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Hip-Hop Fridays: Conspicuous Consumption II

In the late 1990s I had a couple of conversations with Donald S. Passman - Janet Jackson, Tina Turner, and Quincy Jones' lawyer and the author of the classic All You Need To Know About The Music Business. Among other subjects, we discussed the possibility of Mr. Passman representing an artist that I was working with. The man who many have described as the most influential lawyer in the music business was very interested in getting more involved in the Hip-Hop music genre and agreed to talk to the artist and see if an agreement could be reached.

I infomed the artist, who was looking for a lawyer at the time and had asked me to help him with the search, of what I thought was the good news. I also encouraged him to read Donald Passman's informative book. The artist all of a sudden sounded nervous and actually got upset with me for making the connection. Then, I didn't hear from him for about a week. It was strange.

When I next spoke to him, I was shocked by what he told me. He had actually gone to the head of his record label and asked him to help select his lawyer and what that executive thought about Donald Passman. The artist had feared that bringing Donald Passman onto his team would have alienated the record label executive. Ironically, this same artist felt he may have been getting short-changed by said executive.

A platinum Hip-Hop artist asking a record label to select their lawyer is something like Tracy McGrady going to the Orlando Magic looking for a sports agent referral. It is a general rule that the person representing you should be doing so after you have arrived at an agreement with them, independent of an endorsement or opinion of your employer or the party with whom you are negotiating a contract or business deal. Certainly you may want your agent or lawyer to have cordial relations with your business interests or a good track record in dealing with them but those factors are a far cry from seeking their approval of who represents you in contractual negotiations. Sadly, this artist is one of a great many who think and act like this in Hip-Hop.

This all goes into a subject that I hope to get deeper into this year, regarding the artist mentality which in many ways is anathema to the business of art, for both good and bad reasons. Administrative concerns and the culture surrounding commerce can take away the spirit of creativity. This is just as true of a religious leader as it is of a Hip-Hop artist. And so it is natural, for there to exist a tension between a person guided by inspiration and freedom, and the process of managing affairs in an industry or community through means that are technical, relatively impersonal and more rigid. It is appropriate for an artist or spiritually-centered person to have anxiety, tension and a resistant attitude toward the administrative aspects related to the distribution and trade of their creative work. That is where a trusted staff, assistant, or team comes into play, to shoulder that burden and protect the creative energy of an artist or spiritual leader.

But there are many artists, spiritual leaders too, who I have met who willfully remain ignorant of the administrative aspects of their work because they generally don't care about learning the science of business, marketing and commerce that is associated with their field and the successful delivery and distribution of their work and message. With Hip-Hop artists, this mentality is pervasive, with artist after artist being ignorant of how much money they make; unaware of the difference between gross revenue and a profit; not clear on their market position and image; lacking planning or a vision for how they want to use their artistic-related income to foster entrepreneurial activity, savings and investment; disinterested in the market category that they particiate in and its history and future; unable to read a royalty statement; and not holding their accountants, business managers and lawyers accountable to them.

There is a basic truth that I have always told people. Artists really don't do what they do for money. Fine. But artists who seek recording contracts are not justified in not first learning the business of the profession and industry into which they are seeking entry. For the most part, the artists that I know who have sought my help in the past, or do so today, only care about "getting signed". They want to be famous - seen on MTV and BET and heard on the radio - and receive a lot of attention. It may be difficult for some people to understand this, but the vast majority of people who want to be rappers or R&B singers do so out of a desire to be somebody or to be validated. Not to be wealthy or a business leader of any kind. This also applies to their reticent attitude to accepting the responsibility of being a role model or political leader. Many artists are working out personal issues in pursuing a career, not a methodical plan or vision. Of course they are not alone and have plenty of company in corporate America, government and politics. The question can be posed to all of us: what is really motivating us to do what we do professionally?

While I can't begin to count the number of times that I have been asked to "hook somebody up" or "put me on to your connects" or "introduce me to so-and-so"; I can hardly remember the number of times that I have had an aspiring artist ask me to explain to them the music business or show them a recording contract and explain it to them, or a royalty statement.

For the most part, in my view, it is unbridled or manipulated ambition that is directing the aspirations of too many young rappers and singers that I meet - signed and unsigned. Many don't respect the artform nor the business associated with it. They don't know the history of the craft or the business. Their chief concern is to be seen by everybody and showered with attention. Another goal is to be able to hang out with famous people, who are supposedly better than the rest of us. It is sad and goes well beyond a music genre into issues of self-worth.

It is this issue of the artist self-concept and the general ignorance of the music business that sets the stage for the conspicuous consumption that takes place in the music industry, where individuals are pressured and feel they have to spend money in order to give the appearance that they are enjoying a certain type of lifestyle. I can remember two people in the music industry I know who were going Rolex watch-shopping once. They were looking at watches in the $23,000 to $30,000 range. One person involved was a bona fide millionaire; the other probably had around $100,000 in disposable income. It was ridiculous. They both got their watches though. There are other stories that I know of where artists have spent as much as $250,000 on jewels and then got robbed.

If people actually understood the economies of scale or lack thereof in the music industry they could easily see how little money artists make and how the accounting tricks of the music business always work against the artist, in the end. They also would be able to see beyond the smokescreen of the various contractual relationships between various entities in the industry that have artists stating (and in some cases) believing that they are sitting on top of a multi-million dollar empire when in fact they are actually in debt to another supposedly multi-million dollar corporate empire, that is only a business unit of a multinational corporation, which is billions of dollars in debt!

While I continue to help aspiring artists in different ways, I now have a rule that I will refuse to help them beyond a certain point unless they are willing to study the actual music business that they want me to help them get into. I have a three-book syllabus that I recommend. One of those books is Donald S. Passman's All You Need To Know About The Music Business. The other two, I will discuss in the next part of this series.

Without question there are some cultural factors that have made young Black and Latino artists even more susceptible to conspicuous consumption. And the other two books that I recommend get closer to the heart of that, more than Donald S. Passman's book. But a respect for the business of music is essential to preventing the type of waste and ignorance that allows an artist to make millions for others, while they receive only tens of thousands. It also is essential to laying a foundation for any artist who desires to be a star with staying power or an artist who is able to grow a true business empire.

The subject is so important and relevant to the overall condition of the Black and Latino economy that we are devoting 3 of the 10 weeks of the Business semester (which begins in the Spring of this year) of Black Electorate Economics University to the music business.

We can overcome this problem of conspicuous consumption that has artists valuing cars, jewelry and lavish parties more than saving, investing and starting businesses; but it will require a serious effort - in activism and education.

It may not be as "sexy" as other forms of activism that are accepted in Hip-Hop but it certainly is just as important.

Cedric Muhammad

Friday, January 31, 2003

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