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Race-Card Experts Play the Wrong Hand


Dear Rev. Al and Johnnie C.,

Don't play the race card. You guys are on the verge of something big with this music- industry reform thing. You have the chance to become major players on this issue, especially if you continue the partnership with the Recording Artists Coalition and the growing number of musician-friendly legislators looking to overturn the ailing industry.

But you'll mess it up if you claim racism is the industry's main problem. We all know the industry's main problem is greed--where the only color that matters is green.

Sure, you can trot out great performers like James Brown and Little Richard who, despite having huge hits, struggle financially due to their record contracts. However, even more white artists suffer for the same reason.

When you first announced your plans for the "Music Industry Initiative," race wasn't in the equation. At the news conference announcing the summit, which began Tuesday, Rev. Al, you said, "It is our intention to break up the kinds of indentured servant type of arrangement that many in the record industry now have. We hope that this initiative would make it possible where one day the artist on the CD is as big as the companies that put out the CD."

That's the kind of talk that puts extra quake in a music industry already shaking from falling profits, rising piracy, threatening technological advances and an increasingly competitive marketplace.

The only way the industry will change is if it has no other choice. Limiting options is already leading to possibly ending the payola-like system of payments to radio stations and possibly overturning the exemption that allows the industry to hold musicians in long-term contracts.

Though the Recording Artists Coalition has lots of old-guard industry clout, it lacks the red-hot membership you have. Will the record industry freak out over Don Henley starting his own label? Probably not. Will it worry about competing against a label fronted by Jay-Z and the Roc-a-Fella family? You bet.

Race has nothing to do with that either. Like Will Smith says in "Men in Black II," it has to do with "old and busted" and "the new hotness."

Same goes for Michael Jackson. "If you fight for me, you're fighting for all black people, dead and alive," Jackson told you Saturday.

How'd you keep a straight face? We know his $30-million-to-make, $25-million-to-promote album "Invincible" didn't fail because a racist-driven Sony didn't support it. It failed because it wasn't very good.

Jackson's idea of pressuring Sony Music CEO Tommy Mottola with this "I heard him use the N-word" tactic is equally half-baked--not only is Mottola known for fostering good relations with black artists, but, more important, the super-shrewd leader would never be that stupid. Such posturing smacks of desperation, the kind that comes from drowning in debt and looking for a way to save your career.

He's sad, sure, but you have bigger worries.

Forget about race till it's actually required.


Glenn Gamboa writes about pop music for Newsday, a Tribune company.

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