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Foundation provides safety net for those in music industry

Jonathan P Hicks | 4/12/2011, 4:46 p.m.

The music industry has always been the place where huge dreams have been anchored in African American life. Ambitious young black music enthusiasts have long invested their time and energy in a quest to express themselves as artists, producers, managers, record storeowners and promoters.

But the industry is an intensely competitive one and it can be a deeply punishing business - and that's in the best of times. In a recession, it is the place where unrealized dreams and the shifting winds of business trends often lead to painful, even cruel, misfortune. It's a place where the success of one moment can quickly lead to catastrophe. And for many black people in the music industry, the problems are exacerbated by the lack of any safety net whatsoever; no retirement plans, no 401K programs and no rainy-day planning.

Those are the conditions that have become the focus of the Living Legends Foundation, an organization that few have probably heard of. It's a nonprofit group that has a glittering annual awards program -- although it's one that's not broadcast on any major network or cable station. The organization held an awards dinner in Manhattan last week where it honored Mathew Knowles, the president and chief executive of Music World Inc.; Skip Dillard, the operations manager of WBLS/WLIB in New York and Russell Perry, the president of Perry Publishing and Broadcasting in Oklahoma City.

But as notable as it was to see those figures in the entertainment and broadcasting world being celebrated, the most impressive part of the evening centered on the attention and support provided to those who were nowhere to be seen at the Highline Ballroom: the legions of entertainment figures who were the victims of hard times in the most thorny of industries. The organization has raised nearly a quarter million dollars to support people in the entertainment world who have fallen on hard times. They are people who, as officials of the organization say, have performed well, but have not planned well.

David Litton, the head of the foundation, said that many African Americans in the recording industry have found themselves the victims of the downturn of various facets of the business. And many in the industry have wound up virtually penniless. "We have found ourselves saving the homes of people, helping others with their health care and with burial costs," he said. "As African Americans, we're often one catastrophe away from bankruptcy. But the situation is particularly bad for people in the record industry."

The foundation does not make public the names of those whom it assists. But Mr. Litton said the beneficiaries are not just artists, but also industry publicists and other officials who have made contributions to the recording industry but have confronted disaster.

It's interesting to note that the foundation original mission had nothing to do with providing assistance to record industry folks with financial needs. When the foundation started 1992, its aim was to recognize what it considered trailblazers in the radio and recording industries whose contributions might well go unnoticed.

But over the years, the mission changed as more and more people in the industry would go to the foundation for financial assistance. "We found that there were some pressing needs among people in our industry," said Mr. Litton, an industry consultant who has worked in top positions at Capitol and Arista Records. "And we sought to help meet those needs."

At a time when the country's emergence from recession is not being felt by so many in the African-American community, when the economic rebound seems as real to black America as the Easter bunny or compassionate conservatism, we need more organizations to strive to make life better in small and large ways. And the greatest legacy that the Living Legends Foundation could achieve would be for it to inspire other organizations to come to the aid of some of the forgotten people in our community.