Earl Paige, Veteran Billboard Reporter, Dies at 86

Courtesy of Tom Paige
Peggy and Earl Paige photographed in 2014

Earl Paige, a beat reporter at Billboard for 27 years from 1966-to-1993, died on Sunday, May 8, of heart failure in Fillmore, Calif. He was 86.

During his career at Billboard, Paige covered the retail/wholesale sectors of the music and the home video industry, and crossed paths, and sometimes barbed swords with the famous, like John Lennon and Jesse Jackson, as well as the indie retailers running single stores. He never met a story that he wasn’t interested in and was known for turning out prodigious amounts of copy, every single day.

His takes were rich with details but often thick, with awkward sentences and odd story flow, but they always contained information that moved important stories forward. Paige was a master at burying the lead, but that was because he was often more caught up in the human element that shaped industry decisions, especially when a new music manufacturer policy impacted the businesses of the merchants he covered. Editors who had the responsibility of shaping Paige’s first story draft came to call that prose “crude Earl,” but they knew that if they dug deep enough through the well from which his copy flowed, chances were they would be rewarded with a story that would merit continuous coverage. Paige was the consummate reporter's reporter.

Prior to joining Billboard, Paige grew up in Missouri and then joined the U.S. Airforce during the Korean War, where he was stationed on Guam as a military police. When he joined Billboard in 1966, he was stationed in the magazine’s Chicago office, initially covering the coin-operating business, which was then a steady feature in Billboard as it included juke-box operators.

Soon he would inherit the retail beat and in addition to record store chains, Paige would help Billboard embrace the then emerging video rental store chains too. During that period, he moved to work out of Billboard’s Los Angeles office.

No one—be it supplier or retailer—worked an industry convention harder than Paige. Whether covering meetings or assuming his self-described guise as "a potted plant" in the hotel lobby, Paige was a magnet for news. 

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He would often tutor young reporters the ropes on how to cover conventions, explaining that if they stay seated in the hotel lobby like a potted plant for long enough, they would eventually see and be able to corner every important industry executive. His aw-shucks, genuinely self-effacing charm and the openness of his quirky but entertaining personality developed a large network of trusted relationships, but he also frequently struck gold with sources he barely knew. “I’ll never forget seeing him approach a close-to-the-vest type at a cocktail party dropping a question about a supplier’s policy change with barely a “Hello,” recalls his then Billboard colleague, Geoff Mayfield. “Just as I’d think to myself, this fellow isn’t going to open up, boom, the source would open up, filling Earl’s notebook.”

While most people were sleeping, Paige would already seemingly put in a full day’s work and achieve other miscellaneous accomplishments too. And you never knew how he’d deploy that time when most convention attendees slept. He pointed out to young journalists that early morning was the best time to run across executives, catching those coming back from a late night of partying, or up early to go jogging.

At one conference in San Diego, he went down by the Naval docks for some pre-dawn fishing. During a convention in Las Vegas, he carved out time to help a local chapter form a family-crisis organization. And, at more than one event, he’d make frequent late-night trips to Kinko’s to print up copies of his self-designed weight-loss regime, which helped him achieve impressive results and a few extra shekels as industry executives wanted to learn the secret behind Paige’s weight-dropping “doggie-bag diet.” Consequently, he was an early pioneer in author self-printing, well before the digital revolution.

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In fact, at one Video Software Dealers’ Assn. convention in Las Vegas in the early 1990s, he sold out the book inventory he brought with him and had to make a run to Kinko’s to replenish his book inventory, which he sold wrapped in a Glad-like sandwich plastic bag.  While there Paige inadvertently stumbled on documents in the Kinko’s garbage cans denoting a pending hither-to unsuspected merger agreement between two now forgotten video chains, which turned into a Billboard exclusive.

After leaving Billboard, he had a stint at a video magazine, before retiring. Paige is survived by his wife of 48 years Peggy, who often traveled to industry conventions with him; his son Tom and his wife Emily Koonse, his recently born grandson Finneas, and his sister Jean Harms. A memorial is planned, with the date and location to be announced.