I recall that, a few years back, when Paul Simon was being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he said he owed everything to Alan Freed, who told him in 1957, “Give me $500 and I’ll put your song (“Hey Schoolgirl,” which Simon and Art Garfunkel had recorded under the name Tom & Jerry) in heavy rotation on my radio show for two weeks. If people like it, it’ll be a hit. If not, tough luck.” Well, somehow Paul and Art found the money and paid Freed, who was as good as his word. The song went into heavy rotation, and became SImon and Garfunkel’s first big hit.
After telling that story, Paul Simon added wistfully, “I wish it was STILL that way today.”
And while I can’t glamorize bribery, I know exactly what Simon meant. Famous, successful artists never HAD to pay anyone to play their records. It was young, unknown artists on small, unknown labels that had to resort to such things. And if some of them had to shell out a few dollars to get their product exposed to the mainstream audience, well, that didn’t seem so terrible, I’m sure. Illegal, yes, but not terribly immoral.
Today, of course, such old-fashioned bribery seems quaint. No modern DJ has the kind of power Alan Freed did. Very, very few DJ’s even get to choose what music they play. Most radio stations now belong to large conglomerates like Clearchannel, which set playlists at corporate headquarters. Even if I went to my favorite local DJ with a suitcase filled with money and asked him to play a song I’d recorded, he’d probably throw up his hands and say, “Sorry dude, I’d love to take your money, but upper management tells me EXACTLY what I can play, and you ain’t on the list.”