industry up until this point operated using payola. Whether you were a mainstream label or a smaller indie label, payola was how you got your artist’s time on the air. This meant that rock and roll was able to encroach on the market of mainstream popular music. 

When rock and roll’s rise in popularity began affecting the finances of larger music firms and unions, they decided to strike back in a lawsuit. In 1959, federal investigations began looking into the radio business and its ties to payola. Congressional interest in the case was supported by these big music labels’ fear of rock and roll, white social fears regarding race, and the figures associated with the genre. 

When the lawsuit finally came about, one of the major arguments to prove the existence of payola in the industry was that rock and roll was simply not popular enough to receive as much radio air time as it did. This was factually false, but appealed to social critics who disliked the genre. This argument was also helpful to mainstream labels because it established the narrative that bigger labels would not need to participate in payola because the music they promoted was more popular. This led to the acceptance of payola in the music industry coming to a head with all-new prohibitions upon it.

Chart of comparison from the official court preceding the Payola lawsuit. Source.

At the end of the suit, Congress amended the Federal Communications Act to outlaw “under-the-table payments and require broadcasters to disclose if airplay for a song has been purchased.” This officially made payola a misdemeanor crime — with a penalty of $10,000. Thankfully for rock and roll, the genre would become so popular in the coming year — with bands like the Beatles coming into mainstream American culture — that the genre would not need to be so heavily reliant on payola. That being said, there was a significant loophole in the amendment, the new legislation did not prohibit undisclosed payments in and of themselves. Even though its use has dwindled, payola continues to survive in the type of politics that helped rock and roll dominate the charts.

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This article was edited by Marielle Bianchi.