- The Washington Times - Monday, May 14, 2007

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. Music’s gatekeepers have been silent since.

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 hobbled by digital downloading — or that they choose to remain in the shadows rather than protect “indefensible” lyrics.

“They want this whole thing to go away and keep doing what they’ve been doing, which is selling records,” said Don Gorder, chairman of the Music Business/Management Department at the Berklee College of Music, adding that he thinks the big labels fear that if they don’t distribute such music, independents will.

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. 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,” Mr. 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 buses of protesters to music executives’ homes in the Hamptons over Memorial Day weekend.

“It’s indefensible,” Mr. Sharpton said of why the record executives keep silent. “They’re hoping it’ll go away. We’re not going anywhere.”

Mr. 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.

The four major recording companies 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, adding that it’s difficult for the industry to track sales in the emerging digital landscape.

The closest the industry has come to a public discussion is when Warner Music Group Vice President Kevin Lilies appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s TV 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 hard-core rap superstars such as 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg.

Warner’s 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. Mr. 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 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 Corporation 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 London-based EMI Group, also has declined to talk about the matter.

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 certain words, “including those that are the focus of the current public debate,” Warner said.

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