Black Executives Quietly Rising in Music Industry : Pop music: African-Americans have made top-level gains in the record business, but critics claim that racism still exists.


More than four years after the NAACP raised allegations of widespread racial discrimination in the music industry, black music executives have quietly risen to top leadership positions at several of the nation’s major record companies.

This fall, two African-Americans have joined Jheryl Busby, the longtime president of Motown Records, as head of a major record label. Last month, Ed Eckstine became president of PolyGram N.V.'s Mercury Records. Sylvia Rhone was made chairman and chief executive of Time Warner Inc.'s ATCO/EastWest Records in October.

Eckstine and Rhone are the first African-Americans to head a major record label other than Motown, which was founded by blacks but is now owned by MCA Inc. and Boston Ventures.

Meanwhile, Ruben Rodriguez, a 38-year-old black senior vice president of urban music at Elektra, became president of the small, start-up label Pendulum Records earlier this year.

“There’s an enormous amount of significance in our appointments, and I take a lot of pride in that,” said Eckstine, who became the sole president of Mercury after co-president Mike Bone resigned Nov. 1. “But there is still an old-boy network at play in the record industry. The record industry is only a microcosm of the world as a whole and just as there is racism in America, there is still racism in the record industry.”


Eckstine and his colleagues lead a growing list of would-be black music moguls who are trying to wield more power in a music industry that is dominated by six giant multinational companies but is increasingly driven by the sales success of black recording artists.

Several black entertainers, including Michael Jackson, Prince and even film director Spike Lee, now have their own record labels.

And a host of less visible power brokers, such as Rush Communications Chairman Russell Simmons--whose New York production and management firm is one of the largest black-owned businesses in the music industry--have risen to prominence as black urban music sales have spurted from 10.1% of all purchases in 1986 to 18.3% of the record industry’s $7.5 billion in U.S. sales last year.

“In 1987, all I would have gotten from a record company would have been a production deal with two or three acts. But today I have my own label where I call the shots and I don’t have to get any approval,” said Teddy Riley, a 25-year-old musician and producer. Riley’s signature “New Jack Swing” rhythms for artists such as Bobby Brown and Michael Jackson have made him such a hot commodity that MCA Records has given him more than $10 million to run his own record label.

But Eckstine, the son of swing-era band leader Billy Eckstine and a former top aide to record producer Quincy Jones, and Rhone, a veteran Atlantic Records executive who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school, are among the most powerful and highly regarded of the new crop of black music executives working for one of the six big entertainment concerns: Sony Corp., Time Warner Inc., EMI, PolyGram N.V., Bertelsmann and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.

Eckstine, 38, oversees a staff of 158 people at Mercury Records, whose artists include John Mellencamp, Vanessa Williams and Bon Jovi. Rhone, 38, manages 76 people at ATCO/EastWest Records, whose artists include Simply Red, En Vogue and AC/DC.

“Will we be under a microscope?” Rhone asked rhetorically. “Sure. That’s life being black. But, hopefully, these appointments will open doors for other blacks that have been closed to them before.”

Yet Rhone and other African-American record executives face a huge challenge in moving to expand their power base beyond their black music roots to other music genres because of economic and racial obstacles, experts say.

The record business has been hit hard by the recession, and cutbacks threaten to constrain the kind of spending that enabled record companies to scour the globe in the 1980s in search of new talent. One of Rhone’s first duties upon assuming her current job, for example, was to oversee the elimination of 25 jobs at her record label.

What’s more, racial friction endures in an industry where many record companies remain ghettoized into black music divisions largely staffed and run by African-Americans and pop and classical music units mostly staffed and run by whites. Experts point to the recent bitter defection of Motown Records from MCA’s Music Entertainment Group as symbolic of the tensions.

In ending its distribution deal with MCA to sign with PolyGram this summer, Motown reportedly accused MCA of treating it like a “Third World country.” MCA and Motown, which have traded lawsuits over the dispute, would not comment.

But Village Voice columnist Nelson George, author of the book “The Death of Rhythm & Blues,” said such frictions could grow more frequent as blacks rise to positions of power in the industry.

Black executives of major record labels “are going to have to confront the fact that they will be dealing with white artists and executives who aren’t used to having black people being in a position to have a say-so over their careers,” said George.

Some others, however, discount the possibility of such conflict.

“Artists’ and presidents’ relationships are based on music and sound” not race, said Harry Sandler, who manages John Mellencamp. Sandler said Mellencamp is very close to Mercury label president Eckstine. “Ed’s got great ears,” said Sandler. “He’s got a very musical background and he talks to artists in the way they understand. He knows what an F-sharp is.”

“The industry has certainly come a long way in realizing that blacks are capable and qualified in running” record labels, added Ernie Singleton, president of the black music division of MCA Records. “I think what we are seeing today is the beginning of a revolution in which black executives will be rising to a much higher level.”

Even one of the music business’s toughest critics believes the industry has taken a big leap forward by promoting more black executives to top positions.

“Three black presidents--that’s significant,” said Fred Rasheed, the national director of economic development for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, which a year ago threatened to boycott CBS Records after years of fruitless talks persuaded the civil rights group that the record industry was dragging its feet and not providing sufficient opportunities for blacks.

“The record industry today is surely better than the television and film industry and most other companies” in hiring and promoting blacks, said Rasheed.