The Neverland Music Summit


Last Tuesday’s music industry summit at Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN) in Harlem produced a strategy that was even more old-school than some of the musicians who appeared there. With Michael Jackson, rapper Doug E. Fresh, and flutist Bobbi Humphrey in attendance, Sharpton simultaneously sold “wolf tickets” to the recording industry and called for “constructive dialogue” and a “working relationship” with it. However, it is questionable how that would be possible when Michael Jackson, the main instigator of the coalition, is bad-mouthing the head of Sony Music, Tommy Mottola, a man whose firm he is trying to get away from.

When asked if he’s going to look into Jackson’s accusation that Mottola called a Sony artist a “fat, black nigger,” Sharpton told the Voice he would be “actively investigating the charge.”

While stepping away from calling individuals “racist,” Sharpton described the recording industry itself as such. The industry displays such racism, he said, not only by issuing onerous contracts to black artists, but by not spending any of its production or promotion monies within the black community, especially with ancillary businesses like black-owned travel agencies and public relations firms or black concert promoters.

Sharpton challenged the five major recording companies, which he consistently miscounts as “four”—Bertelsmann, Sony, EMI, Universal, and Warner—to “release the names of the black vendors they do business with.” A key component of the National Summit for Fairness in the Recording Industry’s strategy is to challenge the “racial exclusion of dollars in the music industry.”

“The record industry at the top needs to become more inclusive,” Sharpton said. “There are no black presidents, distributors, or black-owned advertising firms used despite millions in promotion money spent.” The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), however, took issue with some of the reverend’s claims.

“Mr. Sharpton’s agenda is all over the map,” said a RIAA spokesperson. “If there is anything you can say about the music industry with certainty, it is that it has invested in urban music and urban media. The analysis of Sharpton and [Johnnie] Cochran appears ill-informed and outdated.”

NAN has contacted the RIAA, said the spokesperson, “but thus far we’re playing phone tag.” Indeed, Sharpton’s music-biz analysis is a tad behind the times and calls into question whether he understands the effects of the “new economy” on the music industry. So-called “independent” black labels—Def Jam, Roc-a-Fella, Bad Boy—are the ones who may or may not be dispensing travel and promotion monies in the black community. These labels are joint-venture deals or are partially owned by major companies—part of the farming out of music production in the industry these days.

Russell Simmons, Damon Dash, Jay-Z, Sean Combs, and L.A. Reid are, in effect, the black record executives that Sharpton claims don’t exist. Granted, none of them is the head of the “five fingers of music,” an oligopoly of five groups that are not so much producers as a distribution network. And that being the case, the existence of the Internet raises serious questions as to what exactly a record company will be in the next five to 10 years. Sharpton’s summit agenda is dealing with an old business model that is a hemorrhaging behemoth, and, at best, the program sounds like trickle-down economics for a few black businesses.

“This, to me, is a clear example of a situation where Al Sharpton, seeing the benefits and reaping the rewards in his mind, does not understand the full breadth and complexity of the situation,” said Darrell McNeill of the Black Rock Coalition. “What we’ve been seeing over the last couple of days are the consequences of his actions without considering those complexities.”

More to the point, because Jackson’s blistering comments will make it hard for Sharpton to get an interview with the music execs, it has “generally strengthened the position of the record labels,” said writer Eric Boehlert. “They don’t want to talk about anything substantive.” Jackson’s hard-charging has done them a big favor, he said.

The Jackson-Sharpton strategy seems to have been geared to providing greater firepower—fan-based indignation—for promoting their own interests. And it is carried out at the expense of the larger music community, where legitimate issues have been raised by black California state senator Kevin Murray, the Recording Artists’ Coalition and the Future of Music Coalition, and the seven-year-old Artist Empowerment Coalition (AEC), which is represented by the attorney who “emancipated” Prince.

Earlier this year Jackson was in negotiations to take possession of his master catalog in three years rather than seven and was annoyed that Sony refused to put $8 million into a third video for his Invincible CD (for which $25 million had already been spent). Jackson also wanted to buy out Sony’s 50 percent stake in their joint venture, Sony/ATV, which includes the Beatles catalog. Sony balked. Jackson contacted Sharpton for help.

Sharpton may have been coy when he told the Times that he knew Jackson was in negotiations but didn’t know if they had turned “hostile or not.” In May, both Cochran and Sharpton met with Jackson’s negotiating attorney, John Branca, several times to discuss strategy. If they met with Jackson’s attorney, they certainly could have ascertained the status of Jackson’s talks with Sony.

Sharpton, who by last Wednesday was on the Today show, was candid, though, about benefiting personally from the Jackson hype. “The fact of the matter is, if that is part of the reward, so what?” he told the Times.

“Michael,” said an industry insider, “is more politically savvy than people give him credit [for being].” Prince, he noted, “merely wrote ‘slave’ over himself in his struggle with Warner Music, and didn’t reach out.” True, but Prince also didn’t try to disguise his self-interest behind black unity. He made race an issue to some degree, but he didn’t exploit black consciousness. Jackson has reached out to the black community, as evidenced by the enthusiastic but gullible crowds who filled the room to see the bleached-out brother last week. Given that he has shown no real regard for black concerns over the past 20 years, though, some blacks question his sincerity in returning to the fold in hard times.

In the final analysis, this coalition has backfired on the Gloved One. It has revived the child molestation allegations, and unearthed unsavory tidbits like the fact that the 9-11 charity video he accuses Sony of sabotaging was spiked by his own people on learning it was produced by a gay pornographer. Eerily, Sharpton’s embrace of Michael Jackson and the attendant media frenzy harken back to the heady days of another media circus: the Tawana Brawley case, in which an incendiary accusation and a plethora of cameras followed Sharpton and legal eagles Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason. This time the legal team is Michael Hardy, Lewis Myers, and Johnnie Cochran, and it is déjà vu all over again.