Casablanca Records co-founder Larry Harris uncovers the fascinating pay-for-play schemes that pervaded the recording industry during the Seventies in the latest installment of 1973: Shaping the Culture, from Rolling Stone and HBO’s Vinyl.
While payola had been around for decades, the practice reached ridiculous new heights in the Seventies. But it was often necessary to survive, especially for a fledgling label like Casablanca. Harris recalls keeping everyone from Billboard chart-keepers to local record store clerks happy in exchange for a bump on the charts or a fudged sales report.
Radio DJs also played a crucial role in determining the success of a song, and both Harris and Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers point out that many black record-spinners were being paid a pittance for introducing the world to new sounds. “I view [payola] as a leveling of the playing field,” Harris says. “R&B radio stations were owned by white people who paid the black staff very poorly. It helped black DJs eat.”
Payment often came in the form of cash, meals, sex and drugs, and Harris and others concocted various tactics — like stockpiling blank receipts from restaurants — to hide their shady dealings from accountants. “It was nuts but we did it,” he says. “And it also made it fun, and that was part of partying every day. ‘Hey you have an idea that’s crazy? Let’s try it.'”