This week I found myself in a friendly dispute with our libel lawyer in a matter concerning the meaning of the term ‘looking after’ in regard to a record company’s responsibilities to an artist. My lawyer is an expert on libel law, albeit like all of his ilk rather too cautious in my opinion, but is sometimes ignorant of the ways in which the music industry operates, especially in areas that might be considered questionable by those in more respectable, ie straighter, professions.
The discussion arose because a book he read for me contained an allegation that an executive was fired for overstepping the boundary in respect of expenses incurred in the course of ‘looking after’ artists. What does this mean exactly, asked my lawyer, who assumed this meant arranging matters in connection with the artist’s career and nothing else. Surely, he said, such expenses would be legitimate and not cause for a dismissal. Well, I said, that’s not strictly true. And I went on…
The term ‘looking after’ in the music industry, at least from a record company’s point of view (as opposed to a bodyguard’s), is a euphemism for all sorts of things but the customary meaning is attending to an artist’s comfort and entertainment needs, it being generally accepted that an uncomfortable and discontented artist is an unproductive and uncooperative one. When I was at RCA Records (3 years, 1979-81) we had an ‘artist liaison’ department which specialised in this field and our biggest (and arguably only) star was David Bowie, upon whom attendance was danced all along the red carpet every which way. For reasons of discretion I hesitate to mention what was provided by RCA’s artist liaison department to amuse Bowie, legal or otherwise, but there was a grey area with regard to who would foot the bill for such diversions. Artists with strong management and plenty of clout, such as Bowie, would invariably manipulate the situation so that the bill was picked up by the record company; artists with weaker management and less clout would find themselves paying, often through subsequent deductions from royalties. A good deal of tact and diplomacy was needed to maintain good relationships and ensure an even balance in these matters but, generally speaking, the bigger the star the less likely they were to have to pay, and the cleverest managers of all had this skill – making sure the record company paid and they heard no more about it – off to a fine art.
It is all too easy for an inexperienced record company executive to be come tripped up by this, I explained, especially one brought in from outside the music industry for their business and accountancy skills who might become seduced by the glamour of rubbing shoulders with rock stars. In such cases the managers and/or artists are in a perfect position to run rings round them with regard to picking up tabs for limousines, meals at fancy restaurants, even plane fares (first-class of course), not to mention providing ‘services’ that might attract the attention of the criminal justice system should anyone involved be insufficiently discrete in the execution of same.
The penny dropped. My lawyer now understands what ‘looking after’ means and I took a quiet satisfaction in being able to enlighten him.