May 12, 2007 / 12:29 AM / 12 years ago

Observers blame climate of scrutiny for Akon flap

NASHVILLE/NEW YORK (Billboard) - Verizon Wireless’ decision to drop its sponsorship of the Gwen Stefani Sweet Escape tour because of the actions of supporting act Akon probably would not have happened as recently as six weeks ago, many in the touring and branding sectors believe.

“It is a sign of the times,” said Jim Guerinot, Stefani’s manager. “The ‘50s.”

The controversy stems from an Akon concert last month in Trinidad, where the artist danced provocatively with an underage fan. When footage of the incident found its way online and controversy followed, Verizon backed out of the Stefani tour, even though Akon’s show was unrelated to and not part of the Sweet Escape tour, which commenced April 21 in Phoenix.

Regardless, a Verizon Wireless representative said the decision to back out of the tour was “based on a number of things” but would not publicly specify a connection to the incident in Trinidad. Akon ringtones and music were still available on Verizon phones as of May 11.

THE IMUS FACTOR

A source close to the situation, however, attributed Verizon’s decision to increased sensitivity in the wake of Don Imus’ firing from CBS Radio over comments that were deemed racist, and the subsequent scrutiny of urban music.

“Verizon received a lot of calls from Laura Ingraham fans and Verizon caved,” the source said, referring to talk radio host Ingraham, whose syndicated show seemed to add fuel to the fire.

“This is directly related to Imus. No question about it,” the source said. “We are seeing a new climate of scrutiny.”

Music sponsorship veteran and Fearless Entertainment CEO Brian J. Murphy agreed that the Imus situation and “corollary fallout” afterward changed the business and “the tenor of the times.”

“That incident was like a lightning rod that exploded out in many unintended ways,” Murphy said. “There is a much more heightened awareness and sensitivity in the marketplace.”

But an executive at an entertainment marketing company, who chose not to be identified, sees things differently. “Verizon is being very cautious,” he said. “For corporations, hip-hop is riskier than other types of music when it comes to brand/artist alliances. But I don’t feel that what Verizon has done is indicative of the current ‘Don Imus climate.’ The problem here is that what (Akon) did happened to be with a minor.”

CULTURE SHOCK

Representatives from other wireless companies who spoke to Billboard attribute Verizon’s decision to “growing pains” that the historically conservative wireless industry is going through as it enters the world of media and entertainment.

Since 2005, Verizon has sponsored more complete tours than any other wireless operator — including treks by Maroon5, Green Day, Shakira, Justin Timberlake and Fergie. Verizon also often works closely with artists on multiplatform wireless initiatives beyond the tour.

Meanwhile, Stefani is out a presenting sponsor for her tour and the inherent marketing clout that brings. Industry sources put the cash value of a tour sponsorship package like the one between Stefani and Verizon in the $1.5 million-$2 million range; on top of that, marketing value can be worth as much as $1 million or more. Sources said Verizon intends to pay Stefani in full. Her manager, Guerinot, declined to discuss the financial terms but did say that “we’re just in the beginning stages of evaluating” the impact of Verizon’s move. “We’re surprised and shocked they’ve backed out of” the sponsorship, Guerinot said.

Most sponsorship agreements include some sort of morals clause, though the language usually is ambiguous, those in the industry told Billboard. However, there seems to be a trend toward more specific language regarding which behavior is unacceptable.

Guerinot said that Akon’s performance on the Stefani tour “has at best been a PG show. Children of all ages have been attending. We have had no complaints.” To this point, no dates have been canceled and Akon remains on the tour, which also features Lady Sovereign.

“It was never my intention to embarrass or take advantage of my fans in any way, especially those under the age of 18,” Akon said in a public statement of apology for the Trinidad debacle. “I pledge to all that we will strive to make sure this type of incident does not happen again.”

Reuters/Billboard

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