Sony BMG Apologizes For Payola Involving J. Lo, Avril, Good Charlotte, Others

Label gave trips, cash and electronics to stations in exchange for airplay.

The payola has got to stop — that’s the word from New York State
Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who on Monday announced a settlement
with Sony BMG Music Entertainment, which has agreed to cease its “pay
for play” policy.

The label group, home to such acts as Jessica Simpson and Franz
Ferdinand, was the subject of a yearlong investigation that revealed it
was paying and providing expensive gifts — otherwise known as “payola”
— to radio stations and their employees in return for airplay, in a
violation of state and federal law. The payola took the form of
outright bribes as well as fictitious contest giveaways for listeners,
which actually went to station employees.

For instance, the program director for Buffalo, New York’s WKSE-FM
received several flights (to New York, Miami and Ft. Lauderdale,
Florida, with guests) in exchange for adding Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m
Real” (in July 2001), Good Charlotte’s “Hold On” (in November 2003) and
Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out” (in August 2004) to his station’s play

A label employee complained about the deal in an intercepted e-mail to
a higher-up: “Two weeks ago, it cost us over $4,000 to get Franz on
WKSE. That is what the four trips to Miami and hotel cost. … At the
end of the day, [the program director] added [Good Charlotte] and
Gretchen Wilson … for $750. So almost $5,000 in two weeks for
overnight airplay.”

In other instances, program directors were offered and/or received
electronic goods such as flat-screen TVs, entertainment systems, laptop
computers, PlayStation 2 consoles and games, and portable CD players,
as well as flights, hotel stays and car service. Radio stations that
participated in the payola schemes include WQHT-FM in New York (Hot
97); WWPR-FM in New York (Power 105); KHTS-FM in San Diego (Channel
933); WRHT-FM in Greenville, North Carolina; WFLY-FM in Albany, New
York (Fly 92.3), WWHT-FM in Syracuse, New York (Hot 107.9); and WSSP-FM
in Milwaukee (The Beat), among others. In response to one such offer, a
program director e-mailed the label, saying, “I’m a whore this week,
what can I say?”

“Our investigation shows that, contrary to listener expectations that
songs are selected for airplay based on artistic merit and popularity,
airtime is often determined by undisclosed payoffs to radio stations
and their employees,” Spitzer said. “This [BMG settlement] is a model
for breaking the pervasive influence of bribes in the industry.”

Much of the illegal solicitation came in the form of “spin programs” —
airplay under the guise of advertising — for artists such as Jessica
Simpson (“Take My Breath Away”), Good Charlotte (“I Just Wanna Live”),
Avril Lavigne (“Don’t Tell Me”) and Maroon 5 (“Sunday Morning”). This
meant listeners were sometimes unaware that the spin was purchased, and
the songs achieved an inflated chart position because monitoring
services couldn’t differentiate between the purchased spins and regular

Also, the label group orchestrated fake call-in campaigns, hiring
people to request songs so that the station might add a track because
it thought listener demand warranted it. In one e-mail exchange about
the practice, a label employee instructed the call-in campaign leader
to make the callers sound more excited: “My guys on the inside say that
it’s the same couple of girls calling in every week and they’re not
inspired enough to be put on the air. They’ve got to be excited. They
need to be going out or getting drunk or getting in the hot tub or
going clubbing … you get the idea.”

Sony BMG acknowledged that fraudulent practices and payola took place and called it “wrong and improper.”

“Despite federal and state laws prohibiting unacknowledged payment by
record labels to radio stations for airing of music, such direct and
indirect forms of what has been described generically as ‘payola’ for
spins has continued to be an unfortunately prevalent aspect of radio
promotion,” the label group said in a statement. “Sony BMG acknowledges
that various employees pursed some radio promotion practices on behalf
of the company that were wrong and improper and apologizes for such
conduct. Sony BMG looks forward to defining a new, higher standard in
radio promotion.”

Toward that end, the label group agreed to companywide reforms to
detect and prevent future abuses and is making a $10 million donation
to local charities to fund programs aimed at music education and
appreciation. Meanwhile, Spitzer’s office said it is still
investigating payola practices at other companies.

— Jennifer Vineyard (

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