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Shit & Payola

It made me kind of sad to read last week that Audioslave’s former record label had bribed radio stations to play their song “Like a Stone” when it was released a few years back. I mean, a public revelation like that has got to be fairly emasculating for a band whose members (ex–Rage Against the Machine/Soundgarden) once ruled the earth with youth-rebellious rockitude. It would be one thing if Audioslave were a great band at their white-hot peak of cultural relevance when all this went down — like, say, Pink Floyd, who were famously snared by payola when The Wall came out. At the same time, Audioslave aren’t bad enough that they should have to mail some Clear Channel hack a new PlayStation (or digital camera, or whatever yuppie crap) to get spins in Connecticut. I mean, they’re not J-Lo. In fact, in the context of contemporary FM rock radio, Audioslave are a throwback to a time when meathead rock had some kind of standards.(Granted, this is all, really, Dave Grohl’s fault. If he hadn’t proven that former members of dangerous and significant rock bands could get rich with radio-friendly milquetoast, perhaps we all could have been spared the frustrating safety of Audioslave and Velvet Revolver — and, yeah, Queens of the Stone Age.)In any case, the current payola investigation by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer — which, as you may have heard, has already cost Sony $10 million and caused a firing or two at radio — has gotten me thinking all over again about the corporatization of radio, of rock & roll culture and of American culture in general. Most people don’t realize it, but for all the evil and skullduggery of the major labels, the rankest, most deeply rotten arm of the music business is radio — and by that I mean, specifically, those in power at the major radio conglomerates. Those guys take cynicism, stupidity and general no-goodness into a whole other dimension, and seem to do it with even less self-awareness than the record labels. And that’s the problem with Spitzer’s investigation so far: It’s targeting the wrong crooks. Sure, labels break the law when they bribe radio stations, but it’s not like they’re doing it to be jerks, or for fun, or because they want to. They’re the ones who called for a payola investigation in the first place! Yes, I know, Spitzer promises to go after radio eventually, but he should have hit them first, and without mercy. Why would you go after a whore when her pimp is standing right next to her smoking a brand-new plasma TV?But as a rock lover I have to wonder: What does it say about the state of rock or even hip-hop culture that major labels — who once bribed radio with bags of blow and babes in hot tubs — now send out video games? And what does it say about the music itself? If I were in a band, I’d be insulted by such an unstylish approach to crime on my behalf. If you’re going to do wrong, do it with some panache, people. More drugs, more roller skates, more sex: Is that asking so much? Some have theorized that payola is actually good for radio: It carves out a window of opportunity for new or “challenging” artists to get heard who might otherwise be forgotten in big radio’s ever more desperate attempts to retain listeners. I guess that’s true, but only sad-but-true. The whole business model for radio is screwed. Radio should not be desperate for listeners in the first place, because radio should never have been turned into a major cash cow for Wall Street investors. Radio is like drugs, wine or rock & roll itself: Generally, it’s better, cheaper and more accessible when produced locally, in small batches, with some degree of love. But whatever. One positive aspect is that the scandal proves that — contrary to what some killjoys assert — radio is hardly a dinosaur about to be frozen into irrelevance by satellite, podcasting, Internet radio and all that other crap. Terrestrial radio still plays a major role in our culture — and will do so for many years to come — particularly because, unlike those other forms of radio, it is naturally suited to people’s sense of regionalism. To quote various recent reportages in the N.Y. Times: Commercial radio still dwarfs its competitors and retains its singular ability to mint hit records . . . While satellite radio is expected to near 10 million subscribers by the end of the year, that figure pales in comparison to commercial radio’s 230 million listeners . . . “If your job is to try to market music, the best marketing is to get people to hear it,” said Danny Goldberg, a former head of several record labels. And commercial radio, he added, is still “by far the best way to do it.”Take that, Podpeople.