It was billed as a “hip-hop smackdown” (the Daily News), but the fight between D.J.’s Funkmaster Flex of Hot 97 and Steph Lova of Power 105.1 is no Tupac-and-Biggie of the airwaves. For all the drama, it’s really about the industry-wide resurgence of payola. When Hot 97 wouldn’t let rapper Nas perform at Summer Jam (his set included a mock lynching of Jay-Z), he took to Lova’s show to complain about pay-for-play at the rival station. But the irony of the “rap war” is that both stations (and many others) engage in that practice.
The days of record labels handing D.J’s envelopes of cash to play songs are over, done in by payola laws in the sixties. Now stations like Power 105.1, owned by Clear Channel, and Hot 97, owned by Emmis Communications, deal with “independent promoters”Ñmiddlemen who charge labels to get songs on the air and then pay stations when songs are added to the playlist. “For Top 40 radio, promoters charge upwards of $300,000 per single,” says one prominent music-industry executive. “For urban radio, the cost is between $75,000 and $200,000.” Legally, stations must announce who’s sponsoring a song, but they rarely do.
Senator Russ Feingold has introduced the Competition in Radio and Concert Industries Act to take a fresh look at payola statutes. If things don’t change, warns his ally Ted Kalo, a counsel for Michigan congressman John Conyers Jr., “there could be a homogenized national playlist. In light of the damage promoters are causing to the music business, we’re hoping that there will be some self-policing.” (After all, labels now pay promoters a fortune.) If not, expect serious enforcement of the payola laws. “I have a feeling,” adds Kalo, “that if listeners are confronted with ‘This song is paid for by Arista,’ they won’t like what they’re hearing.”