Dream Makers, Dream Breakers

stars.jpgI recently saw Dreamgirls, a well-marketed movie that’s largely about Barry Gordy-style marketing of music from the 50s to the 80s. Although there’s a lot to viscerally enjoy in the film, I kept analyzing the action from a lawyerly angle. Compulsory licenses, payola laws, restrictive entertainment industry contracts–all play pivotal roles in the movie. Each becomes a tool in the hands of a mogul and his enemies, as they struggle for fans and creative control.

Later in the weekend, I heard an interview with hip-hop impresario Ryan Leslie, who aims to be a 21st century starmaker. After scoring a perfect 1600 on the SAT, Leslie went to Harvard at 15, and is now precociously producing videos with Hollywood icons. Leslie’s career promises to be a lot less destructive than that of prior industry powerbrokers (for some spoiler-revealing reasons I’ll disclose after the jump). But what few fully realize is how important the law is to such a development.

In Dreamgirls, the black music entrepreneur Curtis Taylor Jr. (played by Jamie Foxx) succeeds in getting his artists out to a mainstream audience via a variety of dodgy tactics, including payoffs to DJ’s. At first, his company’s success appears to manifest a happy theme in the recent collection Rethinking Commodification: marginal groups can use the power of cash to break into spheres they were once denied access to.* But as the movie progresses, Taylor uses his money and power against characters we’ve come to love. And by the end of the film, he’s a husk of himself, blatantly selling out whatever artistic integrity (or loyalty to artists) he once had.

Ryan Leslie aspires to a different kind of starmaking: harnessing the power of internet-based word-of-mouth (via MySpace and similar sites) to propel his own music and that of other artists. I’m not crazy about his embrace of “lifestyle marketing,” but if his NextSelection label manages to merge status, style, and social consciousness, more power to him.

What could stop Leslie? Well, my biggest worry would be a reemergence of payola in the online world. Critics of the payola laws say that since hidden marketing is pervasive elsewhere, it should just be tolerated. I take precisely the opposite approach: consumers deserve to know when salience has been commodified, and on what terms. Ellen Goodman’s piece on Stealth Marketing shows some directions the law needs to head in this area. In general, the commodification of salience sets up the type of “positional arms races” that leading economists have critiqued as inefficient. Let’s hope they don’t get in the way of Leslie’s dream of a kinder, gentler mode of marketing talent.

PS: Here’s Mike Madison on the marketing of legal scholars’ work. And here’s a sketch of my work on positional competition.

Photo: Beyonce Knowles and Jamie Foxx in Dreamgirls.

*Check out Miranda Joseph’s contribution to the collection to see some Marxist cold water thrown on this overhyped aspect of the move from status to contract.

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