A Contrarian Dialogue
Music Ethics Be Damned
A Most Egregious Pronouncement
|May 1, 1993
In Mr. Levin's editorial (Why We Won't Withdraw 'Cop Killer' June 24) defending Time Warner's choice to keep Ice-T's album on the shelves, it is sad that the co-CEO hasn't the courage to explain that the decision, no matter how tasteless or repugnant, is really the result of his obligation to his shareholders, and the maintenance of his own power base. The ideals of free speech, and encouraging the confrontation of ideas which he expresses are wonderful ideals, but they are the veil under which the music industry, with true capitalist fervor, vigorously seeks a profit. Right now, the uproar has created the kind of publicity that money can't buy, and now is the time to reap the rewards. At the end of the year, the publicity will be over, and Ice-T may well be history, but the record companies must prepare their annual reports.
All musicians who want to sell albums hope to find themselves the sudden subject of media attention for one reason or another. I've been there myself. I have little doubt that writing a song calling on white folk to kill black folk would spark some controversy. But no record company with competent leadership would produce and distribute it. Such a decision wouldn't be denying me my first amendment rights. It simply wouldn't be a prudent business decision in the present social climate. Good record companies are masters at pushing shock value just short of the point where it becomes roundly rejected. Good record companies are those which can successfully pick and nurture artists that sell albums by selling an "image." In the wake of the Rodney King verdict, the angry black-man-as-victim image is selling to a population that feels hopeless and ostracized from the system.
The saddest part is that such negativity is selling and that Time Warner embraces it to make a profit. Politically, I agree that it would be impossible to bow under the pressure and pull the album now. That would set a nasty precedent of weakness in the face of such outcry. Perhaps they regret not having done so before it became an issue. But for the company to censor the album during the production process is not to deny an artist their first amendment rights. Decisions made at this time are those that tend to reflect the company's positions on morality and social responsibility. The company may (and often does) shelve any project, at any time, for any reason.
Will Time Warner really "create a forum in which [they] can bring together the different sides in this controversy"? Will they "invest in fostering [an] open discussion of the violent tensions?" I would propose that Time Warner could exceed the level of publicity Ice-T has generated if they were to truly become involved in searching for solutions to ease the urban problems they have across the street. They could start by having artists such as Ice-T travel to countries where people are truly poor and truly struggling, and returning to tell the teenagers who idolize them that America is great, and that as much as they find it hard to believe, they have a much greater chance to make it here than anywhere else. But also that it takes hard work, persistence, dedication, and the acceptance of responsibility for oneself. Yes, Mr. Levin and Time Warner could make a real and lasting difference.