Upon leafing through old Down Beats from the 1940s the other day, I came across an editorial in the April 9, 1947 issue chastising disc jockeys for engaging in shady practices. Long before the infamous payola scandals of the late 1950s, when on-air announcers accepted cash from record pluggers to repeatedly play specific singles and turn them into hits, the issue of graft had already surfaced. As jazz deejays gained more power and influence after World War II, they were easy targets for cash-rich record companies eager for ears.
Here's what Down Beat's editorial writer had to say, under the headline, Should Disc Jockeys Take It on the Side?:
"The practice of giving concerts is one that has taken hold on both coasts in the last year. At least eight jockeys to the Beat's knowledge have been given percentages ranging up to one-fourth of the total proceeds to plug the programs...
"The average listener depends on an air show for guidance in selecting the show on which he should spend his two bucks. No man can give an impartial appraisal of a program when he stands to make four or five hundred dollars from it if it is a commercial success...
"There is another gimmick running around these days—the stock deal. There is one New York City spinner who has been given a large block of stock in a new record company. He therefore jams his programs with their discs...
"If jockeys are to be as useful as they could be in helping American jazz, they must remember two prime rules with reference to critical writing:
1. No decent critic ever made a million.
2. No decent critic gets his checks from more than one source."
So what's the lesson here? As the web continues to emerge as a serious jazz media outlet, it is critical that blogs, e-writers and magazines staunchly guard their editorial independence and reaffirm their commitment to readers. Ad revenue is not a sin. It is vital to any serious editorial venture. But with revenue comes greater responsibility.
To remain credible, jazz sites should inform advertisers in writing that dollars do not buy influence, only space. There can be no quid pro quo in jazz writing on the web (or in print), only passion from the heart. The reader demands it. And the reader (like those radio listeners of yore) is the first to smell a rat.