Andre Harrell, the record company head responsible for launching the careers of such smash R&B; acts as Guy, Jodeci and Heavy D. & the Boyz, is the latest music industry figure to join the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson in the $50-million-plus-deal pop club.
In a seven-year agreement expected to be announced today, MCA Inc. will commit more than $50 million in development funds and operating expenses for Harrell’s new company, Uptown Entertainment, to pursue music, film and television projects.
“A guy like Andre doesn’t appear on the scene but every once in a while,” said Al Teller, chairman of MCA Music Entertainment Group, which has distributed Harrell’s label, Uptown Records, since 1987. “Ultimately, this business is about instinctive creative judgment, and Andre’s instincts about artists and music and what audiences want are absolutely superb. His track record of success has positioned Uptown to become the black entertainment company of the 1990s.”
Harrell, who got his start working in rap impresario Russell Simmons’ New York management office, has been responsible for discovering R&B; acts that have sold more than 10 million albums in the last six years. He was also instrumental in developing the careers of such rap stars as LL Cool J and Run-DMC.
Speaking by phone from his New York office, Harrell, 31, hailed the new pact as a breakthrough for black entrepreneurs.
“The beauty of this deal is that I am no longer just limited to music,” Harrell said Wednesday. “Now I run a black entertainment company that can take an artist from ground zero to the stars--all with just the swipe of a pen. TV, movies, you name it--the possibilities are wide open.”
Harrell reportedly has three movies and two television shows--including a sitcom starring rappers Kris Kross and Heavy D.--currently in development.
Reaction in entertainment circles to the Harrell/MCA agreement was positive, with insiders characterizing the contract as a “healthy” entertainment deal.
“Andre is an extremely important and talented newcomer in the business who is well connected to the street,” said Giant Records owner Irving Azoff, whose Warner Bros.-financed label is one of the most successful independents in the business. “He’s got an impressive track record. But now that he’s moving forward to a more autonomous label, I’m sure he will enjoy even bigger success.”
Rick Ross, vice president of Delicious Vinyl, whose small record label signed a multimillion-dollar long-term distribution deal this week with Atlantic Records, saw the Uptown/MCA pact as evidence of a shift in corporate thinking.
“This deal is a perfect example of how the big record companies are showing an increasing interest in developing ventures with young creative entrepreneurs who have their finger on the creative pulse,” Ross said. “It shows that big companies are becoming more willing to provide young entrepreneurs with the funding needed to gain access to all the elements that compose the mainstream entertainment picture.”
Neither Harrell nor representatives for MCA Inc.--which is owned by the Japanese electronics giant Matsushita Electrical Industrial Co. Ltd.--would comment on any specific details of the deal.
But sources close to the negotiations said that MCA will give Harrell an approximate $7-million annual budget to cover overhead, recording and marketing costs associated with albums released on the Uptown label. MCA and Harrell will co-own rights to all Uptown master recordings and share 50% of the profits earned on each venture.
Although Harrell is not required to deliver any specific number of albums, he is expected to double his 10-artist label roster this year and release at least six new albums.
Several insiders interviewed Wednesday said they viewed the Uptown pact as a way for MCA to minimize the financial fallout from its split with Motown Records. Officials at Motown sued MCA for allegedly botching the promotion of its songs and signed a distribution pact with PolyGram Records in May, 1991. MCA countersued and both claims are still pending.
Under the film and television components of the MCA/Uptown agreement, sources speculated that Harrell--who last year produced Island World’s “Strictly Business” film--will be paid an additional $1 million per year to hire writers and executives to develop properties that he will produce. MCA has reportedly already committed an estimated $6 million to “Fade to Black,” an upcoming film starring Uptown R&B; singers Jodeci, scheduled for release next year.
“My goal is to bring real black America--just as it is, not watered down--to people everywhere through music, through films, through everything we do,” Harrell said. “I want to make Uptown a household word throughout the world. When you have something that is really great, it can appeal to all cultures, not just subcultures. Motown did that in the ‘60s and now Uptown is doing it in the ‘90s.”