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Nashville Scene Political Notes

Clement strikes a sour chord

By Liz Murray Garrigan

JUNE 29, 1998:  Nashville recording artists are denouncing U.S. Rep. Bob Clement for supporting legislation that denies artists the bankruptcy protection allowed for other professions.

Clement, who represents Tennessee's Fifth Congressional District, was a supporter of the sweeping bankruptcy-reform legislation recently passed by the U.S. House. The bill, which has yet to become law because a different version is still being considered by the U.S. Senate, would rewrite the nation's bankruptcy laws, making it harder for irresponsible consumers to wipe out their debts.

But recording artists say the bill is unfair because it singles them out for uniquely severe treatment. The bill gives courts the authority to allow debtors in bankruptcy to void burdensome contracts, in all cases except those involving recording artists.

According to one Clement critic, the congressman's support of the bill is "kind of like, if you represent cattle ranchers and support Oprah Winfrey." In a much-publicized controversy, cattle ranchers recently brought an unsuccessful lawsuit against Winfrey after the talk-show host made disparaging comments about meat on the air.

The bankruptcy-reform bill makes it possible for authors, actors, beer wholesalers, and anyone else to be freed from contracts that would negatively affect their livelihood. But not recording artists.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which represents some of the nation's largest record labels, asked Congress to attach an amendment that singles out recording artists. As it now stands, the bill requires recording artists to meet the obligations of their contracts.

"One industry advanced the issue, and as a result, it focuses very narrowly on recording artists," says Alfonso Pollard, legislative director for the American Federation of Musicians, the union to which many recording artists belong. The musicians' union, which has a branch in Nashville, has about 110,000 members nationwide. "This particular bankruptcy bill has been labeled by many who are against it as a special-interest bill," Pollard says.

Clement's comments on the House floor suggest that he feels singling out the recording artists would keep them from taking unfair advantage of the record labels. "Unfortunately, there are some cases of unscrupulous lawyers and agents who threaten to tarnish the reputation of many fine artists by declaring bankruptcy for some artists as a ploy to renegotiate a new contract," Clement said.

Clement's argument is the same as that of RIAA officials, who recently told Billboard magazine, "Some artists, not all artists, are using the threat of bankruptcy to get a better deal, especially artists on the edge of success."

Still, some attorneys and the musicians' union correctly point out that the courts can dismiss bankruptcy filings that are found to be "in abuse of process" or filed "in bad faith." And, they say, if there is a need to create new provisions governing contractual obligations, those provisions should be broadly worded so that they do not only affect recording artists.

Officials at the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) say their union has 88,000 members nationwide, approximately 10,000 of whom are recording artists who might be negatively affected by the bill. "We're appalled at the way Congress voted," says Randy Himes, executive director of the Nashville branch of AFTRA.

Himes says that Clement has typically been supportive of labor unions in general and of the music unions in particular. "I think he's been very fair. That's why it shocked us when he spoke against us on the floor [of the House]," Himes says. "I thought he had a real ear to the ground on Music Row."

Himes says he won't cast aspersions until his group has been able to contact Clement about his vote, but he says Congress may have been swayed by the political leverage RIAA can wield. "The record companies and their backing and money may be a more powerful lobby than we are," Himes suggests.

It may be worth noting that RIAA's political action committee has contributed $2,100 to Clement's campaigns over the past decade.

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