‘Payola Is Illegal’: Lawsuit Revives Pay-for-Play Accusations at Radio

In March 2020, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong released a cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” hoping to offer a small measure of comfort to a pandemic-stricken world. “I figure if we have to spend this time in isolation, at least we can be alone together,” the singer wrote on YouTube. The familiarity of Tommy James & the Shondells’ original combined with the sweet sentiment created an unexpected hit — Armstrong’s cover cracked several Billboard charts and earned radio play in both the Rock and Adult Top 40 formats.

But that May, Steve Zap, an independent radio promoter, texted an employee at a station he has worked with to reduce the single’s play count. “I hate to do this but Billie Joe needs to go down,” Zap wrote. “They said they aren’t working it” — apparently meaning the record label wasn’t actively pushing the song — “and not paying bills… If we take down, let’s see if they are all of a sudden working it?” Based on a later follow-up text from Zap, this tactic appeared unsuccessful: “Billie Joe down and they never paid a dime.”

In 2020, Rolling Stone obtained a trove of Zap’s texts, several of which explicitly refer to payments in money or goods to radio stations in connection with airplay. (“Please put Rua into 50 spin rotation,” the promoter wrote to a radio programmer, referring to the pop-rock trio. “I can use the billing.”) Zap vehemently denied any wrongdoing, acknowledging in a statement at the time that he had channeled “certain promotional support” to one radio station, but insisting that support wasn’t linked to spins, and that his operations were above-board.

Last year, a court battle between other players in the radio industry unearthed documents that hint at the large amount of money that can move between Zap and the stations he works with. Records produced in the lawsuit identified more than 130 “payments by Steve Zap in 2020 alone — totaling over $300,000” to help cover bills for Royce International Broadcasting, which then owned three radio stations. According to court filings, Zap also allegedly acknowledged that he had been paying “a budget set at $200,000” annually for those three stations — the Bay Area’s KREV, Palm Springs’ KRCK, and Las Vegas’ KFRH — for “several years” running.

Speaking on behalf of his companies Z-entertainment and Artbeatz, Zap said in a statement that he “has not, did not, and never will participate in payola, and maintains full compliance with the FCC and regulations of the record industry.”

Zap went on to call Rolling Stone’s previous article describing his business practices “reckless misreporting” and “unsubstantiated hatchet job reporting.”

Independent promoters like Zap are a longtime feature of the radio landscape. Some in the music industry liken their role to “consultants” or “lobbyists”; third-party boosters hired to use their connections to persuade program directors to add songs to playlists or give them more spins.

When the New York Attorney General’s Office investigated the radio industry in the 2000s, however, it took a different view, describing them as “middlemen” enlisted to “act as conduits for delivery of the labels’ ‘promotional support’ to [radio] stations, and help perpetuate the fiction that this support is not actually being delivered by the labels in exchange for airplay.”

“There are people that add value, that have true relationships, that you can use to complement your efforts” to get a song on the airwaves, says one label promoter. (Sources who spoke for this story did so on the condition of anonymity, fearing retribution.) But radio veterans say some independent promoters establish exclusive relationships with stations and demand “a toll” in exchange for airplay. “When you just have to pay a gatekeeper? It can become very costly,” the label promotions executive adds.

Following the New York Attorney General’s investigation, any “promotional efforts” linked to spins were regulated by the music industry. The major labels agreed to “not use … [contests or giveaways, commercial transactions, advertising, artist appearances and performances] in an explicit or implicit exchange, agreement or understanding to obtain airplay or increase airplay.”

Independent promoters were not initially embroiled in the dispute between a slew of labels and Royce International Broadcasting. But a judge put owner Ed Stolz’s stations in the hands of a receiver — a third-party custodian with extensive media experience — after a jury ruled that Royce had failed to pay licensing fees for some of the music it played. And as the receiver, W. Lawrence Patrick, prepared to arrange a sale of Stolz’s stations, he dug into their operations and discovered that they had been getting sizable payments from Zap.

“If I were on the stand, I would say it appeared that Steve was influencing what songs were being played on the radio,” Patrick tells Rolling Stone. “And it also appeared that Stolz was having Steve pay most of the bills that stations were incurring.”

Patrick and his legal team broached the transactions with Zap. The promoter claimed “that this arrangement came about because Stolz threatened to refuse to play any of Zap’s clients’ songs on the stations without [payment],” the lawyers alleged in a court filing. They argued that “whether Zap was a willing participant in this payola scheme, or was simply coerced by Stolz, is immaterial. Payola is illegal unless the pay-for-play is explicitly announced.”

“Steve kept saying, ‘I have to do this, I have to pay these bills,’” Patrick says. “And I said, ‘why?’ And he said, ‘[Stolz] won’t play my music.’ So you’re basically buying your way on to the station, and that’s not right.”

In a subsequent hearing, the Royce owner offered a very different explanation for his financial arrangement with Zap. “The status of an independent promoter in the industry is to serve as the contact point between a programmer and the industry, and that programmer then provides a listing of the musical performances that are played over a given station in that week,” Stolz testified in court.

Rolling Stone read this statement to a label promotions executive; his skeptical response was, “that’s definitely not the whole story.” “No label needs to pay an individual to find out what a station is playing — there are monitoring services that do that digitally,” adds another radio and record industry veteran who has experience with independent promotion practices.

“In a normal relationship, the label or artist manager would pay a promoter for their service, and the movement of money ends there — it’s just work-for-hire,” the veteran continues. “If money is making its way to a radio station, or vendors of that radio station, something very different is occurring. In that case, the independent promoter actually has an exclusive relationship with the radio station. The ‘promoter’ inserts itself as a gatekeeper between the station and the label and charges for access to the station’s airwaves.”

Either way, Patrick and his lawyers did not buy Stolz’s explanation. They pressed the station-owner with follow-up questions in court: “When was that [play information] transmitted to Mr. Zap?” Stolz had “no idea.” He ducked another question about his connection to the promoter, but Patrick persisted.

“Isn’t it true that Steve Zap is paying bills or infusing cash into your company in exchange for airplay for songs that he is promoting through his company?” Patrick asked during the court hearing. “Absolutely not,” Stolz replied. (Stolz’s lawyers did not respond to a request for comment.)

Court documents filed in the Stolz case referenced Rolling Stone‘s previous reporting on Zap’s 2020 texts, which provided a rare insight into the carefully targeted mechanics of radio campaigns. In those messages, the promoter frequently discussed adjusting airplay to help labels achieve chart goals, often by taking away spins from one artist higher on the chart and assigning them to a lower-ranking act.

In March 2020, Zap texted, “can we … spike Maren Morris. 1 week only and [then] Dua lipa can get in.” Two weeks later, he followed up: “Please make sure Dua Lipa goes to super power and maren comes down a bit… Give a 50 spin difference.” (A song in power rotation is one of the most played at a station.) Unsavory as this track-flipping seems, there’s nothing illegal about shifting plays from one artist to another as long as it’s not linked to some payment in money or goods.

Zap’s texts also offered a window into the fractious communications that occur behind the scenes as labels compete for positions on charts that few listeners are actually aware of (AAA and Adult Top 40 are hardly household names). Even as the promoter worked with the record companies, his texts indicated frustration with his label counterparts. “Going to make [P]atty beg for increase” in spins for a Lewis Capaldi song, one text read. “Wendy crying about Backstreet Boys,” Zap wrote. “… She can’t save it but whatever.” “That record isn’t a hit and Pete isn’t cool,” Zap texted at another point. “Don’t play [the song] so much.”

The radio press all but ignored Rolling Stone‘s reporting on Zap’s messages. Perhaps that’s a sign that the behavior described in his texts is so commonplace it does not rise to the level of news in the trades. In his recent statement, Zap said that “his promotion activities on behalf of various record labels and musicians [are] standard in the industry, and completely permissible.”

When Zap’s name came up multiple times in court documents filed in the Stolz brouhaha, the radio publication All Access — which did not reply to a request for comment — initially wrote an article citing the promoter by name: “Patrick charged that Stolz lied about payments from promoter Steve Zap that Patrick has characterized as payola/plugola.”

Zap’s name was later removed from the article, replaced with “a promoter.”

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