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(DV) Exchange in Response to Michael Neumann's Article, "Dumping on Ahmet"







Exchange in Response to Michael Neumann's Article, "Dumping on Ahmet"
by Fred Wilhelms, Dave Marsh and Michael Neumann

December 21, 2006

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-- Letter from Fred Wilhelms --


Michael Neumann has grossly misrepresented both the facts and the intent of my anecdote regarding Ahmet Ertegun. I am writing to counter the second-rate hatchet job that appeared under his byline on your website.


You have to really wonder how accurate Professor Neumann's criticism of my comments is when he repeatedly misstates the facts of the story itself. That displays an almost tragic lack of attention, as if he was intent on making some point regardless of what actually happened. Follow the link he provides. See if he's got it straight. Figure out for yourself what that should tell you about the rest of his article.


Somehow, Professor Neumann has decided "I am DOWN with blacks," and, whatever that means, it is a bad thing. I am not really sure what his point was, but he appears to have a problem with what he has imagined about my personality and the fact that I told a story in which several black men appear. My story took place at a dinner given by the Rhythm & Blues Foundation for its Pioneer Award winners. It may come as a surprise to Professor Neumann, but most of the recipients of those awards have been black artists, and the fact that they show up for the event should come as no surprise to anyone but him. I was there at the invitation of a client. The client was black. If I had realized this was going to be an issue for Professor Neumann, hindsight tells me I should have collected the other white guests and moved us all to one side of the room. I had no way of knowing that, eleven years later, Professor Neumann would find something pertinent in the fact I was sitting with a couple of friends.


I may or may not be "DOWN with blacks." I don't really know what this means, and Professor Neumann doesn't explain what it means, so I am not sure if he meant this as an insult or a compliment to me, or to blacks. It's simply nonsensical.


I work for recording artists and songwriters, many of whom are black. None of them have ever asked me to be DOWN with them. All they expect is that I do the job I am asked to do. If Professor Neumann was implying that I work for black artists as an attempt on my part to be cooler than I am, I fear that tells me more about Professor Neumann than it does me, because royalty and rights recovery really isn't "cool" to begin with, and I work for white clients as well. I work for several integrated groups, too. None of them has ever asked me to be DOWN with them, and I am starting to wonder what I am missing that Professor Neumann knows about. If it pleases Professor Neumann to harbor the fantasy that I am trying to be DOWN with my black clients, he has my permission. It is a fundamentally harmless fantasy, if more than a little strange.


But then he gets to some really good stuff:


"The story was lame, though, because the Erteguns were wealthy before Ahmet ever got into the music business, so he didn't have to rip off Sam Moore to get those shoes."


Let's get past (or, for the Professor's sake, DOWN with) the fact that the story wasn't about Sam in the first place. Let's look at the presumption underlying the statement.


I wonder what it must be like to live in Canada, where rich people never, ever steal from poor people. And no one ever steals unless they HAVE to. That has to be the most nonsensical argument made on either side of the border in decades.


Not content to destroy fact and logic in a single swoop, Professor Neumann then challenges my fashion sense:


"On the other hand, you might wonder what kind of shoes Wilhelms could buy with the money he makes defending Artists Who Have Been Unjustly Denied Their Royalties."


Yes, one might wonder, if one had the free time that Professor Neumann has because he doesn't have to bother with getting facts straight.


So as not to keep you in suspense, they're blue canvas deck shoes, and I got them on sale for $5. US. I would send Professor Neumann a pair, but I'm not sure he could get his feet out of his mouth long enough to put them on.


Professor Neumann was straining to make the point that I am living the high life recovering royalties for these artists. It isn't true, and you can get the "particulars and evidence" from my wife on that.


I try to do good work for good people. I haven't gotten rich doing it, and I am not likely to.


As to whether or not I am trying to be "on the side of the angels," as he surmises, I figure that is more Professor Neumann's line of work than mine. As long as those royalty checks reach my clients, I don't care where the angels are. I have enough work keeping the devils in their place.


Professor Neumann can certainly spend some time locating angels in my vicinity. I mean, if he's gone so far to check my Amazon wish list, I guess there is really no end to the energy he can apply to the job. I do wish he had mentioned the $12,000 range and the wide screen HDTV I had stuck on the list for a contest I didn't win rather than the Dylan and Burke recordings (which people have already given me.) Heaven knows all that stuff is terribly relevant. It's more than a little creepy reading about it in what is supposed to be rational writing, but then I am just a lawyer and not a professor of philosophy.


The good professor then indulges in further groundless speculation on how I represent my clients. According to his crystal ball, I ride roughshod over the countryside, filing lawsuit after lawsuit, trying to get my clients what he calls "Things They Deserved."


And right there is where Professor Neumann goes completely off the rails. I realize that professors of philosophy must have active imaginations, but there should be some limit on what they get to make up and present as fact. Professor Neumann has clearly crossed the border.


He says "So this Wilhelm guy [if he's going to smear me, he should at least spell my name correctly, but we already know the professor is obviously not one to let the facts get in the way of a passionate argument], this angel [now I'm an angel, too], came to their aid, with that most American of sacred vessels, the lawsuit. He sued all kinds of record companies to get these people the royalties, the benefits, the Things They Deserved. And everyone applauded this man."


Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. It is hard to believe that one writer can get so much wrong in so few words, but then, we are not dealing with a mere scrivener, we are in the presence of a Professor of Philosophy.


Compared to his vision of near-heavenly retribution, the reality is rather bland.


I don't litigate, except as a last resort. Litigation is costly, time-consuming and, despite the model of David and Goliath, the Philistines usually get all the breaks. I haven't filed a lawsuit in many years.


I don't have to litigate often because of what I really spend my time doing.




Grinding research. Boring research. Book by book, page-by-page, statement-by-statement; looking for errors.  I'm good at it, so I find them. Often a lot of them. And when I find them, I make the labels pay my clients for every one.


It has become fashionable to call what I do "forensic accounting." As my current footwear attests, it really isn't all that fashionable. There are no impassioned speeches, no withering cross-examinations, no surprise "Perry Mason moments." I know this is going to disappoint Professor Neumann, who has imagined me doing all those things.  I guess I can let him keep this fantasy, too.


But here's the real error in Professor Neumann's distorted image of me. Even more than the fact that I am not suing people, what I do isn't about "the Things They Deserved." That subject never comes up because there isn't a court in the world that recognizes that as a legitimate cause of action. I know that. The record company lawyers know that.  Somebody should tell Professor Neumann that so he doesn't publish anything like this ever again.


What I focus on is simply "the Things They Were Promised." Pure and simple contract law.


It is in the chasm between what Professor Neumann believes and what really goes on that his great leaps to conclusions fall so horribly short


Those early recording contracts were pretty much one sided, but every one of them signed by Ahmet Ertegun and his counterparts at other labels had one special feature. They all promised to pay the artists SOMETHING. Maybe it was only a couple pennies for every 45 sold, but it was SOMETHING.


Those promises weren't honored. That is where I come in. I demand that my clients are given what they were promised in those contracts. And I usually get it. Because all I have to do is apply basic contract law.


That's what really goes on. Professor Neumann insists, totally without any factual basis, that I am going after the poor record companies simply because they aren't being FAIR to my clients. I have no idea where he got this idea. It wasn't in my story, and it wasn't even in my Amazon wish list.


I don't complain about the fact that the terms of those recording contracts were uneven.  I don't complain about that because no one would have to listen, and I would sound as pathetically uninformed as Professor Neumann.


I do complain that the contract terms, as uneven as they were, were not honored.  Everybody has to listen to that. Because that is the law, and that is what the record companies have to deal with.


So it isn't about what "should" have been, despite Professor Neumann's imaginings to the contrary.  It's about what was agreed to be. In the contract. In black and white. The kind of things lawyers deal with everyday.


If, as Professor Neumann blandly asserts, "It's probably true that the record companies, and Ahmet too, gave not too many cents more than they legally had to," then there really wouldn't be any legal grounds for me to go after the labels for anything. No one, despite the Professor's badly drawn conclusions on this point, actually believes that is the case. He makes it sound like chasing royalties due and payable under a contract is nothing but moral blackmail, when it is nothing of the sort. I am really far too busy dealing with real life contract law claims to worry about some invented claims meant to shake down a record company on moral grounds.


And here's the real punch line to the joke of Professor Neumann's non-reality based assertions about my life, my practice, and my wardrobe: I hate chasing royalties.


I hate having to pursue money my clients have rightfully earned but haven't been paid because the record labels couldn't be bothered getting the numbers right, and know that the veteran artists are often unable to afford to get them corrected.


There are so many other things I could be doing for my clients, things that could make them new money, but I remain preoccupied trying to get them the money they've already earned. And I usually spend more time than it is financially wise for me in the pursuit.  That is a big reason why, in the middle of December, I am wearing $5 blue canvas deck shoes.


I do this because the record companies don't honor their contracts.


I don't do it because I am DOWN with my black clients, because I have no idea what that means.


I don't do it to make me rich. It never will.


I do it because I honor and respect the people I work for, and because I have the talent, the skill, and the will to do for them what they cannot do for themselves.


Ahmet Ertegun was part and parcel of the system that uniformly cheated my clients. He knew what was going on.  He pretended he didn't, and because of his immense talents, a lot of people gave him a pass on it. I didn't. I challenged him for every client I had that recorded for Atlantic, and I got money for every client I had that recorded for Atlantic because Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic underpaid every one of them.


It's not about Karl Marx, it's about Carl Perkins. Carl's family, and all artists and their families, just want to get the money they were promised in their contracts. They're not asking that anyone give them blue suede shoes. They just want the money they were promised so they can buy their own.


And as for the slur against me, that I have somehow waited for Ahmet Ertegun to die before telling the story, well, Neumann got that wrong, too. I've been telling the story for over 11 years now. The fact that he hadn't heard the story before doesn't mean it didn't exist, and, as I pointed out in the story, Ahmet Ertegun knew the story, too.


I don't mind being told when I'm a fool, if I'm told by a person who has the facts to back it up. I do mind being taking to task by someone without a clue. Professor Neumann isn't even close.


Fred Wilhelms is an attorney in Nashville who represents recording artists and songwriters.

Michael Neumann Responds

Thank you for sending me the message and, if it doesn't see the light of day, I'd be happy to post it myself on my web page -- or any other reply you like. I can also ask the Dissident Voice people to put it up at the end of my piece. [my note: Dissident Voice did not need asking to do this.] Fair is fair.

You talk about your $5 shoes, and I'll bet someone out there will tell you how those shoes were $5 because they were made by exploited labor and you didn't give a shit.   It's easy to moralize about others' sins, but I'm not sure it does any good.   As for what ought to be, that contracts are involved doesn't change the picture:  contracts ought to be honored. We both know that artists, producers, people all over the music business violated contracts all the time. We both know all the things wrong with the music business, you better than I, and that it needs a complete overhaul.   But that's not what your story was about.

You say I have all my facts wrong, but they don't seem all that far off. I didn't say you made lots of money, though I did insinuate that you might. If I put too much emphasis on lawsuits, sorry, I also spoke more generally of “lawyering.” Finally I made it clear, though unpleasantly, that your activity on behalf of your clients did indeed aim at bringing them some justice.

I admit your message makes me regret some of what I said: I was upset at your piece and over-reacted. I know you do good work; I knew it when I wrote the piece. But I didn't think you deserved much consideration after that sendoff of Ertegun. If you want to give us the facts, chapter and verse, that's one thing. If you want to draw up a balance sheet on the guy, fine. If you want to propose radical change, fine -- not because Karl Marx wanted it, but because lots of people inside and outside the music industry know that the current system will never work well. But to make a dead man look like an asshole -- even if he was a bit of an asshole, as so many people are -- well, I thought that was pretty low. (You say you told the story before; that's different from putting it on a web site when the guy's not yet cold in his grave.) You and I like our morally tainted shoes -- compared to the creeps we know provide us with so many of our comforts, Ertegun was a saint. He might deserve a careful exposé, but he doesn't deserve a stab in the back.

-- Letter from Dave Marsh --

Michael Neumann didn't do a lick of homework on Fred Wilhelms. He could have asked, for instance, their mutual editor at CounterPunch, Jeffrey St. Clair.


He might have learned that Fred left a very good job at AFTRA because he became a whistleblower on pension and welfare misfeasance in the Pension and Welfare Fund over a very long period of time -- every bit of which benefited record company owners like Ahmet Ertegun. He has never participated in the kind of avaricious litigation you describe -- but if he had, how would that make him a villain? I mean, who am I reading here, Bill Frist or some other right-wing cudgel of the trial bar?


I could name at least a dozen Atlantic artists who have died poor -- in Big Joe Turner's case, he was buried only after a desperate plea for funeral funds by Doc Pomus; in LaVern Baker's case, it involved a week-long battle with officials in both the United States and the Philippines. Fred Wilhelms lost sleep and ran up ridiculous phone bills as part of that. Ahmet Ertegun was nowhere to be found. (I know this because I played a minor role in the proceedings.)


The notion that artists came to the Ertegun plantation to serve massa, who was already rich, is just plain ugly. Having reported on this subject for almost forty years, I can state without fear of substantive contradiction that Atlantic was in reality not better than the other companies but, precisely because it betrayed every promise it made and bragged about, worse.


As it happens, I also think that Ahmet Ertegun was the most visionary record maker in the history of American music. That doesn't mean he didn't let great artists suffer in poverty while his feet were covered in custom-made shoes.


If that leaves me "down with the black people," well, maybe Neumann and yourselves ought to ask why a so-called dissident voice would mock that while standing up for a millionaire cheat.


Then you could do the right thing and apologize for this ignorant libel of a righteous man.


Dave Marsh is a Grammy Award-winning writer and editor of Rock & Rap Confidential.


Michael Neumann Responds


I never intended to give the impression that I had done my homework on Wilhelms, and it's hard to believe that anyone supposed it. I was pretty obviously offering some cheap shots in response to his cheap shots at Ertegun. As I wrote Wilhelms, I went too far in that direction.


Where Ertegun himself is concerned, Marsh evades a lot.  He talks about Atlantic artists who died poor; he doesn't explain just how their poverty was Ahmet's fault. He says "Atlantic was in reality not better than the other companies but, precisely because it betrayed every promise it made and bragged about, worse."  He doesn't say that Ahmet was in reality not better than other record producers. No better than Don Robey, to name one? Please. Then we hear that Ahmet "let great artists suffer in poverty while his feet were covered in custom made shoes." For one thing, a lot of his artists made very good money, so one wonders just how dedicated a ripoff artist he could have been. For another, we all let people suffer in poverty, millions of them, and we don't give a damn. The idea that someone can claim the moral high ground because they champion a tiny, appealing fraction of those millions, the great artists, is ludicrous.


Marsh and Wilhelms complain about smears when they chose to smear Ahmet -- so conveniently -- the instant he could no longer reply. Marsh tells us, elsewhere:


Holler If Ya Hear Me: Ahmet Ertegun


"He broke off in the middle of the interview to deliver a chastising lecture about how the business was in the old days. Basically, he tried to rationalize why Ruth Brown wound up cleaning windows and LaVern Baker ended up running a bar on a military base in the Philippines. Well, he didn't actually get down to cases, because there wasn't any justification for how those lives got lived, for what Atlantic did to and didn't do for its veteran artists."


In other words, Ahmet did have something to say in his defense, but Marsh doesn't bother our pretty little heads with the details. Heaven forbid he should let a dead man speak. He tells us that Ahmet didn't get down to cases -- neither did Wilhelms or Marsh.


The serious claim of my piece is that the personal is often not the political, and neither (as Marx saw) is the commercial. If Wilhelms was simply condemning Ertegun personally, then the strictures of personal morality apply:  don't speak ill of the dead, and let he who is free from sin cast the first stone.  If Wilhelms was making a political point, then I dispute it.   Pissing on Pinochet's grave might be political, but not pissing on Ahmet's.