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Sign before you sing

On Steve Harvey's Talent Search, a financial 'commitment' is part of the deal.

June 11, 2003|Anita M. Busch | Special to The Times

Each week, scores of talented and not-so-talented singers, musicians and other performers flock to stages around Hollywood hoping to be discovered at open mike and talent showcases. By day, they are students, barbers, computer programmers, receptionists, teachers, or bus drivers.

Some have been hopping around these circuits for years, while others are taking their first shot before a live audience. Few among them have star potential, many are naive about the entertainment industry and all hunger for the limelight.

But lately, the spotlight has been falling instead on one of the most high-profile talent showcases around, Steve Harvey's Talent Search, co-sponsored by The Beat 100.3 and Harvey's production/management company, NuOpp Inc.

Unlike other showcases and open mikes around town, Harvey's Talent Search, held at the El Rey Theater on Wilshire Boulevard, requires performers before they take the stage to sign a contract agreeing to give NuOpp 10% of their future earnings and 10% of any agreements already in existence.

Some would-be artists have voiced concerns about the contract, and its use is derided by some talent representatives and people who put on other showcases and open mikes. But Harvey's manager, Rushion McDonald, said it is justified "because we're giving them a vehicle that's better than any other vehicle that they have in this city. And we're just asking for a commitment."

The contract, signed by an estimated 400 to 500 people since the Talent Search started in mid-January, initially was open-ended and did not specify that it covered only deals coming out of a single performance at the El Rey. However, it has been revised twice and now includes a one-year term. The language also was changed to state that only future deals growing out of "the audition at the El Rey" would warrant the 10%.

Harvey's showcase, held each Wednesday night, is one of the few local open mike-style venues for R&B talent. It stands out in other ways as well. The wannabes perform in front of a live audience, numbering up to 400. The crowd, full of regulars, often pounces on unsuspecting singers with a vengeance, enthusiastically booing them off the stage, sometimes after hearing only a few notes. As performers watch their dreams shatter, Harvey, the emcee, takes the stage and sometimes pokes fun at them before launching into his own material. Performers pay $10 for the privilege -- and another $5 if they want to stay for the show after they get booed off.

It's not for the thin-skinned or the untalented.

But there is an upside. The audience is peppered with agents and record label executives and, for a period earlier this year, talent scouts for "Star Search." A $500 cash prize also is awarded to the act the audience likes best.

"It takes a lot of skill to compete there because people come to boo," said independent manager Earl Franklin, who represents three artists. "People end up there because it lets you know whether you are ready to perform and record. That's my favorite one because it's so tough. If you can make it there, you have a shot."

McDonald, who started the Talent Search with the comedian/radio personality, said executives from MCA, Arista, MGM, In Demand, HBO and Showtime, and agents from firms such as Endeavor, attend the showcase to scout for talent.

"If they get anything out of this," he said, "it allows us the opportunity to negotiate the deal. 'Cause these people are coming in raw, and we don't want them to get ripped off. We have lawyers, we have agencies, we have people we could forward them to. If they don't want to do it, they don't have to go on stage. You could go to any other venue you want to."

While executives in the audience are a plus for performers, for the state Labor Commission, they raise questions about whether NuOpp is acting as an unlicensed agent.

"If the talent comes on stage and performs and the talent gets employment from someone in the audience, then this group [NuOpp] is acting as an agent. And they are not licensed agents, so they can't do that," said Susan Gard, a spokeswoman for the Labor Commission. While both talent agents and managers represent performers, under state law only licensed talent agents may procure employment.

"I know the rules very clearly," responds McDonald. "We never said we were an agent. If the talent brings something to me, then they are coming to me. Endeavor is our agency, and if we wanted someone and if they [the agency] want to represent them, then they will represent them. They are the agent."

Hope Shorter, a 25-year-old singer, is one of about a dozen performers interviewed this spring who said the contract was presented to them, unexpectedly, when they showed up to perform. Shorter said she was standing in line when she was handed the contract by a woman working for NuOpp.

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