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Simply uttering the word 'payola' can conjure up images of shadowy figures with a fist full of payoffs greasing the palms of corruption and greed. The word payola originated by combining the word payoff with Rock-ola, the jukebox that made rock and roll famous.


Payola goes back to the 1920s and the days of vaudeville and continued through the 1940s with the big band era (Hornberger). Paying a station to play a record was legal as long as the disc jockey notified the listeners that the airtime was purchased. This was often overlooked for decades until the era of rock and roll. Up until 1950, the American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) controlled nearly all the music in the dancehalls, hotels, radio, and theaters. Their offices were in New York City and the directors had total control of the content. They would not allow membership for 'black' or 'hillbilly' artists (DiMaggio 608). Several networks split from ASCAP due to their rates and racist policies and in 1939 they formed Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI).
After World War II BMI set about signing the black and hillbilly artists that ASCAP had refused to work with. This core of musical outcasts would form the genesis of rock and roll. Teenagers were hungry for rock and the 45-RPM record made it accessible. By the early 1950s major BMI labels were turning out 100 new singles a week (Cartwright). DJs, suffocated with new recordings, would be paid by the record companies to promote a record. This was nothing new or unusual in the business. ...
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