EASY ED’S BROADSIDE: Working the Music Badlands, 1972-1974
Photo by Tibor Janosi Mozes / Pixabay
“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” — Hunter S. Thompson
My wife and I were just 20 years old on our first wedding anniversary and were living once again in Philadelphia. We’d spent the previous winter in Toronto after eloping the old-fashioned way: I picked her up for a date, she tossed her suitcase to me out the window, we said “see you later” to her mom and headed off to the airport in a smoky car with a load of friends. With maybe a couple hundred bucks in our pockets, we sat white-knuckled inside a small twin-prop bouncing up and down in a snowstorm and fortunately weren’t hassled too badly by the customs officers when we touched ground. The next morning we were walking in the snow toward the city when a guy driving an Austin Healey Sprite with the top down pulled over and asked in broken English, with a little French thrown in, if we needed a place to stay. In less than an hour we were inside his warm, huge Victorian home filled with friendly people who shared food and smoke. I think our large furnished room cost only about $20 a week, and everybody contributed food for the communal meals. It was December 1971, and that’s how things happened back then.
A year later we were back home, I was registered at the university and she had just gotten a job at an independent record distributor. It was a bit different in those days, as the indies collectively owned about 65% of the market share and were still a decade away from being swallowed up by the big corporations. Every geographical area had several distributors who sold music as there was very little national distribution, and the company she worked for handled RCA, ABC-Dunhill, Chess/Checker, BASF, Roulette, Impulse, CTI, Playboy, and a few dozen others I can’t recall at the moment. It was a cool place to hang out and I was there every afternoon after I finished my classes, until the boss grew tired of me and said that I had to work if I wanted to stay. They put me in the mailroom where the radio promotion guys had their offices, and it was my first taste of the hustle and the game.
Before MTV and the internet there was really only one way to promote your music, and that was radio. Even though there was — and still is — a Billboard Top 100 chart, stations rarely played more than a couple of dozen songs and the competition to get airplay for your label’s records was fierce. The promo guys were the ones who were responsible to do whatever it would take to get in rotation, and it was a business built on relationships, personality, muscle, cash, drugs, and sex. Outside of one Sunday morning gospel show on a small station in Philly, there were zero women on the air at the time, creating a machismo atmosphere where anything goes, and it did.
For almost two years my job was packaging and sending out singles and albums to all the stations in our area, which went north to the coal region, south to Delaware, east to the Jersey Shore and west to Harrisburg. I learned all the call letters, the names of the music directors and DJs, and why a tiny station in Scranton or Allentown was important to pay attention to. It worked like a ladder: You got adds in the boonies, moved up to the secondary markets, and then worked the big city stations hard. Promo guys were on small salaries, with bonuses handed out based on what they were able to accomplish. With maybe 40 or 50 promo guys in a major market, and stations adding fewer than five new songs each week, it could be a bare-knuckles life.
It had been about a dozen years since the infamous payola congressional hearings and scandal that put many disc jockeys out of work, the most famous being Alan Freed. The feds prosecuted them on tax evasion charges for not reporting the money they received from the labels, but there were many other ways to cheat and steal: Freed’s name is still on dozens of singles as a co-writer, and Dick Clark held a stake in a publishing company and label for many of the artists who appeared on American Bandstand that he quickly dropped like a hot potato. Instead of going away, payola continued unabated and I’m sure that even today it continues in some form or another. Think of the “social media influencer,” for example.
During my years in the mailroom I routinely slipped plastic bags of white powder and weed inside promo albums, packed boxes with stacks of twenties, and bought money orders to pay for a music director’s monthly mortgage or car payment. Cases of liquor, expensive suits, a new appliance for the house, and tickets to any sports event or concert. Weekend getaways to Miami or Las Vegas were handed out like candy. And if someone needed companionship, it was just a phone call away. One promo guy I worked for, who would later have a book written based on his life, would sometimes carry a gun into his meetings and had a special relationship with organized crime syndicates from two cities. And then there was the popular music director and disc jockey who took in so much cash that he had to open an adult bookstore to help launder it.
With all the money flowing, you might think that individual record sales were so astronomical that it all paid for itself. Not quite. The music business has always been a “one percent scam,” where a handful of successful artists subsidize everyone else’s shortfalls. Throw a bowl of spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks was the model, and to understand the micro-economics you’d have to be like Trump and graduate from “the Wharton School of Finance.” In my two years of hanging out with the promo dudes, I learned that it wasn’t the life for me. But working with musicians, having access to great music, and earning a living while doing it sounded like a good career path. And for the next 30-plus years that’s just what I did. More on that another day, another time.