What do the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rihanna, Daughtry and Kid Rock have in common? They've all performed on the stages of a National Convention, be it Republican or Democrat. But what's more, they've all been booked by the same guy.
Joel Flatow is the West Coast arm of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the lobbying group that represents major record labels such as Sony and Universal. A lobbyist by profession, he deals with issues like First Amendment rights and intellectual property disputes, helping industry heads and musicians protect their political interests in California and D.C. But outside of the walls of state legislatures, his job continues, building connections and alliances between political groups and artists the music industry way -- booking shows. Whether it's a presidential inauguration, a Rock the Vote party, or the National Conventions, Flatow is the man who brings entertainers into the realm of politicians. Perhaps Flatow described it best during a phone and e-mail interview with The Huffington Post, stating: "If music and politics had a baby, that's what this gig is."
We asked Flatow some questions about his duties at the RIAA, the political leanings of the music industry and how he feels about potential cuts to the arts:
We imagine the ideal performers for the Republican party would be much different than those for the Democrats? Is this true? Is there a standard "type" of artist for each party?
I think it’s probably a reflex to assume that certain genres or artists fit each political party and, certainly, sometimes truisms are true. But, you have certain rockers playing for the Republicans and certain country artists for the Democrats. So, I think, ultimately, politics are personal and that informs where artists are going to lend their time and talents –- if they do at all.
Performing at the conventions or fundraisers transforms a musician's role from entertainer to partisan representative. In your opinion, is there a distinct political divide in the music industry?
Certainly, performing on the televised main stage during a Convention or for a particular candidate’s fundraiser declares your politics. Again, for our event –- and for others –- the focus is on the charity and not the politics. Many artists are very firm in their politics, ready to declare themselves and devote their time to advance their chosen candidate or cause. All of that is beyond their required “gig,” so good for them!
What’s more interesting to me is the role of music in inspiring and moving people, whatever the side. Can you imagine a Convention, event or cause without music as being central? It would fall flat. Music motivates and is usually the defining moment. I also find it endlessly fascinating to discover the playlists and music preferences of political leaders. It’s often incredibly counterintuitive –- and revealing! In the age of Spotify, when playlists are published, we know that Paul Ryan declared himself as a hard rocker, liking everything from AC/DC to Led Zeppelin, which wouldn't necessarily match to his persona. And Obama has been open about his music taste. He sung Al Green and he likes Aretha Franklin, but there's also an indie vibe. He likes Arcade Fire!
Joel Flatow, Nate Ruess & Jack Antonoff of fun.
Music, as a segment of the public arts world, could face major funding cuts under current Republican platforms. What is the argument, from a music industry perspective, for or against the cuts?
To me, arts and music education and funding have so much profound value –- cultural, personal, economic, educational -- that there has to be federal leadership and support. The fact is that audiences need to be educated and built, and music education, for instance, accomplishes that and so much more, in terms of academic ability, self-expression and self-esteem.
In fact, there was research released a week ago that showed that even the echo of previous music lessons still impacted and improved mental ability -– things such as attention, reasoning and communication skills. There was a time when every student was handed an instrument and took part in the communal endeavor of making music –- and that’s where so many artists have rallied to programs such as VH-1 Save the Music or Grammys in the Schools, to continue to help support and ignite music education.
It’s ironic –- there‘s more fervor and passion for music in American culture than ever before. Just look at TV: “The Voice,” “America’s Got Talent,” “American Idol,” “Glee,” live music performances on “So You Think You Can Dance,” “Dancing with the Stars,” etc. We can think of it as self-interest –- think how support for music and arts education will only enhance our children’s training and ultimate success in life –- perhaps even on these shows.
In your personal life, you've also been an advocate for LGBT causes, bringing performers to various fundraisers to support LGBT issues in particular. What motivated you to focus on these causes?
This is completely on the personal side of life, but being gay, I was lucky enough to win the lottery and be born into a family that I couldn’t be closer to, who utterly accept and cherish me for who I am. Same with friends and colleagues. Not every person, young or otherwise, have that humbling fortune. So, it’s led me to want to give something back and, for instance, become deeply involved with The Trevor Project, the leading national organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBT and questioning youth. It’s such an exceptional organization and a complete honor to serve on their Board and help wrangle talent in that direction. But, in the end, truly, it’s artists such as Adam Lambert, Jewel, Idina Menzel, Fantasia, Taylor Dayne, or Deborah Cox who deserve all the credit. It’s one thing for me to reach out to them –- it’s another for each to feel the cause and generously agree to donate their time, hearts and talent.
As an advocate for LGBT rights and a former lobbyist for arts funding in D.C., do you find yourself personally at odds with the Republican platforms on these matters?
On arts support and the politics of it, I can only go by my previous role as Legislative Director of the Congressional Arts Caucus. We had nearly 300 bipartisan members of the House and Senate, who joined in order to be kept informed on arts and entertainment issues and which fostered interactions between the two realms. There were arts supporters and true believers on both sides. And, I believe individual members of both parties get the efficacy, serve on their local symphony boards or want their children to be culturally educated. The proposed “savings” on cutting support is so minimal –- fractions of a penny of a decimal point of the budget –- and completely self-defeating ... that cuts or elimination make no economic sense.
On gay civil rights and gay marriage, poll after poll show progress and the tide of public opinion and history being in favor. You’re either on the right or wrong side of history. But, we advance the cause ultimately by not talking to ourselves but changing the minds of others. I can’t tell you how moved and impressed I am by the members of fun., who were my #1 dream group to perform for the Trevor Live NY event this past June. They’re young, straight, incredibly popular rock musicians and have championed gay civil rights in a huge way –- because it’s a human cause. They’re deeply committed and, to me, are the new face of advocacy -- and will certainly move the needle. Same with Mary J. Blige, who was incredibly generous in agreeing to donate her time a couple of years for a major "No on 8" event for which I served as music producer. I get chills thinking how articulate she was in introducing “No More Drama,” contextualizing the fight for gay marriage as one for human rights. That’s how progress is made. As well as, ultimately, by direct interaction with friends, family members, and colleagues. I truly believe we’ll get there.
Last question: Do you have any predictions as to how this year's presidential race will turn out?
I probably feel like most do –- that this will be very, very close and come down to a few key states, key constituencies and getting out the vote. So, I’ll show my former Rock the Vote roots and say . . . Please vote!
Here's a slideshow of images from the DNC. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.