Blacked Out

Hip-Hop and R&B Artists MIA in Music Industry Struggle

Unexpectedly, the legacy of TLC's Lisa Lopes, who died tragically in Honduras in April, will continue on June 11. Courtney Love, on that day, will appear in a Los Angeles superior court as a plaintiff in a countersuit against her record company, Universal Music Group. Love stopped recording for UMG/Geffen in 1999. UMG sued her (and her group, Hole) for not delivering five albums.

Love countersued, arguing that her contract was excessively long-termed. UMG filed a petition to have Love's case dismissed, but the court has allowed Love's claim to be heard next week.

Two years ago, in a pre-litigation move, Love circulated a well-known letter to fellow recording artists about a "fair deal" from the record labels. In her letter she cited TLC and Toni Braxton as "multi-platinum artists" who had "been forced to declare bankruptcy because their recording contracts didn't pay them enough." (Love's trial comes at an interesting time: June is Black Music Month.)

TLC sold millions of albums for LaFace Records (a unit of Bertelsmann Music Group). Yet Lopes, Tionne Watkins, and Rozonda Thomas were only taking home modest sums of money compared to the hefty sums they made for Pebbitone Management, LaFace, and BMG. Federal bankruptcy laws would have allowed them to extricate themselves from their onerous contract, but they settled out of court. The recording industry, however, nervous at the prospect of other artists using TLC's and Braxton's settlement strategy,had the federal bankruptcy laws amended (see www.opensecrets.org's "Fine Tuning").

Notwithstanding the fact that both white and black artists have been exploited by the recording industry, blacks, due to the combination of race and class, have often suffered the most egregiously. Blacks, to a certain degree, are a neo-colonized "Rhythm Nation" within the recording industry's "structure of stealing," which depends on them to generate new musical styles and to provide cheap labor (i.e., talent).

"The details of [TLC's] story should be taught in every school in America for the next 100 years," remarks hip-hop activist and media assassin Harry Allen, who writes about music for the Voice and other publications and has worked with Public Enemy's Chuck D.

Yet it is questionable that most black artists have learned from what happened to Lopes and her trio-mates, or from the long history of blacks' interaction with the recording industry.

Some musicians, though, have. Over the past years recording artists such as Love, Prince, George Michael, Chuck D, Don Henley, and Sheryl Crow have begun to challenge the recording industry over a host of issues: royalty payments, transparency in contracts, the work-for-hire clause, seven-year-limit statute, the Internet, and health benefits, to name a few. Fed up with the industry's tactics over Internet royalty distribution (a/k/a digital rights) and its surreptitious amending of copyright law, West Coast recording artists founded the Recording Artist Coalition (RAC), spearheaded by former Eagle Don Henley.

At roughly the same time, Jenny Toomey, a Washington, D.C.-based musician, started the Future of Music Coalition. FMC has held two policy summits on music issues in Washington, in 2001 and 2002, examining Internet distribution and business models affecting music. FMC views itself as a think-tank wing to RAC's activist and lobbying efforts before Congress and the public.

Toomey applauds the fact that RAC has even come into existence. "Aside from the music unions, the last [person] who even tried to create this kind of organization was Frank Sinatra, almost 30 years ago." FMC has also begun working with RAC on the issue of health care for recording artists.

RAC has its work cut out, particularly if it is going to contend with the record labels' lobbying arm, the Recording Industry Association of America, which has been around since 1952. Understanding that, on the eve of the recent Grammy Awards, the nascent organization held several benefit concerts in the L.A. area to raise funds. It raised $2.5 million and plans to hold future benefits on the East Coast.

"The public needs to understand," said Henley in a New York Timesarticle, "that the RIAA does not and never has represented recording artists."

Curiously missing, though, from the roster of acts performing RAC benefits were black r&b or hip-hop artists, who, like TLC and Toni Braxton, have borne the brunt of the recording industry's shady operations.

The lack of black acts, according to both Toomey and Jim Guerinot—who manages acts like Beck, Offspring, and No Doubt through his West Coast firm, Rebel Waltz Management—was not intentional. At least one black artist had agreed to appear but reneged at the last minute. Given the history of exploitation of black artists by the record labels, as in the case of TLC, the lack of any black acts, intentional or not, underscores the fundamentally different experiences that blacks and whites have had as recording artists.

Black organizations or artists seem either to have a different agenda, or simply to be indifferent, to the organizing that's being done by RAC and FMC. Or maybe black artists, especially in the hip-hop community, are more interested in attending star-studded confabs like Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Action Summit Network. While HHASN, run by former NAACP executive director Ben Muhammad (né Chavis), has been credited with keeping the peace in the hip-hop community, it is unlikely that it will advocate rappers' getting better contracts, health benefits, and owning their master recordings. After all, Russell Simmons isa record label owner within the Universal Music Group.

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