SAME SONGS (Excerpt)
Do you know Karen Kline? I do. And so do a lot of people in the music industry. She used to be a really good friend of mine. For a minute, I was in love with her, even though I knew the relationship could never last. Karen’s known and loved throughout the world of music, video and radio. She’s a jetsetter and she’s known for being reliable and dependable.
And Karen Kline has this incredible ability to be in many different places at the exact same time.
This Saturday morning, like many Saturdays for years, a truck will show up to the homes of many people in the music industry and Karen will be delivered right to their front door.
I met Karen while I was staying at the Hotel George in Washington D.C. (I’d heard of Karen for years but we’d never been formally introduced). It was 1999 and I had just been hired as the Program Director at BET, the fast growing entertainment channel. BET was then being broadcasted into over 48 million homes and my job would be deciding what videos would be played on the channel.
By this time, music videos had surpassed radio as the place to break a record. And the record labels were nervous. Was I going to change the format? Cut down the number of videos played? Pick and choose what kind of videos I would allow to be played? The answers were yes, yes and yes. But no one knew that yet.
It didn’t matter. My friends at the major record labels were not going to take any chances.
During my first week at BET, I set up the playlist, deciding which videos would be played and how often. I cut the playlist, from four hundred titles to a mere eighty. Some industry executives were elated; some were furious. The next weekend, a FedEx truck pulled up to the Hotel George with two packages for me.
Both packages were exactly the same, five thousand dollars in each, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and tucked inside the FedEx envelopes. No return address; no instructions, just the name Karen Kline, a fictional woman that I loved like she was flesh and blood.
It’s called payola. And it’s as old as recorded music itself. Even the very word tells you how far it goes back. Payola is a contraction between the words “pay” and “Victrola,” the old-school phonograph that was used to spin the very first records.
Payola is firmly embedded in the music industry, deep in the grooves like tracks on a vinyl record. It’s been going on for so long that it’s hard to believe that people are still getting away with it. But they are. I know I did.
And it wasn’t just money. When I was working at BET, I was still coming up to New York City every weekend for my job as a DJ on WBLS. Every Friday, various record labels would fly me up to New York, usually first class, and put me up at the best hotels. Knick tickets, pricey restaurants, whatever I wanted—I would have because I was in a position of power. I had control. And if you were a record label executive, you needed to make sure I was happy.
Almost everybody in this industry takes money. If they have the power to put a song on the radio or a video on television, they’ve been offered money to do it—and they’ve taken it. Maybe it’s only been once or twice. But they’ve done it.
I turned down payola for years. I really did. But it’s impossible to turn down ten thousand dollars in cash when you know you’re going to play the song anyway and it’s from a friend you’ve known for twenty years. There’s just no way to turn that down.
So, I’m putting that out there right now. I’m guilty. I’ve taken money. And I’m not ashamed to admit it. But I’ve never been anyone’s slave. Legally, I could go to jail or maybe not. I think I could win my case. I’ve taken money. But I’ve never played a song or a video I didn’t like. I know I still have to live with my demons. And maybe I’ll have to pay the price for it. But I’m not alone. And my relationship with Karen Kline was a one-night-stand compared to how she’s operating today. Karen Kline is not just visiting people on Saturday mornings anymore. She’s married—to corporate America. And she’s bringing in more money than anyone could ever fit inside a FedEx envelope.
Blackout is an explosive look at the corruption that is running rampant throughout the music industry. From the desperate promotion departments at major record labels who will do anything to get their acts on the radio and on video to the greedy program directors who take cash, gifts and other luxuries, Blackout will explore how corruption is rearing its ugly head once again.
Blackout also examines “legal payola” and how corporations are now the major beneficiaries of under-the-table payments and pay-to-play.
With the Telecommunications Act of 1996, consolidation would forever change the music industry. It was a bill that was originally designed to stimulate the economy by loosening up the rules for selling goods on the Internet. But inadvertently, it gave license for communications companies like Clear Channel to start buying up radio stations like penny candy.
Before long, seven companies owned 70% of the radio stations in the United States. There were very few individual owners who could determine what would be played. This meant smaller, corporate-influenced radio playlists. There would be less variety and more of the same artists, over and over again. These new stations were like funnels and the only records that would make it through were the ones with the cash to push them out. If the record labels wanted to hear their acts on the radio, they would have to fall in line—and cough up major bucks.
The same would happen in video as well. When Bob Johnson sold BET to Viacom for three billion dollars, it meant that MTV now owned it’s only major competitor. And getting your video on either channel would now cost you thousands.
Blackout is about how the digital age in the mid-90s exposed radio stations that frequently lied about how often they were playing the songs they were being paid by record labels to play; it’s about how the golden age of the trained broadcaster was soon replaced with interns, DJs and mixers who, for years, had been silent in the booth. Blackout explores how radio has become one of the few media outlets where salaries have plunged as profits have skyrocketed. And Blackout will break down the shake-ups that will be happening very shortly. Much like Alan Freed’s payola trials in the 50s, and the pay-for-play scandals involving music men like Clive Davis in the 70s, the music industry is on the cusp of another huge investigation and many of the major players in the music industry may find themselves unemployed, at best and possibly, in prison.
And in many ways, Blackout is my story. Since 1976, when the busing riots in Boston sent me scrambling into the radio station at WRBB at Northeastern University, the music industry has been my life. During my very first stint in radio, I was Paul “Pure Love” Porter from midnight to three AM and I fell in love with the medium of radio and the impact I had on my community.
Radio introduced me to women. Radio introduced me to cocaine. Radio introduced me to some of my best friends. And radio killed some of them too. Blackout is a ride through my whirlwind of media jobs, working for and with some of the most colorful, well-known and scandalous players in the music industry.
I know thatradio and video are influential in shaping young minds. And my experiences have changed my outlook. “Morality is not an option” is now my mantra. And there are people out there who won’t buy it. They’ll think I’m writing this book for revenge or just to make a buck. That’s fine. I can live with that. I can’t live with what’s become of the music industry. I’m partly responsible for bringing it to the depths it’s sunk to today. But I can also be responsible for exposing the ugliness and peeling back the layers for everyone to see.
****Coming June 2017****