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Heather McDonald

Morality Clauses in Label Contracts?

By August 25, 2009

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Now, it should come as no surprise to any of us to hear that every so often a musician gets himself/herself in trouble with the law. It happens, and usually the legal system handles it. We may complain sometimes that the legal system is a little lax with celebrities, but we certainly don't expect anyone outside of the legal system to manage artist behavior.

According to attorney Lauren Raysor, maybe we should. Raysor, who represented the victim in the Remy Ma shooting case two years ago, made a plea yesterday for record labels to add a morality clause to their contracts. Raysor's main concern seems to hip hop contracts, and she justified her claims by presenting a timeline of violence in the hip hop industry.

Leaving aside the ludacris notion that criminal behavior is genre specific, I think Raysor is way off base. Criminal behavior is criminal behavior. We have systems in place for dealing with criminal behavior, and labels already have ways of distancing themselves from artists who become a PR nightmare. There's no practical reason to add a morality clause to a music contract.  Raysor must be pretty unfamiliar with the music industry if she thinks labels should be meddling even more in artists' lives than they already do.

Further, the wording of the clause suggested by Raysor is hopelessly vague and open to a million different interpretations. Check it out (quote taken from XXL):

The artist agrees to conduct himself or herself with due regard to public conventions and morals, and agrees that he or she will not commit any act of contempt, scorn or ridicule that will tend to shock, insult or offend the community, or ridicule public morality or decency, or prejudice the company, producer, and others in the public or in the industry in general.

Who gets to decide what "public conventions and morals" are? Who decides what is shocking? How about what is insulting or offensive? Me? You? Lauren Raysor? Some label boss looking for an excuse to dump an artist from a contract? Puh-leeze. Raysor is a lawyer. Surely she wouldn't advise a client to sign a contract that has wording so vague and open to interpretention...would she?

What do you think? Should labels be involved in creating a code of conduct for musicians?

August 25, 2009 at 6:01 pm
(1) Lauren P. Raysor, Esq. says:

It is clear that your children are not dying.

There is already enough violence in the neighborhoods of color. We certainly do not want more violence.

I understand that corporate America deems this violence acceptable.

But can you imagine if we were talking about the children of these records company executives or their stockholders who were being shot and killed.

They don’t care because it is not their children.

History has taught us that exploitation did not end with slavery. It just comes in another form.

It is sad that you just don’t get the conspiracy.

While you pontificate your point, there is a young artist in jail and a young woman scarred for life.

You can sit by and do nothing. I can’t.

Attorney Lauren P. Raysor, Esq.

August 25, 2009 at 9:41 pm
(2) musicians says:

How sad indeed, Ms. Raysor. How sad that rather than discussing the valid questions I posed about your incredibly vague language you instead decided to make wild assumptions about me and what I “get” and “don’t get”. How sad that a tragic event between two women (not children) is being used as a publicity platform. How sad that instead of campaigning for fair deals and compensation for musicians you want to give corporate America one more excuse to exploit their rights and break their contracts at will. You know good and well that the language in your clause creates open season on musicians and can be applied arbitrarily at the label’s will. If you’re interested enough in the music industry to get involved in changing the terms of artists contracts, then I would assume that you know that the real problem is the way that corporate America is profiting off of these artists without compensating them fairly. Hip hop artists are affected by this more that most, though it is a cross genre problem. Where’s your concern?

If you ever want to have a real discussion about the nuts and bolts of your clause – one that addresses who gets to define the language in your clause, the negative impacts of such a clause on musicians, the realities of the record buying demographics of the genre in question, why contracts should include a new clause when labels already have the means to break ties with artists who behave in a way they dislike and how you can demonstrate the link between the behavior of, say, Remy Ma, and violence between children – let me know. Those are questions I’d love to hear the answers to, and come on – they’re valid questions. Pretty easy to dismiss me rather than answer them.

I can’t win the argument about the assumptions you’ve made about me and what I get and don’t get, so I won’t even try. What I will say to you is that part of my work on this site to advocate for the rights of all musicians, and I cannot sit back and watch someone propose a plan that tramples on those rights and not say anything. As a person, I think that you’re taking a very real problem and presenting a red herring of a solution to it. As a musicians’ advocate, I think what you’re suggesting is damaging to them and would even help contribute to part of the problem you want to make better.

August 26, 2009 at 2:02 pm
(3) Krzysztof Wiszniewski says:

Is it just me, or did we have this converstion before?

Let’s see… 1985 (right about this time, too)… PMRC… Frank Zappa testifying at a Senate hearing… Yep, sounds about right.

I find myself at a loss trying to see how a “morality clause”, especially one worded thusly, is to prevent criminal behaviour – either among artists or their fans.

I’d say that a person is either prone to commit criminal acts or is not and the distinction is born out of their upbringing rather than music. Since there already are more severe penalties for criminal activity than could be levied by any record label, I don’t see such a clause preventing “kids [...] killing themselves”.

Where it can be effective, however, is in restricting other activities that are not criminal, but may otherwise be found objectionable. In fact, this is exactly what the wording of the clause suggests.

I tend to be suspicious, so I’d like to pose an open question (since I doubt that Ms. Raynor will find the time to read this and answer): what is the real agenda here?

It seems to me that the effectiveness of this clause in doing anything will depend on what conditions are needed to trigger it. Is it entirely label discretion? If so, we can laugh off any suggestion of beneficial effects to society, since the label will not invoke it unless their business is suffering. In other words, any indecent (or even criminal) behaviour is fine, so long as it drives record sales.

Ms. Raysor’s statements in XXL do not suggest this, however. It rather seems to me like a left-over idea from the PMRC days. If the clause is to be triggered by external complaints, then it would effectively open the door for any sufficiently noisy group to torpedo an artist who had exceeded the limits of “public conventions” as perceived by them.

Example: a gay artist who is open about his sexuality. There is a subset of the population, who consider this as contrary to morality and public decency (and find it offensive). By the wording of this clause, such an artist could not maintain his contract.

It’s a likely scenario. The artist in question isn’t harming anyone. However, the very fact that his lifestyle is objectionable to someone is enough reason to deny him a place in the music business. Not to mention that it is a prime example of sexual discrimination.

Is this your idea of cleaning up the music business, Ms. Raysor? If so, well done! If not, my suggestion is to think again.

P.S. I can understand that the idea may have been influenced by the emotional burden of the Remy Ma trial, but emotions aren’t good counsel when drafting legal propositions. Reason is our friend here.

August 26, 2009 at 3:47 pm
(4) Heather says:

All excellent points, Krzysztof. I would certainly like to know the real motives here as well. Publicity? There are certainly no concrete ideas expressed for either application of this clause or the usefulness of it. I really am just in awe at the reference to what history teaches us in Ms Raysor’s response…now, let’s see, what does history teach us about thought police and giving one group carte blanche to make judgements on morality and behavior of another group? Apparently her solution to corporate America deeming violence acceptable because it’s “not their children who are dying” is to give corporate America the right to make morality judgements that affect people’s livelihoods? She certainly has a lot of trust that they will apply her clause fairly!

The clause simply doesn’t make any sense, nor does the notion that having such a clause has any impact at all on the problem she is talking about. Yeah, the morality clause has gone a long way to keeping athletes out of legal trouble. As you say, I can’t even figure out whose behavior this clause is supposed to be adddressing. The labels, who she blames in her comment for the violence? The artists?

So, I second you open question…what IS the real agenda here?

August 26, 2009 at 5:39 pm
(5) Andi says:

From a PR point of view, I can totally understand where Raysor is coming from. Companies have reputations to uphold and that shouldn’t be jeopardized by the ridiculous decisions that celebrities may make.

For example, if Disney signs an artist (let’s just say her name is Tiff), she is transformed into a role model for preteens everywhere. If Tiff turns to underage drinking, Tiff is proving that Disney doesn’t have what it takes to choose role models and she is sending a message to all those kids that partying is okay. Celebrities should be held to a higher standard than the average citizen because they have a huge influence. And that’s a big responsibility. And as a company, you should be able to choose to cut ties with people sullying the image you’re cultivating.

An average person only influences the people around them. When an average young man hits his girlfriend, it only affects a small group of people. Still completely tragic, but small. When Chris Brown hits Rhianna, he is sending a message that it’s okay to hit your girlfriend. If his label had a morality clause, they could have dropped him from their label because he’s tainting their image. Firing him from the label would encourage other labels to not hire him either. Eventually, celebrities who are bad influences would cease to be famous.

Without the clause, they can hold press conferences all day long about how wrong hitting your girlfriend is, but when push comes to shove, they still have to produce his albums under contract. And that’s ridiculous.

I have wondered for years why labels didn’t have morality clauses. I’m glad that Raysor is starting that movement. I’m excited to see the difference in our celebrity culture once it’s universal.

August 26, 2009 at 6:28 pm
(6) Sarah Bland says:

Ms. Raysor, what you are saying here is racist.

I’m just going to call it like it is.

You are engaging in the oppression of people of color, even if you are a person of color, you are targeting the artistic expression and solitary platform whereby the messages of what IS happening in the community are being expressed.

You, Ms. Raysor are participating in the conspiracy of oppression by producing this clause.

Putting an undue burden upon these artists to hold themselves to a higher standard that you do not also hold musicians who are not of color, or who do not fall in the genera of music you are focusing on; this is straight up oppression.

It’s like putting a clause in your contract as a lawyer to act “lady like” and “not offend” anyone, and you have to let some man decide the definition of what “lady like” is.

Your heart may be in the right place, but you need to look towards the systemic problems of education, parenting and the systems in place that persecute people for crimes of poverty.


August 26, 2009 at 6:55 pm
(7) Kurt Lindal says:

What good is a morality clause? Our legal systems already have a plethora of laws at their disposal to handle criminal actions. If the law isn’t willing to do its job, then how can you expect an entertainment marketing corporation to step in and do the job? Lets focus on reality here a bit, it’s against the law: to incite violence and hatred, to batter your girlfriend, to promote racism as well as hundreds of other crimes that are happening around us all of the time. Who really sent the message that it’s Ok to hit your girlfriend, Chris Brown or the judge that pays lip-service to law and order. If criminal action is given a slap on the wrist, what makes you believe it will ever stop? If the law locked up Chris Brown for a while the record company would have no choice but to drop him; after all, it’s pretty hard to promote an album that can’t be recorded because the “artist” is in jail.
I have nothing personal against Chris Brown, I just borrowed him from Andi’s comment. We don’t need more laws to control our behavior or contractually instituted morality clauses to insure our “good” behavior. We do need our legal guardians, judges, courts, juries, etc to do their jobs! Stop treating celebrities, politicians, and other high profile persons with kid gloves. Their punishments should, like the rest of ours, reflect the crime they have been convicted of.
There are lots of performing artists that I personally can’t stand, I don’t like their messages sent in their music, the image they portray as performers, or their contempt for the law. But none of those things are justification for “me” having a rite to censure what they do outside my own home.

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