'Hit Men' 25 Years Later

Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business, by Fredric Dannen, tells the story of the rise of the modern music industry, with a focus on CBS Records (later Sony Music) and three of its colorful leaders - Goddard Lieberson, Clive Davis and Walter Yetnikoff. It also portrays an industry nearly brought down by its own greed.

In the 1980s, the major labels put the fix on radio by employing the "Network," a handful of independent promoters, some with ties to organized crime, who had an uncanny ability to influence which records received - and did not receive - radio airplay. The smaller record companies were knocked off the airwaves, but the majors soon found themselves vying to outbid one another for the promoters' services. Before long, the Network had grown too powerful and too expensive. Even hit records often cost more to promote than they earned.

Though the Network appeared to lose its sway by the end of the '80s, the practice of influencing radio did not go away. In 2005, after an investigation by the office of New York's attorney general, the majors signed consent decrees acknowledging "improper promotion practices," and paid hefty fines. Yet, only four years later, a study by the New York State Music Fund found "almost no change in station playlist composition ... with major-label songs consistently securing 78 percent to 82 percent of airplay." It seemed that even in the digital age, when the majors' dominance was threatened by the great equalizer, the Internet - a subject covered in the new edition of Hit Men - the industry was still haunted by the specter of payola.

As Dannen writes in his new last chapter, "In the two decades since the original edition of Hit Men was published, a great deal about the record industry changed. And, regrettably, a great deal did not."


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