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Record Industry Trying To Alter Image

June 26, 1987|STEVE POND

Record company executives and civil rights groups agree that minorities are under-represented in the $4.5 billion a year music business. This is the first in an occasional series by Steve Pond, former West Coast music editor of Rolling Stone magazine, analyzing the problems and outlining attempted remedies.

When 36 minority teen-agers showed up at A&M Records' headquarters on La Brea Avenue just south of Sunset Boulevard last weekend to prepare for summer jobs in the music industry, they heard speeches and discussions peppered with words like opportunity, future and career.

Throughout the day of practical advice, jokes, pep talks and down-to-earth counseling, the youngsters never heard the words prejudice, discrimination or racism.

But while those phrases went unspoken, A&M's 11-week experiment--the record industry's first major minority-hiring program--is bound to be watched closely in an industry that has been under increasing attack in recent months from critics who are charging discrimination in hiring and promotion.

Last March, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) accused the record industry--where black artists are responsible for more than a quarter of the records sold--of being "virtually the sole preserve of white males."

A&M President Gil Friesen said that the company's summer project, titled YES (Youth Employment Summer) to Jobs, had been in the works for months before the NAACP issued its charges at a Los Angeles press conference.

When he welcomed the youngsters to the A&M lot Saturday morning, Friesen and his colleagues kept things light and friendly, causing controlled chaos when he asked the three dozen teen-agers to introduce themselves to one another and laughing when he learned that they were familiar with A&M records mostly because of Janet Jackson's recent hits.

"You know about the record business because of the records you buy and the music you hear on the radio," Friesen said. "That's one kind of talent in this business, and there's no shortage of people who sing and perform. But there's a shortage of another kind of talent, and that's people to work in the record industry. . . . And that's why you're here."

Months before the students at A&M were given their first inside look at the record industry, several organizations, including the NAACP, the Black Music Assn. and the National Assn. of Black-Owned Broadcasters, were taking a close look at that industry--and they didn't like what they saw.

The most comprehensive and critical report was the one released by the NAACP. Entitled "The Discordant Sound of Music," it was based on an 18-month study and concluded that "by any objective measurement," blacks are not receiving "a fair share of the economic opportunities generated by the industry."

Said NAACP executive director Benjamin L. Hooks, "Equal opportunity is a myth and affirmative action is unknown. The record industry operates as a world unto itself, a closed society that sets its own rules and maintains a longstanding tradition of feasting on the talents of black artists and tossing crumbs from the table to other blacks."

The report contained more specific complaints: that more money is available to promote white recording artists, that even some major black artists fail to use their clout to provide opportunities for other black professionals and, crucially, that having separate departments for black music and white music means that black executives are almost invariably confined to the black music divisions.

When that study was released, virtually none of the major record labels disputed it strongly. A&M's Friesen said in an interview shortly after the press conference that he was dismayed when he looked around the room at January's National Assn. of Record Merchandisers gathering to find that almost everyone present was white and male.

Capitol and EMI Records Vice Chairman Joe Smith went further last month when he gave the keynote speech at convention sponsored by Black Radio Exclusive, a trade magazine, in Universal City.

"A black man and a black woman do not have the same shot at success as everybody else in the record industry," he said, adding that he was concerned about the fact well before the NAACP charges. In addition, the record industry veteran said that when it comes to executive positions within the industry, "equal opportunity is a phrase and not a fact of life," and that the blacks who do become executives in white companies often face "hostility and neglect."

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