The forthcoming merger of MCA/Universal Records and Polygram Records will create the worldís largest record company, controlling about 22.5% of the current U.S. market. So far, the governmentís trust-busters havenít had any problem with that. But Congressmen John Conyers, Jr. and Dennis Kucinich did write letters to Seagramís chairman Edgar Bronfman Jr. They criticized Seagramís, which now owns MCA/Universal, for not adjusting the blatantly unfair royalty rates of its catalog recording artists. They also questioned whether Seagramís will do any better with Polygram, the major record label with the worst record on royalty reform.
Seagramís has adjusted royalty rates for the sliver of its artists who recorded for the highly visible Chess Records of Chicago. But it has long refused to do so for its other catalog artists, who include Curtis Mayfield (a quadriplegic); Jerry Butler; Lloyd Price; Fats Domino; Mitch Ryder; the Who; and a host of other rock, R&B and country stars of yore. Polygramís track record is even more dismal. Last year, Eric Kronfeld, the executive in charge of its royalty reform resistance, had to be fired after making racist statements in a lawsuit. The companyís holdings include important work by artists ranging from Billy Eckstine and James Brown to Jerry Lee Lewis and the Allman Brothers. Yet Polygram doesnít even participate in funding the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, the industryís token institution for honoring older black stars.
With Conyers tied down as the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Seagramís may hope to evade this issue. But Conyers has doggedly pursued royalty reform for more than a decade-it was hearings held under his supervision that forced Time-Warner to disgorge the $3 million that started the Rhythm & Blues Foundation.
Royalty reform applies to white artists, too, since most of them were cheated just as badly as black artists. Royalty reform is mainly about a little justice for the people who changed the face of modern popular music and generated wealth in the billions. The companies rapidly abandoned them as soon as the hits stopped flowing. Now those same men and women often find themselves working menial jobs. It would cost Seagramís a fraction of its massive wealth to repair these lives.
[from Rock & Rap Confidential/1998]
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