"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
Rapping Up the Economic Ladder
'Rapping Up' the Business Angle on Urban Music
By Ken Gewertz

Gazette Staff

As a teenager in Austin, Texas, William Griffin listened to rap groups like NWA and Run DMC and even had his own rap show on a local radio station.

His love of rap and R&B continued through his years as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College. But by the time he began his first year of study at Harvard Law School in September 1995, another aspect of the music had begun to interest him -- the business side.

"I began to realize that there was a great deal of turmoil in the music industry, and that a lot of black-owned music companies in particular had ideas that they couldn't get financial backing for," he said.

Griffin, who has worked as a financial analyst with Goldman, Sachs & Co., saw a way in which he might be able to use his knowledge and expertise to help urban music companies command a larger share of the burgeoning worldwide entertainment industry.

His first step was to recruit five other students with similar backgrounds and interests. All of them are African-American, all have had experience working as analysts and consultants with large financial institutions, and all of them grew up listening to rap and R&B (or "urban music," to use the current industry designation). Together they founded the Harvard Consultation Project, and as their initial undertaking they have compiled the Harvard Report on Urban Music, released May 16.

The other members of the Harvard Consultation Project are: Ann Marshall, a J.D. candidate at the Law School; Kandance Weems, joint law and business degree candidate; Pauline Fischer, joint law and business degree candidate; Mark Streams, J.D. candidate; and Jonathan Waldrop, a bachelor of science/master's candidate at Harvard College.

The Project was sponsored by Music Forecasting Inc., a Maryland firm providing market research and analysis to the recording industry; and McFarlane, Mitchell and Associates, an advertising and publishing firm in New York City.

Grabbing time from their busy student schedules, the team spent the 1995-96 year doing research. During spring break, they spread out over the country, interviewing 14 music industry executives. The report is a compilation of what they have learned.

"We went in with the attitude that we have some training and some principles that can apply to this field. What we needed was to collect information that would allow us to understand what applies and what doesn't," Griffin said.

The team's research showed that while the urban music industry seemed to be doing extremely well in terms of sales, it was suffering from a great deal of internal instability.

Typical was the story of the rap group TLC, whose best-selling album, "Crazysexycool," made it the number one female group of the year, and yet, even as the recording topped the charts, TLC was forced to declare bankruptcy as the result of a contract that kept its royalties unusually low.

One of the report's findings was that while urban music is extremely popular with young audiences, the industry suffers from a lack of long-term development for artists and an extremely unstable climate for black executives. "The result of such a climate," said the report, "is a weakening of the urban music infrastructure which could handicap its ability to take advantage of the huge future growth in the global entertainment industry."

Among the report's recommendations are:

* Urban music companies should invest in the long-term development of artists rather than putting all their effort into the short-term goals of pursuing big hits or discovering the "next" Whitney Houston or Michael Jackson.

* Without kowtowing to public figures whose criticism of rap lyrics is often motivated by political opportunism, urban music firms should develop a greater sense of civic responsibility and cultivate constructive ties with the community.

* Black executives in major music companies should resist being categorized exclusively as experts on black talent and aspire to "cross over" and rise on the corporate ladder.

* The urban music industry should create its own trade association similar to the Country Music Association to monitor key legislative issues, explore new markets, mediate disputes, and develop strategic relationships with other organizations.

While it is too early to say what the report's effects will be, Griffin has already received some positive responses from top urban music executives, among them Clarence Avant, chairman of the board of Motown Records and generally regarded as the most powerful black executive in popular music.

"He called to say he was very excited about the report," Griffin said. "We've made plans to meet with him in Los Angeles to discuss the possibility of moving on some of our recommendations."

Griffin said that the Harvard Consultation Project will prepare a report on a different industry each year, focusing on how African Americans can best make progress within that field.
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