In its simplest form, music rhythmically connects separate notes, transcending their individual value to create a whole song. Similarly, music industry lobbyist Joel Flatow connects artists to political and social causes to create or enhance an experience that serves a purpose greater than the artist or cause alone.
Flatow is the openly gay senior vice president and head of West Coast operations for artist and industry relations for the Recording Industry Association of America—the trade association that represents the major U.S. recording companies and also looks out for the legislative and political well-being of individual artists in this digital age of copyright violation and online piracy.
“California is obviously an important hub of political activity and the music industry. We’re excited about the opportunities a stronger presence out West holds for us and look forward to building on our relationships,” said Hilary Rosen, the openly gay then-president and CEO of the RIAA, in announcing Flatow’s new position in April 2000. “Joel is the ideal candidate for the job. His prior experience with recording artists, policymakers and the music community is a great asset for us. ”
Having previously served as legislative director of the Congressional Arts Caucus, he quickly became the go-to guy to help connect organizers for political or social causes with artists who might lend their talents to an event—including those at the recent Republican and Democratic conventions.
“I don’t book artists for the conventions themselves,” Flatow told Frontiers in an email interview. “The events that my association has been involved with during the conventions have been a terrific team effort with incredible sponsors, partners and outstanding charities as the beneficiaries. They’re more about bringing national attention to these charities when ‘the eyes of the nation’ are gathered than the politics. This year, we’ve partnered with Viacom, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, CQ Roll Call and others to benefit an amazing organization, Musicians On Call, which brings the healing power of music to hospital bedsides and veteran hospitals. Gavin DeGraw awesomely lent his talent in Tampa, and Common and Jermaine Dupri performed in Charlotte—which was an absolutely badass event!
“We partnered with Feeding America in presenting Rihanna for President Obama’s Inauguration in 2009,” Flatow said, and “with The One Foundation with Kanye in Denver and Daughtry in Minneapolis in ’08; with Rock the Vote in presenting The Black Eyed Peas, as well as The Creative Coalition with The Red Hot Chili Peppers in Boston ’04, as well as Kid Rock in NYC. That last one was its own swinging-from-the-rafters kind of party!”
Interestingly, at this year’s Republican Convention, where Rep. Paul Ryan was nominated as Mitt Romney’s Vice Presidential running mate, the conservative Ryan noted that his playlist favors heavy metal from AC/DC to Led Zeppelin. The Democrats featured Mary J. Blige, who Flatow helped connect with organizers of a major ‘No on Prop. 8’ event in Beverly Hills in 2008. But being associated with a political cause has its risks—as exemplified by what happened when the Dixie Chicks expressed displeasure with then-President Bush during a concert in London.
“I truly respect when an artist is willing to put themselves on the line for their beliefs or for a cause for which they believe. Hopefully, it’s the right one,” Flatow said. “But, in many ways, it’s beyond what the overt gig requires of them and, for many, continues to be a third rail. The simple ‘arithmetic’ can be that you piss off half of your fans by declaring yourself. But, honestly, this view has evolved. In some ways, it’s very modern, and artists such as Bono have led the way.
“We’re a global community—you lend your voice, and the amplification you can bring to a cause as an artist can help change the world. In all the best of ways, it’s almost become expected,” Flatow said. “But, in another way, it’s eternally been there. Music and arts have always been our conscience and mirror, inspiring and transforming society. It’s been part and parcel. Artists have also often suffered the slings and arrows of those beliefs.
“Absolutely, beyond question, I’m a free speecher—and have fought for those First Amendment rights in state legislatures across the country, when artists such as Marilyn Manson and Eminem were the ‘boogeymen’ and there were legislative efforts to punish minors for purchasing certain music. Of course, the idea is ludicrous and counter to freedom of speech and expression. And, what we absolutely see at times—which occurred with the Dixie Chicks—is a political agenda that is heaped on an artist. I remember at that time the refrain shouted at them was ‘Shut Up and Sing.’ But, in the end, for an artist with a conscience … sing about what?”