By MARCUS FRANKLIN, Associated
NEW YORK - Facing fierce criticism of sexist and depraved rap lyrics, top music industry executives planned a private meeting. They would discuss the issue, they said, and "announce initiatives" at a press conference afterward.
That was three weeks ago. The press conference was canceled, without explanation. And ever since, music's gatekeepers have been silent.
Leaders of the four major record companies, which control nearly 90 percent of the market, may fear cracking the door to censorship. Others say the record chiefs are "scared to death" of further damaging sales in an industry already hobbled by digital downloading — or that they choose to remain in the shadows rather than protect "indefensible" lyrics.
Or perhaps they are leery of stepping into a racial minefield: While black rap artists recite those lyrics, the top execs are white — like the man who ignited the controversy, radio host Don Imus, fired for describing a women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos."
"They want this whole thing to go away and keep doing what they've been doing, which is selling records," said Don Gorder, chair of the Music Business/Management Department at the Berklee College of Music.
While music industry leaders remain reticent, others are reacting very publicly:
Ebony magazine pulled the rapper Ludacris from its June cover. Verizon dropped pitchman Akon after video surfaced of the singer simulating sex with an underage fan on stage. Chart-topper Chamillionaire says his new CD contains no curses or n-words. Percy "Master P" Miller, founder of No Limit Records, whose son Romeo also is a recording artist, says he's starting a new label for "street music without offensive lyrics."
"I was once part of the problem and now it's time to be part of the solution," Miller, whose gangsta raps once sold millions of albums but have been met with indifference lately, told AllHipHop.com. "I am ready to take a stand by cleaning up my music and follow my son's footsteps and make a clean rap album."
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who protested outside major record labels last week, is planning to lead busloads of protesters to music executives' homes in the Hamptons over Memorial Day weekend.
"It's indefensible," Sharpton said of why the record executives keep silent. "They're hoping it'll go away. We're not going anywhere. We plan to continue to march until those three words are gone, until those four companies agree in some way that the use of the words "nigga," "ho," and "bitch" should be beneath our standards."
Sharpton met recently with executives from Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group Corp. and Sony BMG Music Entertainment, who "expressed different measures of concern" but made no commitments, he said. Those three companies, along with London-based EMI Group, account for close to 90 percent of U.S. music sales through traditional distribution channels, said Jerry Goolsby, who holds a chair in music industry studies at Loyola University.
Sharpton said there seems to be a double standard when it came to controversial lyrics. In the 1990s, the songs "They Don't Care About Us" by Michael Jackson (which included terms like "Jew me" and "kike me") and "Cop Killer" by rapper-turned actor Ice T drew a strong response from the industry. Jackson was even forced to re-record his song.
"I didn't hear any of these guys jumping up talking about free speech when Michael's record came out," Sharpton said. "But you can talk about blacks and women? Why is it "nigger," "ho" and "bitch" is below our standard? You can't have it where blacks are the only ones in America where there's no standards."
Some in the music industry, such as Russell Simmons, one of hip-hop culture's chief architects, have defended rappers' free-speech rights. Simmons, who got rich by co-founding and then selling the seminal Def Jam label, recently called for the three words at the center of the debate to be treated the same as extreme profanities and consistently blanked out of "clean" and radio versions of songs.
The closest the industry has come to a public discussion is when Warner Music Group vice president Kevin Lilies appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show and acknowledged "there's a problem."
At Universal, a division of the publicly traded French company Vivendi, chairman Doug Morris and president Zach Horowitz have declined repeated requests from The Associated Press to discuss the issue. Universal, in a partnership with Interscope Records, is home to hardcore rap superstars such as 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg.
Warner chairman and chief executive Edgar Bronfman Jr. led a group of investors who bought Warner Music Group from Time Warner Inc. for more than $2 billion. Warner, which went public in 2005, recently announced second-quarter losses and planned job cuts. Bronfman and Lyor Cohen, Warner's chairman and chief executive of U.S. music, also have declined repeated queries. The label is home to T.I., a former drug dealer who according to Billboard figures released the top-selling rap album of 2006.
At Sony, chairman Andrew Lack and chief executive Rolph Schmidt-Holtz have turned down all requests for interviews. Sony BMG is a joint venture of Sony Corp (NYSE:SNE - news)oration of America (part of the Sony Corp. in Japan) and Bertelsmann AG (a German company whose stock is held by a foundation and the Mohn family).
Eric Nicoli, head of the publicly traded EMI Group, also has declined to talk about the matter. The troubled company also recently announced restructuring and job elimination.
The ailing Big Four have released short statements saying they value their artists' right to express themselves, "even if that means some of their music will not appeal to all listeners," Universal said. They noted that they use warning stickers and work with broadcasters to edit controversial words, "including those that are the focus of the current public debate," Warner said.
The companies say they discuss the issue with artists, broadcasters, community leaders and public officials. Warner's statement went further, saying the company took "issues regarding the role of women and minorities in society very seriously."
Warner and EMI said they welcomed dialogue. "Where controversy occurs," EMI's statement read, "we will be open to debate on the issues."
But some say the executives' refusal to engage in that debate publicly is tinged with race. The very top executives in the music industry are white men, observed Lisa Fager, who co-founded IndustryEars, a think tank focused on the media's impact on minorities and children.
"Nobody wants to put the white man's face on things," said Fager, who is black and once worked in the music industry on artist development. "They don't want to see the real person behind it."
Gorder, of the Berklee College of Music, believes their reluctance is rooted in the bottom line: The major companies fear that if they don't distribute the music with sexist and violent music, independents will.
"They're scared to death that the market for this is going to be hurt," Gorder said. "The outcry could have an effect on sales. If it raises consciousness among people who have historically bought this music and thought it was OK, well, that's lost sales. Executives' bonuses are tied to sales and they don't want to destroy this market."