Black Concert Promoters Sue Over Alleged Racism

A $700 million lawsuit claims top talent agencies, concert promoters conspired against African-Americans.

Five black concert promoters have filed a $700 million lawsuit against 11 talent agencies and 29 concert promoters, charging that a longstanding conspiracy bars blacks from promoting white performers and top black acts.

"These guys just got tired of riding at the back of the bus," explained Robert Donnelly, a music-industry attorney representing the plaintiffs. "We want to enjoin the conspirators from being able to block black promoters from bidding on concerts."

The suit, filed late Thursday in U.S. District Court in New York City, makes civil rights and anti-trust claims against 11 major talent agencies and 29 promoters, including the talent-agent giants William Morris Agency and Creative Artists Agency; corporate concert-booker and venue-operator SFX Entertainment, Inc., and many of the latter's recently purchased subsidiaries, including Bill Graham Enterprises, Inc., Sunshine Promotions Inc., and Delsener/Slater Enterprises, Ltd.

The plaintiffs -- Rowe Entertainment, Inc., of Atlanta; BAB Productions, Inc., of Charlotte, N.C.; Sun Song Productions Inc., of New York; Summitt Management Corporation of Memphis, Tenn.; and Lee King Productions of Jackson, Miss. -- allege they "are never contacted by the booking agent defendants to promote concerts to be given by white artists, and are often excluded from the promotion of concerts to be given by major black artists, even though the plaintiffs are fully able to promote all such concerts and to compete with white concert promoters for all concert promotion business."

Representatives for William Morris Agency, Creative Artists Agency and SFX Entertainment had no comment on the suit. The plaintiffs referred calls for comment back to their lawyers.

At the heart of the suit lies the accusation that the promoters have been selected to promote up-and-coming acts but are shut out of the bidding process once those acts break into a bigger audience.

As an example, the suit claims that the Howard Rose Agency -- also a defendant in the case -- used the plaintiffs' services to promote '70s funk artists the Commodores. However, the suit alleges that once singer Lionel Richie became a mainstream star, the Howard Rose Agency exclusively worked with white concert-promoters.

Representatives for the Howard Rose Agency did not return calls for comment.

Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert-trade magazine Pollstar, said Monday (Nov. 23) that avoiding a promoter an artist had used when the artist wasn't a mainstream attraction violates an unwritten law of the concert-promotion business. But it isn't illegal, he added.

"The truth is, there are a lot of white promoters who I suppose could lodge the same complaint," Bongiovanni said. "A promoter may work to develop an artist and then be [passed] over in favor of a bigger, more established operation when the artist becomes a bigger act. That isn't anything that's unique to black promoters."

"At one point, [promoters] were strictly mom-and-pop operations," Bongiovanni continued, "but that's not the case anymore. If the artist doesn't like how they were treated by one organization, they can go to a corporate operation and explore what they have to offer."

The suit also alleges that white booking agents have engaged in the misrepresentation of facts and disparate treatment of black promoters. As an example, Jesse Boseman of Summitt Management alleged that representatives for R&B singer Erykah Badu at William Morris told him they weren't booking concerts in 1997 and '98 when, in fact, they were.

The suit further alleges that members of the Black Promoters Association, of which Rowe Entertainment's Leonard Rowe is president, received a verbal agreement to promote shows on R&B singer Maxwell's now-canceled U.S. tour. Though the agreement allegedly came from the singer's representatives at William Morris, the shows ended up being handled by white promoters.

Lastly, the suit alleges that R&B singer Toni Braxton's representatives at Creative Artists Agency told the plaintiffs that the singer demanded minimum guarantees of $225,000 to $250,000 per show, while the white promoters who actually promoted her concerts were only required to guarantee $150,000 to $175,000 per show.

According to Stan Soocher, an entertainment lawyer and author of "They Fought the Law: Rock Music Goes to Court," the plaintiffs will have to show a concerted effort between the promoters and booking agents to prove their claims true.

"It may be possible that through their actions it seems like there is a concerted effort to exclude the promoters," he said. "But they're going to need to prove that there were meetings or letters written or actual discussions to prove their conspiracy claim."

Bongiovanni, Soocher and Donnelly would not speculate as to what the case would mean to the concert-promotion business if it went to trial and the defendants prevailed.

All balked at the idea of a court-mandated affirmative-action program for concert promoters.

"That's an interesting thought, but I don't know that the courts can order an affirmative-action program like that," Soocher said. "They can order that the plaintiffs be allowed to make bids, but they can't require that the defendants accept the minority bid."

Nonetheless, Donnelly said his clients will pursue this suit in an effort to have their voices heard.

"It's premature to figure out what the end game of this is," Donnelly said. "Our aim is the elimination of racism in the music industry. My clients have been economically hurt for years by the actions of the defendants. There's always a possibility for a settlement, but we'd want to sit down at the table with the people on the other side and make sure our concerns are addressed."