The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
IT is an open secret of the local music industry. It is the secret that is never spoken openly about but rather whispered, usually between artistes who know all too well the consequences if they were to speak too loudly about the dark practice.
In America, they call it payola, a combination of the word pay and “Victrola” (the latter of which refers to a record player). This is the practice of paying DJs to play an artiste’s music on the airwaves.
In a world with an oversupply of musicians, airplay is an invaluable commodity and that has been the case for decades. Corruption by those behind the microphone started a long time back and it did not start in Zimbabwe.
Its origins can be traced as far back as the 1950s in America’s Big Apple, New York City, where it is widely thought that the practice was born. Record company owners, such as Hy Weiss of New York-based Old Town Records, were known to hand out bribes for preferable radio treatment, and many DJs were happy to pocket some cash. Chicago-based DJ Phil Lind, for instance, admitted to bringing in $22 000 to play a single record in the 1950’s.
South of the Limpopo, Eugene Mtetwa from the South African Music Industry Council said artistes who do not pay payola are also very unlikely to be nominated for awards because their music will not get exposure. He said it was the reason why some not very talented artistes are given awards in South Africa.
In 2016, a programme called Checkpoint on eNCA News channel conducted an investigation and established that artistes in South Africa usually offered to play for free at radio station events and offered money and gifts in return for airplay. The most desired gift in most instances was money.
So how prevalent is the practice that is rampant in other parts of the globe in Zimbabwe? According to Afro Jazz musician Jeys Marabini, paying for airplay is almost mythical in Zimbabwe, with many saying it exists but few bringing forth evidence that it does.
“One thing I can say about this issue is that it is like other things that we hear about in African life, and I’m only using this as an example. We always hear that there are things like ghosts, or goblins or other creatures that have been raised by people with evil intentions. You always hear it but you never hear a person say that they’ve come across a goblin. No one says that they’ve seen it with their own eyes.
“So in the same vein I always hear about DJs making artistes pay for airplay but no one openly admits to the practice. Personally I’ve never seen anyone pay and neither have I ever seen a DJ asking anyone for money in front of my own eyes,” he told Sunday Life.
Gospel musician Knowledge Nkiwane, who has become famous for using a scania to promote his music, said bribes to DJs were the reason he had decided to promote his own music.
“We said as musicians that are doing gospel music, it wouldn’t work for us to buy someone a ‘cold drink’ as they call a bribe. We felt that this would be basically diluting whatever we’re doing in our music. So I decided as an artiste that rather than rushing and focusing on the radio stations, I would rather cultivate my own fan base,” he said.
For rapper Asaph, who is now also a DJ on Skyz Metro FM, the practice exists although he had personally strived to build personal relationships with DJs in order to beat the system.
“Every time I would release music I wanted to be on that tip where the music gets to the DJs first and I try not to interact with DJs that I haven’t met personally or didn’t have some type of relationship with. So I guess for me that’s how I manage to avoid those situations.
I’m pretty sure that they (bribes) do happen. I’m pretty sure that they do. Anytime that you give people power over a certain platform I’m pretty sure they’re bound to be doing that. I’ve never had to pay because I’ve always dealt with DJs I know personally or who I’ve grown a personal relationship with over some time basically,” he said.
According to music scholar Fred Zindi, when Zimbabwean major record labels were still in business, they used to dictate terms to radio DJs with “some of the most influential popular DJs presented with flashy sports cars, and when colour televisions came around, they were also given TVs as payola.”
The major record companies have long folded but rumours of DJs receiving payment still persist.
“Personally I’ve never had to pay anyone in my life but I’ve heard instances in which someone paid or someone was asked to pay by some DJs. Personally I’ve never experienced such and I think it’s because I’ve been lucky. Even on radio I don’t pay to get played and that applies to even the clubs. Although it has never happened to me, I think it’s something that’s there because people complain a lot about it,” said rapper Cal_Vin.