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Music-industry Tryout For Minorities

Second in an occasional series analyzing the under-representation of minorities in the $4.5-billion music business.

July 29, 1987|STEVE POND

When he finished his junior year in high school in June, Derrick Wade was planning to become a gospel singer.

A month later, that's still his plan--but in the past four weeks, the 16-year-old also has been thinking about an alternative, just in case the singing doesn't work out. He's interested in becoming a record promoter.

Wade made that decision because of his summer job, he said. He's one of the 50 minority youngsters who were given record-industry jobs as part of A&M Records' 11-week YES (Youth Employment Summer) to Jobs program. Besides earning $5 an hour for his work in A&M's promotion department, he learned that there's more to the music business than music.

"My plans have drastically changed," said the soft-spoken Wade recently in an interview on A&M's Hollywood lot. "I was headed for a conservatory of music. Now I'm going to go to a liberal arts college. I'll still major in music, but with a minor in communications or something of that nature, (to learn) things I need to get into the promotion field."

Because of the A&M program, Wade is getting a view of the record industry available to few minority youngsters. Black artists may be responsible for many of today's hits and much of the industry's financial success, but they're under-represented in the record companies themselves--and conversations with black executives and industry observers suggest that it will take a concerted, long-term effort on the part of white and, especially, black executives to give minorities a fair share.

YES to Jobs is neither long-term nor wide-ranging, but it will help a few 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds. In his first month at A&M, Wade--a senior next year at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts--has done everything from answering phones and ordering records to entering chart information into company computers. He's also learned a lot about A&M itself--a company, he admits sheepishly, that he really wasn't aware of until he saw a school bulletin about YES to Jobs.

"I don't pay attention to labels," he said, laughing nervously at the reporter's tape recorder. "I'm sure my father's got several records from A&M, and everyone in my family had heard of (A&M co-founder) Herb Alpert . . . except for me."

For Derrick Wade, the nuts and bolts of the music industry were a mystery before he was chosen for the YES to Jobs program. But that's hardly unusual: The record business can seem inaccessible and remote to anyone on the outside.

Black-interest groups insist it is vital that record companies attract and recruit blacks if they're to deal with what they see as an industry-wide problem of under-representation in the executive ranks. The Black Music Assn. and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People have charged that influence and control in the industry is largely the province of white males, even though black artists account for up to a third of record sales and black consumers are responsible for some 11.4% of all purchases. But according to outside observers, and to some of the ranking black executives in the business, the industry is still largely inaccessible to job-hunting minorities.

"I don't think that the younger blacks who are just looking into the job market are knowledgeable of the fact that it's a vast industry with numerous opportunities," says L. R. Byrd, a consultant who helped draft the NAACP's highly critical March report on the music industry--and who enlivened the controversy when he appeared at a New Music Seminar panel recently in New York, criticized several record labels by name and hinted that boycotts were possible.

"Most young blacks think their interaction with the music industry is limited to singing and dancing, or being a deejay," he said by phone from his home base in Greenville, S.C. "The YES to Jobs program is a token, but it is a step in the right direction, because we need programs like this that will underwrite jobs at record companies and radio stations--and I would suggest distribution companies and PR firms as well--and will sensitize young people to the numerous opportunities in the industry, from accounting and contracting to roadies (who assist touring artists with equipment)."

For the most part, he said, young blacks are simply not made aware of those possibilities. "It's a problem of what I call imaging . The music industry has created an image and it says, 'This is not your territory, so don't come here.' "

Step Johnson, vice president and general manager of Capitol Records' black music division, agrees that perception kept him from seriously considering the record business when he was working for his marketing degree at Loyola University in New Orleans.

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