The early days of rock and roll are often depicted as nothing more than innocent fun. Teens gathered in each other’s homes for listening parties or went out to sock hops to dance to their favorite songs. Sure, the music befuddled most of the older generation, but teens knew it was just harmless fun.
But under that veneer of innocence was the dark fact that rock and roll was a business and millions were made and lost by those in the business end of the trend. And when there are millions of dollars to be made, some will not be as scrupulous about how they earn it as others. This was born what became known as the Payola Scandal, where record labels paid disc jockeys to promote certain artists over their competitors. And that scandal even touched the most wholesome icon of the time – Dick Clark and his television series American Bandstand.
Wages Of Spin takes a look at the early days of Bandstand, from its premier on local Philadelphia television with host Bob Horn to Dick Clark assuming the mantle of the show and it’s rise to national prominence. The story is reconstructed from interviews with many of those who were on the scene in those days including former radio colleagues of Clark’s, Bandstand dancers and some of the rock and roll stars who appeared on the show.
The portrait painted is that of Clark as a Bryel-creamed octopus with tentacles stretching out from his gig as host of Bandstand to business interests in record labels, management companies and even a record pressing plant. Coming into radio more so with a business degree rather than a love for music, from the modern perspective, Clark’s empire resembles the vertical integration that is the norm now in the entertainment industry.
But questions arose as to exactly how Clark became invested in so much of the Philadelphia-based music industry. Part of the payola scandal centered on disc jockeys who didn’t take cash for playing a record label’s artists, but were instead given deals which would give the radio personalities a percentage of royalties from record sales through bogus song writing credits or publishing rights. Soon Clarke found himself, like many other famous disc jockeys, heading to Capitol Hill to defend his business practices. Clarke maintained he did nothing wrong, and the Congressional committee agreed with him. Others, like Alan Fried, the man who coined the phrase “rock and roll,” were not so lucky.
And while Clark was ultimately vindicated by the Congressional hearing of actually taking money in exchange to play and promote certain artists on Bandstand, there remains the ethical dilemma of his myriad business dealings. Wages Of Spin questions if a record label were to come to Clark to have his record pressing company manufacture half a million singles, might he feel an obligation to then promote the song on American Bandstand, particularly if he would like to have that record company use his plant’s facilities again?
And it gets even more tangled if we were to only consider the businesses to which Clark had a connection. It is alleged that Clark never placed a record he had a financial stake in on the “Rate A Record” segment of the show. The fear being that if it were to receive an unfavorable review from the teens on the show, it would hurt potential sales. As host of American Bandstand, Clark controlled what music was featured. By protecting his own financial interests in this way, he was creating an unfair playing field on which the other labels had to compete.
He may not have been violating the letter of any payola law, but Wages Of Spin makes a good argument that Clark was definitely violating its spirit.