Separate & Unequal: 22 Years After the Black Promoters Association Lawsuit, Has The Industry Really Changed?

Agency BLM
Chyna Photography
– Agency BLM
TIMES A-CHANGING? Major talent agencies join together to organize a rally and march in support of Black Lives Matter, starting in front of ICM Partners’ building in Century City, Calif., on June 7.

In the weeks since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the music industry has rolled out numerous initiatives in support of Black Lives Matter and racial equality, hosted town halls to discuss inequities and how they can and must be remedied, and the four major agencies even banded together to lead a demonstration in front of the ICM Partners building and march past other agency offices in Century City and Beverly Hills, Calif., on June 7.

This is not the first time this issue’s come up in an industry where, try as the live industry may, even today the lack of racial diversity can be glaring.

If history is a guide, this could be a difficult and protracted struggle.

About 22 years ago, members of the Black Promoters Association of America were marching on the offices of some of those same agencies, months after filing a $750 million lawsuit alleging antitrust and civil rights violations against eight talent agencies and 27 concert promotion companies, including nine affiliated with Cellar Door Companies. All but a handful would eventually be rolled up by co-defendant SFX Entertainment.

Joining Leonard Rowe of Leonard Rowe Entertainment as plaintiffs were Fred Jones (Summitt Entertainment), Bernard Bailey (BAB Productions), Jesse Boseman (Sun Song Productions) and Lee King (Lee King Productions). The agency defendants included William Morris Agency, Creative Artists Agency, APA, Monterey Peninsula Artists, Howard Rose Agency, Renaissance Entertainment, QBQ Entertainment and Variety Artists International.

“Because of an all-white concert promotion fraternity, the Black concert promoters are systematically excluded from the promotion of concerts given by white performers,” the complaint alleged. “No Black promoter, including plaintiffs, has been able to contract to promote a contemporary music concert given by white performers … or even been given the opportunity to bid on such promotion. In addition, plaintiffs are regularly excluded from the promotion of concerts given by top-drawing Black performers.”

The complaint delineated what it claimed were the inner workings of the concert industry; that some promoters own or have exclusive facility management agreements with specific venues, contractually securing the venues – often amphitheaters – for specific concert promoters, who then control ticketing and pricing, and stifle competition.

In determining what BPA alleged to be a vastly disproportionate market share of national concerts by white promoters, they drew upon Boxoffice data acquired from Pollstar over a one-year “test” period from June 1998 through May 1999 across venues with capacities of 3,000 or more.

The survey reportedly found that there were approximately 2,460 concerts that qualified as “major.” Of those, approximately 1,625, or 65%, were promoted by defendant promoters. During the period, 2,175 of the major concerts, or 88%, were performed by white artists, and 100% of those were promoted by white concert promoters. Black promoters worked with none of them. Of 250 concerts performed by Black artists, Black promoters worked with six, or less than 3%, according to the complaint.

The test study alleged that defendant booking agents represented approximately 1,630, or 71%, of the major concert artists. In their respective territories, defendant promoters controlled between 75% and 95% of concerts of both Black and white artists, while the plaintiffs promoted 1% to 2% of the concerts performed by only Black artists in their respective territories.

The BPA lawsuit alleged that the data pointed to a “conspiracy” between white agents and promoters. It also suggested that SFX Entertainment, finding the barriers to entry in the concert promotion business to be too high, began acquiring promoters in order to buy its way in, to the detriment of Black promoters.

leonard rowe
Courtesy of Leonard Rowe
– Leonard Rowe

“It was something we had to sit back and look at and acknowledge one thing: The only thing that differed between us was our race,” Rowe tells Pollstar.

“When we looked at why that happened, we had to ask, ‘Was it coincidental, or did race play a part in it?’” Rowe explains. That’s the only thing I could come up with.”

The case went through lengthy discovery and litigation, with several defendants including APA, Variety Artists, Clear Channel Entertainment (which had acquired SFX Entertainment in the interim) and Howard Rose Agency settling and being dropped from the suit.

U.S. District Judge Robert P. Patterson Jr. granted summary judgement to the remaining defendants – including CAA, William Morris Agency, Jam Productions and Beaver Productions – in January 2005, ending the litigation. In a 176-page ruling, Patterson said the promoter plaintiffs “failed to present sufficient evidence to support their antitrust claims or of a conspiracy in restraint of trade.”

But as the lawsuit was filed, the BPA organized protests at the offices of many of the defendant agencies and, in addition, appeared at the 1999 Concert Industry Consortium (which evolved into Pollstar Live! in 2009) in protest of SFX CEO Robert F.X. Sillerman, who was there to deliver a keynote address.

Among them were Rowe and Jones. Rowe  worked with Black artists for many years, including Michael Jackson, but found himself shut out of business with the budding superstar. And promoter consolidation was subsuming other Black promoters.

Fred Jones & Stephanie Mills
Courtesy of Fred Jones
– Fred Jones & Stephanie Mills

Jones promoted most concerts by Black artists in the Memphis, Tenn., region including the Commodores, Isley Brothers, O’Jays and others. When Lionel Richie left the Commodores for a lucrative solo career, Jones no longer promoted his concerts. SFX in 1999 acquired 50% of A.H. Enterprises, then believed to be the biggest Black promotion company in the country, which mounted national tours for Boys II Men, Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston, among others. The “A. H.” stood for Al Haymon. Under the SFX umbrella, the company became Al Haymon Presents, with Haymon at the helm, forming the core of what eventually became Live Nation Urban.

“At the time that [SFX Entertainment, the precursor to Live Nation] came into being, we had to watch them take all of a certain group of promoters and put them all under one umbrella,” Rowe tells Pollstar. “The [promoters] had to keep their careers and livelihoods going. But the BPA members, we were pushed out. And that hurt.”

With a graduate business degree, Haymon learned to not just promote concerts but build relationships with white agents like Phil Casey, then of ICM Partners, with whom he created Budweiser Superfest and other large, multi-act events.

“Al Haymon was just like the rest of us,” Jones says. “He had a niche he’d carved out of the Northeast: Buffalo, N.Y.; Providence, R.I.; Cleveland, Ohio; he was doing shows and doing quite well. Al is probably one of the super successes that took his talent and the relationships he built and took it to a whole other level. Hats off to him. He did a tremendous job but, at one time, he was in the same position all of us were in while we were fighting for an opportunity to do business. He was probably the only one who broke out nationally.”

Around 2000, Haymon expanded into boxing promotion, eventually representing some of the sport’s top fighters including Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, and moved away from concert promotion.

The suit may have failed, but the history of inequity for Black promoters and agents is long and, according to many, continues. The legacy of the BPA, though, should not be overlooked – nor can the legacy of promoter consolidation that rolled up Black-owned companies as well as white-owned ones.

“Leonard did a masterful job of putting together creditable information and it seemed clear,” Jones says. “But we lost the case and it’s more difficult today because we have a widespread conglomerate like Live Nation taking over everything.”

Fast forward to present day with agencies, promoters and others issuing statements, establishing equity and diversity programs and donating to racial justice efforts. Rowe is hopeful for meaningful change at last but is mindful of how much remains the same with but a handful of Black agents and promoters working in music today.

“I believe it’s a long time coming, I really do,” Rowe says. “I think people are getting tired and opening up their eyes to really see what’s going on with Black people. It’s a struggle. You find it hard when people do not want to change their ways, especially when their ways, and the way they do business, are profitable. We have experienced a lot. I observed that for 10 long years with the Black Promoters Association and that was one of the greatest struggles of my life.

“Black promoters have almost become extinct in the concert promotion industry,” Rowe continues. “That is painful for me to deal with because I have spent my total adult life in this industry that I love. It’s my life. You want to be judged on your ability and not your race. In the process of dealing with it, we had to watch so many black businesses fall by the wayside.”

Rowe notes that the loss of Black concert promotion companies also affects other Black-owned businesses, including florists, transportation companies, caterers, and other vendors that did business when a concert came to town.

“Those businesses are just about gone as well, because they depended on us. We are the ones who hired these companies. When you eliminate us, you eliminate them. We have always served as a financial bridge for that Black concert dollar. We reach the black community.”

Even when Black superstar artists perform, the concert services and vendors continue to be largely white-owned – because those artists are most often represented by white agents, managers and tour managers who contract with those they know, who also tend to be white.

“Those dollars are used to fertilize Rodeo Drive and the Hamptons, but our communities will never see those dollars again when Beyoncé or Jay-Z or Drake plays,” Rowe explains. “We don’t see those dollars, though our communities are spending on them. They won’t see one dollar from Elton John or Celine Dion or The Rolling Stones. That’s never in the discussions.”

Bill Reeves
Black Roadies United
– Bill Reeves

Bill Reeves, who co-founded Roadies of Color United International (see page 24) to help end discrimination backstage, is a Black tour and production manager who started out as an electrician some 40 years ago, explains that promoters, as in most businesses, work with people they know or are otherwise “comfortable” with. And, he adds, that is a condition that absolutely persists.

“The fact is, the white promoters still have the sweetheart deals with the buildings. They all have personal relationships with the building managers; the building will say [to a white promoter], ‘Don’t worry about a deposit until the date gets a little closer.’ A Black promoter goes to the same building and wants to book a show and there’s a deposit that has to be paid because there isn’t that personal relationship and that white building manager doesn’t really know or trust the Black promoter. … So, the Black promoter has to tie up his money but the white promoter probably doesn’t have to, and probably gets the date confirmed,” Reeves explains.

Rowe and Reeves agree that, in some ways, the current environment isn’t much different than it was 20-some years ago but are also optimistic that this moment in history has potential to see meaningful change effected.

One prominent agent told Pollstar, on the condition of anonymity, that today’s live business is far more about money than antiquated notions of racism. “If anyone of any color has money to put up, then we’ll work with them,” he said.

“Has anything changed since the litigation 20 years ago? I like to move on,” Rowe says. “I think that in God’s time, everything will work out. … People in America don’t understand the concert business. They understand it when they see a knee on a Black person’s neck. But they don’t understand the concert industry and what’s been done to African-Americans there.”

The Jacksons
Gus Stewart / Getty Images
– The Jacksons
DESTINY: The Jacksons, including Michael (right), on their 1979 “Destiny” tour, promoted by Leonard Rowe. Michael had just released Off The Wall and was on the cusp of solo stardom.

Reeves says segregation between “the white side and the R&B side” remains a major hurdle and is not just a concert industry problem, but for the American culture as a whole. Black production and other professionals, he says, largely work with Black artists and white crews work with white artists. But with the COVID pandemic creating time for introspection, this moment feels ripe for at least incremental change.

“We’re in right now in a moment in the culture unlike any that we’ve been in before,” Reeves says. “There was the civil rights era of the ‘60s as well as the turmoil over the Vietnam War and everybody was up in arms but nothing happened. Then there were the L.A. riots after Rodney King and everybody was up in arms but nothing happened, no lasting change. This moment of turmoil feels different because the pandemic has everybody upset and anxious in any case, and with the shutdown of basically the country there’s a general level anxiety that was there before George Floyd. This connected with people on a more visceral level.”

Yet, Reeves and Rowe acknowledge it is going to take more than righteous statements and marches in support of diversity for agencies and promoters to truly make change.

“These people know me, they know my knowledge,” Rowe says. “They know the others that have been active over the years. But they would never allow us to work with a Celine Dion. They never would allow us to work with Madonna. They would never allow us to work with The Rolling Stones. But the Black artists like Beyoncé, they are allowed to work with whites. I grew up in a world where you called that discrimination.

“What I’m saying is the words speak loud, but the action would speak louder. I’m hoping and praying that that day comes around,” Rowe continues. Jones explained that for many years after the conclusion of the BPA suit, he found it nearly impossible to find work.

“For me, there were several years where I couldn’t even buy the talent. I went through somebody else to make it happen. I don’t know if everyone was upset or what the case was,” Jones explains.

“I can either do business or I can’t. But you weren’t getting the call unless they got desperate, and then it would be, ’Call Fred and do business.’ It took a long time to get that back on track.”

Fortunately, he’d taken a page from Al Haymon’s playbook and started his own event in 1990. Jones has been producing the Southern Heritage Classic at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis pitting long-time rival football teams at Jackson State University and Tennessee State University for a game, concerts and cultural celebration. 

Unfortunately, it was canceled this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Commodores
Soul Train/Getty Images
– The Commodores
The Commodores, a band the Black promoters used to work with, and featuring Lionel Richie, perform on “Soul Train” in 1976.

But he was amazed at the number of calls he got from major national media about it, including from the New York Times. Yet, only a few months ago, he says he called a talent agency and got an assistant who didn’t know who Jones was – despite his 50-plus years in the business.

“This assistant says, ‘I don’t know you. Send me a resume.’ I said just Google me and hung up,” Jones says. “Three weeks later, he calls back and says the agent wanted to talk to me about the artist. Well, I  just laughed because I went out and got someone else. I’ve been in the game for a long time and in some circles I don’t even exist.”

He says it is symbolic of the ongoing struggle of Black promoters when the New York Times knows who he is, but an agent’s assistant doesn’t.

Rob Prinz, ICM Partners co-head of worldwide music, acknowledges the tenor of the times and the struggle of the Black Promoters Association.

“For the years I’ve been at ICM, by far it’s been the most inclusive and diversified agency I’ve been a part of and that was before the horrible events this year,” Prinz says. “It’s a long time coming that this change takes place and we’re seeing the world, and our business, reacting and making changes. We’ve been doing it already.

“It’s been 20 years [since the BPA suit]. I remember it well and it’s good to see us all marching together instead of against each other. It’s a mixed group and more reflective of society today,” Prinz says.

“You can change it if you want to, and it’s just that simple,” Jones says. “You can do business with Fred or someone who looks just like me. If you want to do business, it’s easily done. If you want to make a change it’s easily done if you want to.”