Let the Beat Go On: Whitney Houston, morals clauses, and better ideas for intervention - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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Let the Beat Go On: Whitney Houston, morals clauses, and better ideas for intervention

Let the Beat Go On: Whitney Houston, morals clauses, and better ideas for intervention

Everyone has their “back in the house” routine. After turning the key, I greet my hyper puppy, hang my coat, and turn on the television to create the background for the rest of my coming home ritual. On the evening of Saturday, February 11, 2012 CNN’s Don Lemon was in my living room telling me Whitney Houston was dead. I sat at the edge of my couch trying to process the news I just received.

Whitney provided the soundtrack for major events of my life. My mother and I got down to I Wanna Dance with Somebody at the reception of my First Communion. My hair was crimped just like hers in the video that day and I two-stepped with just as much sass. I sang a version of The Greatest Love of All to earn a spot in the 3rd and 4th grade Talent Show. Was it my launch pad to Star Search? No. However, my grandma said I did a great job and that night I got to have Oreos for dessert instead of fruit.  In college, my hall mates knew something was up with me and my boyfriend anytime they heard Heartbreak Hotel, on repeat, blasting from my dorm room.

Despite this state of shock, I was not in the least as upset as my father who called me as soon as he received the news. For my father, Whitney Houston was at the center of his American experience. How Will I Know was playing in his first few moments in the United States. The address book where he wrote her name and the song title is still buried in the top drawer of his desk. He bought her self-titled debut album with the first paycheck he earned working in this country. Audibly shaken, he tried to express how knowing that her voice will never be heard again made him feel about the rest of his own life. In my mind, it was as if he was forced to measure his past and present, evaluate his successes and shortcomings, in order to navigate his Whitney-less future. I tried reassuring him that he, a teetotaler who runs two miles a day in addition to biking to work, was not headed down a similar path as Whitney Houston. But it seems nothing could pull him from the funk that this sudden mortality reminder had sunk him in.

Whitney set the standard (e.g. Mariah and Christina). She is the reason why curmudgeons like me “don’t get” the hype behind new auto-tuned sensations in ripped leggings and bustieres. There is no doubt in my mind that her passing inspired a reaction like my fathers in many. Indeed Whitney’s death is a painful tragedy for her fans and for the music industry as a whole.

But it was no secret that Whitney battled with substance abuse. She developed a cocaine dependency that got worse after her performance in The Bodyguard, buying kilos for a stash to lace with marijuana. Her turbulent relationship with Bobby Brown made headlines. And tabloids were relentless in documenting and sometimes mocking her downward spiral. But now, in the face of such loss, a question that many have been asking is “What could have been done to prevent such misfortune?”

The saying “Sex, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll” had to come from somewhere.  Gossip blogs, Page Six’s, and Celebrity News television programs substantiate the popular belief that recording artists of a certain stature are living lives of excess and instant gratification.  Money and fame enable golden voices and brilliant lyricists to surround themselves with yes men who fulfill their every wish, whether those needs are a bowl of green M&Ms or some coke to do before a show.

One could argue that the answer to this behavior is the enforcement of morals clauses in recording contracts. Morals clauses have history in the television, advertising, and film industries. The contracted party is to conduct herself in a manner that does not offend public morals or decency else be let go from their position and depending on the contract, she may even have to pay a penalty. The purpose of these parts of a contract is to protect the reputation of the brand, network, or company. (Noah B. Kressler, Using the Morals Clause in Talent Agreements: A Historical, Legal and Practical Guide, 29 Colum. J.L. & Arts 235 (2005)). After rapper Remy Ma was convicted of shooting a former friend who allegedly stole thousands from her, the prosecuting attorney of the case, Lauren Raysor, called on labels to insert these clauses into all new contracts to prevent violence in the industry.

I think record labels should have a right to be as involved in what artists decide to do with their bodies. Like an MLB or NFL commissioner, they are in the business of promoting voices and performances after all. The increased use of the 360 recording contract would further support an assertion that labels have an interest in keeping their artists clean. Since for certain artists labels are entitled to profits from merchandising, fan clubs, and concert sales, ensuring that the artist remains both a marketable and living act should be a priority for these music companies. And a morals clause alone might not have enough teeth to curb substance abuse among artists.

The language of moral clauses is the first hurdle.  Typical morals clauses have broad language that could have an affect on the way an artist expresses herself in her craft. If a morals clause is calling for an artist to “not commit any act or do anything which might tend to bring the Artist into public disrepute, contempt, scandal, or ridicule, or which might tend to reflect unfavorably on the label” then that could have an affect in the kind of music an artist puts out. It could have a “scare” effect that either hampers what she expresses in her lyrics or creates numerous traps of liability for her to the label

The consequences employed would also not be enough. Dropping an artist from a label, and relegating an artist to a pre-fame financial status does not seem like enough to encourage better behavior considering the countless tales of recording artists who are now struggling to stay afloat after reckless spending. (See MC Hammer, Scott Storch, Wayne Newton, and the next recording artist to sign up for Celebrity Boxing 2.) The risk of losing it all already comes with the territory for musicians. Cancelling a deal and demanding recoupment for advances is not enough to scare someone off the ecstasy, especially if their judgment is already impaired by the drug use. 

While record labels are neither the parents nor partners of the musicians they sign, they have a right to be interested in how an artist’s habits will affect their performance and should begin to talk about how they will preserve their interests. I think that specific contract stipulations that give way to greater day-to-day label presence is the start of the conversation on how the music industry can keep the beats pumping, proactively make good on the business interest in an artist, and ultimately prevent tragic losses like Whitney. For example, a more appropriate legal answer than a morality clause might be the addition of provisions in a contract that offer artists a stay at a rehabilitation facility to correct errant behavior. Helping the artist face her demons rather than simply dropping her not only gets her back in production mode, but it prevents a golden voice from simply signing with another company that is more than willing to act as an enabler. Labels can also begin preserving their interest in an artist by requesting a number of their representatives to be added to an artist’s “entourage.” Although I admit that’s a long shot. Making artists travel with something of a “label snitch” could be an unbearable and awkward experience for all parties involved. However, if the person is someone who the artist and the label can mutually agree upon, and who can remain firm in the midst of a “sex drugs and Rock n’ Roll” lifestyle, having that solid person around might promote longer living and stronger singing.

My belief in the power of Whitney’s voice leads me to believe that if she were healthier, she would have been a greater mentor to a new generation of singers. She could have become a Clive Davis in her own right and started a label with a roster full of showstoppers. Yet my father’s “what ifs” about Whitney are not as grand. He believes that if Whitney stayed healthier for a longer period of time, she would have just kept singing. And the industry around her would have strove to meet her quality. She would be like Charles Aznavour and perform in front of sold out crowds worldwide into her 80s.

Record labels should have the right to be interested in managing their artists’ behaviors. It is impractical to think that companies like Universal Music will start conducting MLB-esque random drug screening for its roster, but it is important for labels to recognize the stake they have in the health of an artist. It is beneficial to the business for labels to play a part in preventing an artist from going off the deep end. For people looking at the bottom line, a few lines in a contract can mean more concerts, more ringtones, more albums, more money. For the families and the fans, label intervention can mean a more expansive catalogue to create a soundtrack to a lifetime, and more music to remember your favorite artist by when she dies in her sleep at age 95.

Miriam Camara