Pay to Play


If you like the two-party system, you’re going to love the four-label system. With the approval of the Federal Trade Commission and European regulators, BMG and Sony Music formally merged August 5; less than two weeks later, Sony BMG started gnawing at its payroll, preparing to eliminate more than 20 percent of its 10,000 or so employees. The three other majors are Universal, Warner Music Group, and EMI—and the latter two are reported to be discussing a merger, too.

In Washington, music is everybody’s friend. George W. Bush is flogging Brooks & Dunn’s “Only in America,” while the John Kerry ticket’s been flip-flopping on its theme song; lately, it’s been Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender” and/or Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Kerry’s got a better musical pedigree for sure—he’s played in a band, hobnobbed with John Lennon, and jammed onstage with Moby last year. His campaign donors include usual suspects Don Henley, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Linda Ronstadt, and Barbra Streisand; the American Federation of Musicians’ board endorsed him unanimously.

But John & John’s real allies in the music business are the ones with suits, not microphones. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 82 percent of the industry’s $1.4 million in political donations so far this year has gone to Democrats, including some $200,000 to Kerry. Bush, the sole Republican among the top 20 individual recipients of music-biz largesse, has only gotten $61,275. There aren’t many prominent Republican contributors from the music world, actually: former Sony CEO Tommy Mottola gave Shrub $2,000 last year and some Rolling Stones concert tickets in 2002, Mike Curb of Curb Records donated $10,000 to the Republican Party of Tennessee in May, and that scraping sound is Vic Damone writing a $2,000 check to fellow crooner Orrin Hatch. Meanwhile, Kerry’s scored endorsements from Rolling Stone‘s Jann Wenner, former Sony Music executive vice president Michele Anthony, and Motown chairman Clarence Avant.

Kerry also goes way back with one powerful record-company family. Edgar Bronfman Sr., whose son now heads Warner Music, met with him in 1971, and helped bankroll the Dewey Canyon III demonstration that made him famous. Bronfman Jr. donated $2,000 to Kerry last year, and the family gave $15,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2003, although both father and son also gave money to the Republican Majority Fund in 2001. Universal Music chairman Doug Morris donated $1,000 to Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy last year, but nothing so far to the presidential candidates; and Sony BMG CEO Andrew Lack has donated to Leahy and to the left-leaning Campaign for America’s Future.

Still, PACs and professional organizations make it easier for music-business people to spread the wealth to Republicans without attaching their own names. The Recording Industry Association of America’s current and former presidents, Cary Sherman and Hilary Rosen, have both given to Kerry this year. But they’re also the biggest contributors to the RIAA’s PAC, which has given twice as much 2004 money to Republicans as to Democrats. And in 2000, the RIAA donated $100,000 apiece to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

TV and radio companies want administration favors, too—specifically, more leeway to merge—and they’re richer and more Republican than record companies. Their $3.6 million in donations so far this cycle is more than double the music business’s, and 62 percent of it has gone to Republicans. The 95-station Christian radio network Salem Communi-cations’ individual employees and PAC have given all of their $169,300 to Republicans. And the broadcast mastodon Clear Channel is famously tight with the Bushes: vice chair Thomas Hicks made Shrub rich by buying the Texas Rangers in 1998, and the company gave half a million dollars to Bush Sr.’s Points of Light Foundation in 2002. But Clear Channel’s covering its bets—this cycle, 27 percent of its $526,376 in donations has been to Democrats.

Whoever wins in November, the number of companies controlling what we hear will probably continue to dwindle. In a Kerry presidency, the recording business—already condensed into an oligopoly—might well see a lot of its wishes regarding mergers and anti-copying technology granted. Bush Jr. II would mean more broadcast consolidation jammed down our throats. That’s not to say the overall effect would be the same, though: Bush’s FTC hasn’t fought label mergers, but both Kerry and Edwards opposed relaxing broadcast ownership rules—”a profound threat to diversity and democracy,” says Edwards. Keep hoping for one America, but beware of one radio station, one record label, and one song.