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Hip-Hop Fridays: E-Letter To The Los Angeles Times Re: Recording Stars Challenge Music Labels' Business Practices

You have written a very informative article, "Recording Stars Challenge Music Labels' Business Practices" on the music industry's best kept secret: superstar recording artists are paid crumbs compared to the revenue they generate for their labels and distributors. Your piece represents a pretty wide spectrum of artist and legal opinion on the issue and you even had the wisdom to include the political dimension of the issue. Our only quibble with the article is your negligence of the genre with the best horror stories when it comes to getting jerked by record contracts - Hip Hop.

You really should have interviewed Wendy Day, the head of Rap Coalition for your story. There isn't anybody in Hip-Hop and maybe even the music industry who has seen more ignorance, stupidity, greed, and thievery in record deals. She works with artists, lawyers, label executives, their accounting departments, and personal and music business accountants and has seen artists go from rags to riches and back to even filthier rags.

But you should speak to her mainly because I think she understands the concept of an artist union, how it would work, and what has prevented it up to this point, better than any artist does - even Courtney Love and Prince, who you indicate are pushing for an artist union.

The reason why I say she understands it better than Prince and Courtney Love is because she can honestly tell you, among other things, how the same artists who whine about getting robbed in their record deals barely talk to one another to discuss the idea or to even compare notes on their record deals. She understands not just the idea but also the challenges that keep it from becoming a reality. She also understands the industry-created roadblocks designed to prevent artist unity.

Visit her website and get acquainted with her efforts to stop voluntary robbery - Hip-Hop style.

The only group that I think is less likely to form a union than recording artists are professional wrestlers who get treated even worse than recording artists by their "employers".

The reason why I give the edge to professional wrestlers is that for all of the injuries they accumulate - they don't even have health insurance. Now, that is horrible.

The movement toward a Hip-Hop and all-genre union is hindered even further by the actions of record labels designed to keep envy and jealousy running high among fellow artists and by lawyers in the music business who are actually in the best position to help artists fight for better deals but won't do so because they "double dip" and even "triple dip". They often represent both artists and record labels at the same time and some lawyers even get "points" - a percentage of the sales revenue from albums sold by their artists.

How can a lawyer truly be looking out for his artist if he is getting cut in on the deal as well? It is not entirely impossible but it certainly should raise some ethical and business concerns, at least.

I know several lawyers in the music business who have, at the same time, represented the artist, the record label the artist is signed to, and the record executive who runs the label who the artist is signed to!

While I have spoken to him several times and think that he is a great lawyer and author, Janet Jackson's lawyer Donald Passman, who you quote in your piece, typifies the problem. His defense of the record labels on the grounds that they sink such enormous investments into recording projects is pitiful and I think that Courtney Love responded to his apology for the record labels quite well.

I think it is tragic that artists feel they have to run to the US Congress for help. Sadly, that approach never works as numerous members of the House and Senate are in the pocket of the music industry and the media conglomerates that sell music. Not to mention the fact that government regulation is a recipe for further legal entanglements and the creation of further disincentives to innovate.

The best approach to getting the best deal for artists is their own unity in the marketplace. By talking to one another and forming a "union" - formally or informally; and by controlling the timing of the delivery of their creative works, artists have more than enough power to overcome a century-old payment system that is archaic and oppressive and operates against the best of market economy principles.

The ball is really in their court.

Thanks for enlightening all of us.

And we look forward to your Part II dealing with the Hip-Hop industry.


Cedric Muhammad

Friday, March 30, 2001

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