The Elephant In The Room

The following open letter comes from Ronald E. Sweeney, the California-based co-founder of legal firm Sweeney, Johnson & Sweeney and the newly formed company, Ron Sweeney & Company. A veteran of the US music business, Sweeney (pictured) has previously represented the ‘Black Godfather’, Clarence Avant, as well as Eazy E and Ruthless Records, Lil Wayne and Young Money Records, Irv Gotti and Murder Inc. plus Sean “Puffy” Combs and Bad Boy Records, in addition to James Brown, Public Enemy,  DMX, JaRule, and many more.

I’m happy that Universal, Warner, and Sony Music want to donate money to support the Black Lives Matter movement. But what the movement needs is meaningful change, not window dressing. Address the elephant in the room. Why is it that Black music generates millions and millions of dollars a year and yet none of the companies have a meaningful number of employees of color, let alone in the executive suite?

The few employees there work only Black music. Minority employees are virtually non-existent in many other areas of the company. With few exceptions, minorities lack authority to make decisions and have to say “mother may I” to get something done. Yes, you have a few exceptions.

Every year Black music generates hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars a year. Black Music has been responsible for and the driving force of increasing the value of these companies in the financial markets.

“Why is it that Black music generates millions and millions of dollars a year and yet none of the companies have a meaningful number of employees of color, let alone in the executive suite?”

The record business has been making money off of Black people since they first called our music “Race Records”. I can recall as an executive at Sony Music, the frustration of artists like the late great Luther Vandross because pop radio stations at the time would not play our music. Black people were not even allowed to service pop stations.

I can recall when MTV and others at the record companies were up in arms when the late great Michael Jackson used the word “kike” in one of his songs. All hell broke loose and that word was immediately removed from everything. MTV took his videos off the air and he was treated as if he was the racist.

The decision makers at the record companies control our name, likenesses and images because they controlled the distribution channels back then. Why were they not as concerned about the N word? Possibly if senior Black executives had been there, and in the room and gave their opinion, this could have changed the course of history. Most Black people hate to hear that word, it brings up too many bad memories.

I have practiced law in the music business for over 40 years. I have dealt with each of these record companies at the highest levels. When I enter the room, I can still sometimes feel the tension in the air. Honestly, sometimes it makes me feel like I’m being dealt with only because they have to. Over the years I’ve negotiated millions and millions of dollars of deals and done incredible business with all the companies and I still feel like some executives are still talking “at me” instead of “to me”. I’m certain this would not be the case if more senior Black executives worked at these companies who could help them understand Black culture and better understand proud Black men.

“Over the years I’ve negotiated millions and millions of dollars of deals and done incredible business with all the companies and I still feel like some executives are still talking ‘at me’ instead of ‘to me’.”

Someone recently said: “It is impossible to be unarmed when my blackness is the weapon you fear.” The majority of the top executives at these companies have been there for a long, long time. Nepotism is the norm. White privilege. I grew up in South Central Los Angeles. I lived through the Watts riots, the 1968 riots and the Rodney King riots. Each time, promises were made and after a period of time, it was business as usual. In the words of Miles Davis, “ain’t nothing changed.”

If the music companies are serious about making changes, address the elephant in the room:

  1. Sony, Warner, and Universal create new companies to be headed by minorities, give them their own budgets and let them run the companies like you currently do with other executives. Empower them. Trust them. People need jobs, not just donations.
  2. Create an executive training program where you actually teach a number of minorities each year the worldwide record business. Make it a three-year program and rotate them through the various departments so one day they will have the experience and expertise to run a major record company.
  3. Hire minorities and give them the opportunity to do their jobs, i.e., give them budget and authority to make decisions as opposed to having to wait on someone to decide who often does not even understand the music or the culture.
  4. Go into the Black colleges and adequately fund and sponsor music industry business programs and create a talent pool in which to draw upon. Len Blavatnik, you are arguably the smartest and most generous philanthropist in the record business and you own the Warner Music Group. Vicente Bolloré, you are a major philanthropist as well and control the Universal Music Group. Universal has recently been valued at over $30 billion dollars in part because of the success of Black music and, of course, your deal making abilities. Gentlemen, please give serious thought as you are giving away money, to contributing in a meaningful way, to help to financially stabilize all of the historically Black colleges and universities, large and small. Most of these schools are fighting for survival. Their alumni account for roughly 80% of the Black judges and 50 percent of Black lawyers and doctors. Their students account for 25 percent of the Black undergraduates who earn degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Growing up, my mother always told me that “the one thing they can’t take away from you is knowledge”. Education is the key to equality.
  5. Empower those creators in the streets that you have production and/or label deals with and teach them the real music business and help them grow their businesses. They are your future executives. Almost every company including Def Jam, Republic, Island, Interscope were all once small independent labels.
  6. Pay your minority employees equal pay.
  7. Make it a point to use minority vendors for the ancillary services needed by the companies.
  8. With respect to Black artists signed to you prior to 2000, that are no longer signed to your companies, zero out their unrecouped royalty balances and let their royalties flow to them so they can support themselves.
  9. Make it the record company’s policy to notify creators who have monies that belong to them but have not been released for technical reasons. If they don’t know that the monies are there, they don’t know to ask for their royalties.
  10. Go back and address all of the Black marketing and promotion people that you fired as opposed to moving them to other parts of the company when in your mind, you no longer needed a Black promotion department. It is shameful how they were treated. You essentially just discarded them.
  11. Stop being hypocritical. You’re old and in the business. Stop discriminating against hiring older minorities.
  12. Create an independent body to hold the record companies accountable with respect to monitoring these and other changes. This body could also help direct the monies that you have already pledged.

What I outlined is what meaningful and real change looks like. So, let’s see what you do.

If you have already made some of these changes, I applaud you. We are all watching and hoping.

Ron Sweeney,
Someone who loves and cares about the music business.Music Business Worldwide

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