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Payola Shocker: J-Lo Hits, Others Were 'Bought' by Sony

Sony Music | 'War of the Worlds' | The Raspberries | Eugene Record

Payola Shocker: J-Lo Hits, Others Were 'Bought' by Sony

I always say when people ask me that the so-called vipers of the movie business would not last a day in the record business. Now Eliot Spitzer's office has decided to prove the point.

"Please be advised that in this week's Jennifer Lopez Top 40 Spin Increase of 236 we bought 63 spins at a cost of $3,600."

"Please be advised that in this week's Good Charlotte Top 40 Spin Increase of 61 we bought approximately 250 spins at a cost of $17K …"

Ironically, it didn't help, as the memo notes that the company actually lost spins — or plays of the record — even though they laid out money for them.

See above: The internal memos from Sony Music, revealed today in the New York state attorney general's investigation of payola at the company, will be mind blowing to those who are not so jaded to think records are played on the radio because they're good. We've all known for a long time that contemporary pop music stinks. We hear "hits" on the radio and wonder, "How can this be?"

Now we know. And memos from both Sony's Columbia and Epic Records senior vice presidents of promotions circa 2002-2003 — whose names are redacted in the reports but are well known in the industry — spell out who to pay and what to pay them in order to get the company's records on the air.

From Epic, home of J-Lo, a memo from Nov. 12, 2002, a "rate" card that shows radio stations in the Top 23 markets will receive $1000, Markets 23-100 get $800, lower markets $500. "If a record receives less than 75 spins at any given radio station, we will not pay the full rate," the memo to DJs states. "We look forward to breaking many records together in the future."

Take Jennifer Lopez's awful record, "Get Right," with its shrill horn and lifted rap. It's now clear that was a "bought" sensation when it was released last winter. So, too, were her previous "hits" "I'm Glad" and "I'm Real," according to the memos. All were obtained by Sony laying out dough and incentives. It's no surprise. There isn't a person alive who could hum any of those "songs" now. Not even J-Lo herself.

Announced today: Sony Music — now known as Sony/BMG — has to pony up a $10 million settlement with New York's Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. It should be $100 million. And this won't be the end of the investigation. Spitzer's office is looking into all the record companies. This is just the beginning.

But what a start: Black-and-white evidence of plasma TVs, laptop computers and PlayStation 2 players being sent to DJs and radio programmers in exchange for getting records on the air. And not just electronic gifts went to these people either. According to the papers released today, the same people also received expensive trips, limousines and lots of other incentives to clutter the airwaves with the disposable junk that now passes for pop music.

More memos: "We ordered a laptop for Donnie Michaels at WFLY in Albany. He has since moved to WHYI in Miami. We need to change the shipping address." One Sony memo from 2002: "Can you work with Donnie to see what kind of digital camera he wants us to order?"

Another, from someone in Sony's Urban Promotion department: "I am trying to buy a walkman for Toya Beasley at WRKS/NY.… Can PRS get it to me tomorrow by 3 p.m. … I really need to get the cd by then or I have to wait a week or two before she does her music again …"

Nice, huh? How many times have I written in this column about talented and deserving artists who get no airplay, and no attention from their record companies? Yet dozens of records with little or no artistic merit are all over the radio, and racked in displays at the remaining record stores with great prominence. Thanks to Spitzer's investigation, we now get a taste of what's been happening.

More memos. This one from Feb. 13, 2004: "Gave a jessica trip to wkse to secure Jessica spins and switchfoot." That would be Jessica Simpson, for whom Sony laid on big bucks in the last couple of years to turn her into something she's clearly not: a star.

And then there's the story of a guy named Dave Universal, who was fired from Buffalo's WKSE in January when there was word that Spitzer was investigating him. Universal (likely a stage name) claimed he did nothing his station didn't know about. That was probably true, but the DJ got trips to Miami and Yankee tickets, among other gifts, in exchange for playing Sony records. From a Sony internal memo on Sept. 8, 2004: "Two weeks ago it cost us over 4000.00 to get Franz [Ferdinand] on WKSE."

Franz Ferdinand, Jessica Simpson, J-Lo, Good Charlotte, etc. Not exactly The Who, Carly Simon, Aretha Franklin or The Kinks. The "classic" is certainly gone from rock.

The question now is: Who will take the fall at Sony for all this? It's not like payola is new. The government investigated record companies and radio stations in the late 1950s and again in the mid 1970s. (When we were in high school, we used to laugh about how often The Three Degrees' "When Will I See You Again?" was played on WABC. We were young and naïve!)

Spitzer is said to be close friends with Sony's new CEO, Andrew Lack, who publicly welcomed the new investigations earlier this year when they were announced. Did Lack anticipate using Spitzer's results to clean house? Stay tuned …

'War of the Worlds' Takes Box-Office Beating

Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" took a beating at the box office this weekend. It ended up at No. 6, finishing behind newcomers like "The Bad News Bears" and "The Island."

The alien-invasion flick only narrowly defeated the Sundance indie favorite "Hustle & Flow," which played on about a third of the number of screens.

Nevertheless, "War of the Worlds" finished the weekend with $208 million in the till domestically. That's about $25 million more than it cost to make. But it's still not in the black, and at this point may never be.

The film's future is important for Paramount Pictures, which released it in the U.S., but it's also part of the bottom line for DreamWorks Pictures, since it's a Spielberg creation.

DreamWorks' other big release, "The Island," did not fare so well this weekend either. Co-produced by Warner Brothers, "The Island" did about $12 million over three days. It cost about $100 million to make.

The impact of both these films on DreamWorks is something that will be watched closely this month as the company's animation division continues to be investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission. DreamWorks feature releases have no impact on the animation company, but the ties between the public and private entities are undeniable.

In the meantime, the one movie that's doing gangbusters at the box office this summer continues to be "March of the Penguins." It has no stars — save Morgan Freeman as the narrator — but it seems to be the only film that every person going to the movies actually wants to see.

It's the first real home run for Warner Bros.' Warner Independent movie division, led by former head of marketing at Miramax Mark Gill.

Raspberries Still in Season 30 Years Later

After 30 years, The Raspberries had a reunion this weekend at B.B. King's, and they blew audiences away. The cult rock power-pop group had a short run at stardom from 1973-76, and left behind four influential albums and a bunch of memorable singles still played on the radio today.

Their leader, Eric Carmen, went on to have a pretty nice solo career with songs like "All By Myself" and "Hungry Eyes." But The Raspberries, whose hits included "Go All the Way," "Let's Pretend" and "Overnight Sensation," became a footnote in rock history.

With Beatle-esque bass lines, Beach Boys-type harmonies and witty lyrics, The Raspberries turned out to be several years ahead of their time. If only they had appeared around 1978, the group would have fit in with the brisk, punchy pop of the New Wave movement.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. But you would never have known it last night. B.B. King's was sold out to the rafters. I'm told the same was true on Saturday night as well.

The Raspberries, who hailed from Cleveland, were always on the verge of being huge. But they were always also a little off. You couldn't tell if they were being edgy or nostalgic.

Last night they rocked the roof off of B.B. King's with their original members: a blond and gray Eric Carmen, guitarists Wally Bryson and Dave Smalley and drummer Jim Bonfanti, the center of their power — which is still impressive. He told me he dropped out of music completely from 1978 to 1992 and didn't even touch the drums. At 56, he should be playing with The Who or The Rolling Stones on tour. He's phenomenal.

The audience, which covered a wide age range, sang along with a lot of the songs. People are so starved at this point for melodies and musicianship that The Raspberries, having avoided the "oldies" circuit all these years, could easily stage a comeback.

Jon Bon Jovi and legendary songwriter and producer Desmond Child occupied a center booth Sunday night — and were largely ignored.

"I never got to see them perform the first time around. But I think I wore out their greatest-hits album," Bon Jovi told me.

Bruce Springsteen was the first to turn him on to Raspberries' records, he added.

I think Cameron Crowe would have especially loved the show. He's been a big fan of the band since his days as a young Rolling Stone writer, and The Raspberries are a lot like Stillwater, the fictional music group from his movie "Almost Famous."

A new album is being talked about. So is a small tour. When The Raspberries hit Los Angeles, I expect Crowe to be front and center. He had good taste three decades ago, and he will be happy to hear that nothing's changed.

Eugene Record's Legacy

Eugene Record, the great soul singer and composer who founded the Chi-Lites, died on Friday at age 64. He had suffered from cancer for some time after seeing his records sampled and turned into hits again by the likes of Beyoncé and Jay-Z.

"Have You Seen Her" and "Oh, Girl" are the Chi-Lites' biggest hits, but Eugene also wrote two enormous hits for and with his first wife, the late Barbara Acklin. They were "Love Makes a Woman" and "Am I the Same Girl."

Many groups also recorded the latter as an instrumental as "Soulful Strut." You would know it if you heard it. It was almost the theme music of the late '60s.

I had the pleasure of getting to know Gene and his second wife Jackie in the last few years. I fought hard to get the Chi-Lites a Pioneer Award in 2000 from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. They should also be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but that's another story.

Unfortunately, thanks to the head of his record company, Gene was involved in a payola scandal in the late 1970s. But he was far from being the kind of hustler it would take to make that story stick. He was a gentle, elegant man and a real musical genius.

He arranged the horns that make Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love" a hit — in 1969, no less — and look how they stood the test of time. The original song was called "Are You My Woman?"

In a summer when we've lost Luther Vandross and Obie Benson of The Four Tops, losing Gene is another blow.

The Chi-Lites go on touring with original members Marshall Thompson and Squirrel Lester. If they come to your town, don't miss them. But Eugene Record was their creative engine, and he will be sorely missed.