Music Business Students Explore Industry Ethics with Expert Panel

Mike Keefe-Feldman
April 24, 2014
Berklee associate professor George Howard (right) moderates a panel on ethics in the music industry.
Prior to the evening’s discussion, guest panelists such as Jay Sweet (above), Newport Folk Festival producer, answered questions from small groups of Berklee music business/management students.
Students Dejehan Hamilton (left) and Melanie Stevenson (right) ask ethics questions of Amanda Arrillaga, director of copyright administration for Sony Music Entertainment.
Marcie Allen, founder/president of music sponsorship and activation agency MAC Presents, fields questions from students.
Melissa Ferrick, Berklee assistant professor and a successful musician with a busy touring schedule, shares music business experience from the artist’s perspective with attentive students.
Photo by Mike Spencer
Photo by Mike Spencer
Photo by Mike Spencer
Photo by Mike Spencer
Photo by Mike Spencer

When Berklee's Music Business/Management Department chose to focus the latest installment of its Envisioning 21st Century Music Business Models series on ethics and the music industry, all involved knew that the topic would generate a healthy amount of skepticism. While the music industry has historically not been viewed as a sturdy pillar of ethical behavior, many are hopeful that the current disruptions to the music business might also disrupt some of the unethical practices of the past.

Prior to an evening discussion on Thursday, April 17, approximately two dozen music business/management majors discussed issues of ethics with an accomplished cross-section of the music industry: Marcie Allen, founder and president of music sponsorship and activation agency MAC Presents; Amanda Arrillaga ’94, director of copyright administration for Sony Music Entertainment; Melissa Ferrick, Berklee assistant professor and successful musician; and Jay Sweet, producer of the Newport Folk Festival.

Decisions, (Ethical) Decisions

A question from student Griffin Davis offers a window into the kinds of issues that students presented to the guest panelists. Davis asked Arrillaga, who graduated from Berklee’s music business program prior to her copyright work at Sony, what she thought about a recent controversy in which the hip-hop group the Beastie Boys sued toy maker GoldieBlox for using its song “Girls” without permission in a viral video.

The song’s original lyrics have been widely viewed as sexist, and GoldieBlox argued that its new version was meant to satirize the original, however the Beastie Boys noted that GoldieBlox was also trying to sell its product with the video. In the end, the lawsuit was settled out of court, and Arrillaga responded to Davis’s question by saying that she did not think the use of the song in a video intended to sell a product could be construed as fair use.

“I don’t think it’s fair use when you’re using it for branding,” Arrillaga said.

Ferrick, a tireless road warrior of a performer when she’s not teaching at Berklee, related a story to students about a recent ethical dilemma in her own career revolving around the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which drew protests due to its policy of excluding openly transgender individuals. Ferrick had to consider whether she should perform at the festival or withdraw and denounce the policy. After giving it much thought, Ferrick said, she came to the understanding that there are ample “everyone is welcome” festival opportunities, but fewer women-born-women-only opportunities. With this in mind, she decided to participate even though it upset a small but very vocal portion of her extremely loyal fan base.

“You can’t make everybody happy all the time, but I think you can make yourself happy with the decisions that you make,” Ferrick said.

Another panelist, Marcie Allen of MAC Presents, responded to a hypothetical question from student Melanie Stevenson about the ethics of branding work on an energy drink that some evidence suggests may be unsafe.

“I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole,” Allen responded.

Allen went on to tell the students that that she has, on occasion, had to turn down a potentially lucrative deal due to her own ethical concerns—one of which involved a company that she said later wound up being the subject of an unflattering expose on 60 Minutes. Allen noted that one shouldn’t automatically run away from all controversy, which she considers an inherent part of the music business landscape. Still, she said, “One deal can break you, and you have to be cognizant of that.”

A New Hope

If the music business has a reputation for being unethical, Jay Sweet, the promoter behind the Newport Folk Festival, suggests that that’s more likely to occur in a field in which many people are working with those they’ve never met or don’t know well. Focusing primarily on interpersonal ethics within the music industry, Sweet said, “The minute you and I break bread, this is a ‘brotherhood among thieves’ business—and I mean ‘thieves’ in a positive, pirate Jack Sparrow way.”

Sweet added that, in connecting with colleagues, being genuine sets students up to work with people who like them for who they are, not for who they have pretended to be. “Don’t ‘round peg, square hole’ it just because you think it’s a good thing on a resume,” Sweet suggested. “You can’t mess up being yourself and telling the truth.”

Witnessing students’ insightful questions and comments underlining the importance of adhering to high ethical standards, the panel’s moderator, associate professor George Howard, took hope in the idea that the Berklee music business students of today will be the sculptors of a better industry in the years to come.

 “Whenever I feel like the world’s tilted off its axis, I spend a few minutes with you guys (Berklee students) and I suddenly become the most optimistic person,” Howard said.