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Gospel Artists Forced to Ponder Root of All Evil

A lawyer's suit against a Sony BMG record label stirs up questions about money and mission.

May 02, 2005|Charles Duhigg | Times Staff Writer

Walker represented 15 clients on the WOW albums between 1999 and 2003 and negotiated top-dollar royalty payments for each of them, he said. The lawyer has negotiated on behalf of more than 200 artists appearing on 30 gold and platinum albums, he said. Industry leaders agree that Walker is one of a handful of attorneys representing gospel's most successful artists.

In his lawsuit, Walker alleges that Verity President Max Siegel and other executives two years ago demanded a cut in royalty payments to the lawyer's clients. After he refused, Walker said, Verity's executives began telling artists they'd be barred from WOW albums unless they changed representation.

"This is the top project in gospel music, so the artists deserve top compensation," Walker said. "There's no labor in these albums -- you just grab the masters, put them on a CD and it's in the stores the next week. So for Verity to ask artists to take a cut of $25,000 is just greedy."

Walker said that after he was dropped by three of his clients, he decided to sue Verity and the label's president, distributor and parent company. "They're scared of anyone who stands up to them, so they want to make it impossible for me to work," he said. "I have to fight back for both me and my artists."

To press his agenda, Walker in April helped found the Gospel Artists Progressive Movement, a group whose stated goal is to educate musicians about copyright law and artists' rights. But even that group, illustrating the conflicts in the gospel music ranks, has asked the lawyer to withdraw while his case is pending, questioning the spiritual valor of his methods.

"The Bible speaks of Christians not suing one another," said Rev. Robert Lowe of Mount Moriah AME Church in New York and chairman of the Gospel Artists Progressive Movement. "This is Jesus' music and it is governed by the rules of God. Our artists have not gotten our fair share, but the Bible prefers things are decided at a table rather than in the courtroom."

The religious criticism is particularly risky for Walker. Unlike hip-hop, whose artists successfully negotiated with record executives by founding their own independent labels, the gospel industry has traditionally valued harmony. A Dallas choir came under criticism in 1997 when the group signed with Interscope Records, then distributor of Death Row's Snoop Doggy Dogg. When Kirk Franklin, one of gospel's few platinum-selling artists, launched his own label, he did so under the aegis of Verity's parent, Sony BMG.

Some artists say they are uncomfortable with their battles' becoming public.

"I don't like talking in the open about money," said Twinkie Clark of the bestselling Clark Sisters. Clark, who appears on WOW Gospel 2005, was represented by Walker on projects that did not involve Verity. "I want to concentrate on talking about the Word."

Walker's critics say change is already happening within the industry. As evidence, they point to business conferences administered for the last 12 years by Rev. Bobby Jones, a musician and Black Entertainment Television personality.

"Bobby Jones is teaching singers how to fight for their rights and to lobby," said Richard Manson, a Nashville attorney who represents Jones and other gospel artists. "The WOW albums are exploitation in its purest form, but the answers lie in better laws instead of litigation."

Legislators, however, say there's only so much they can achieve.

"There's no law that will give artists the backbone to weather a fight with the record companies," said California State Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City), an artists' rights advocate and former entertainment lawyer. "Gospel is where rap was 10 years ago. The artists are unsophisticated and there aren't a lot of high-powered attorneys, so the labels can push tough negotiators out. The problem is, some lawyers may be tough but not very competent. It's hard for clients to tell which one they've got."

In the meantime, Walker is preparing for the religious ire of his peers and gambling that his lawsuit will win him power within the industry.

"The Book of Matthew tells us it is OK to sue," Walker said. "What I want is an apology. I want public admission that I was fighting for my clients and Verity was scared so they wanted me out of the room. When I get that, you'll see everyone line up behind me. Then you'll see some real change."

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