Sony Music | Dionne Warwick | Joe Jackson

Sony Bought Airtime for J-Lo, Others

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 New York state Attorney General 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 internal memo from Sony Music quoted above notes, that the company actually lost "spins" — or plays of the record — even though it laid out money for them.

The memos, revealed yesterday in Spitzer'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 that radio stations in the top 23 markets will receive $1,000, stations in 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 horns 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 yesterday: Sony Music — now known as Sony/BMG — has to pony up a $10 million settlement with New York state. 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 consoles being sent to DJs and radio programmers in exchange for getting records on the air.

Not just electronic gifts went to these people, either. According to the settlement papers, 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 (sic) 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" as in Jessica Simpson, for whom Sony laid out big bucks in the last couple of years to turn her into something she's clearly not: a star.

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 ...

Dionne's Show Must Go On

Dionne Warwick was a trouper last night. She put on a show at B.B. King's less than two weeks after her mother passed away.

Looking pretty swell for a grandmother of five (and expecting a sixth any day), Warwick was not stingy with the hits. She sang a good deal of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David songbook that she made famous, including "I Say a Little Prayer," "Walk on By," "You'll Never Get to Heaven" and "Alfie." They are songs inextricably linked to her, and Warwick never failed to please the audience.

Warwick is an elegant, timeless performer and her vocal power is undiminished. In fact, I kind of prefer her lower register of the last couple of decades to the higher voice that had all those hits.

Years of smoking have given her a grittiness that goes well with the melancholy of Hal David's lyrics. She can also hold a note in places that are distinctively hers, creating a little tremolo or vibrato that is her version of a grand-slam home run.

You can hear it most distinctly on "Heartbreaker," her Bee Gees record. Sadly, she did not sing it last night. Instead, she used it to brilliant effect on "A House Is Not a Home" and a Brazilian-flavored version of "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?"

By the way: Isn't it time Warwick was honored by the Kennedy Center?

Warwick did not mention her good friend Luther Vandross, or her mother, on stage last night. But backstage she told me she "had to do the show" for her mother.

She brought along her sister, Dee Dee, who did not sing, and her 11-year-old granddaughter, Cheyenne Elliott, who bears a resemblance to cousin Bobbi Kristina Houston-Brown.

Cheyenne sang with Warwick on "That's What Friends Are For" and showed off a big, rich voice that, if Clive Davis can wait, should be the basis for another career from this talented family in about five years.

Jackson Father Knows Breast

I wish I could show you the pictures that were taken at Joseph Jackson's birthday party in Berlin over the weekend.

He is shown very happily autographing the breasts of a buxom blonde. Her shirt is wide open. Joe is grinning. The trial is over.

No wonder none of his kids except Jermaine showed up. For the umpteenth year in a row, wife Katherine also wisely stayed away. Both Joe and Jermaine made a lot of statements to the press about Michael, suggesting that he would have been there if he were stronger.

The recently acquitted singer, however, continues to stay in Bahrain, hoping to raise some dough from the Saudis before heading home to Neverland in August.

Meanwhile, Michael faces lawsuits in four cities, including his hometown of Santa Maria. That's where German concert promoter Marcel Avram, who won a suit against Michael in 2004, is looking for a rematch.

Avram is claiming Michael assigned him rights to DVDs and CDs that he didn't have. Oh well, time to pick another jury from the local population.

In the meantime, Michael's latest greatest-hits collection, released last Tuesday, failed to sell more than a few hundred copies.