Branson rallies exex behind artists’ rights

Urges colleagues to resist pressure by outside groups to control content

SAN FRANCISCO — Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, used his keynote address at the 40th annual National Assn. of Recording Merchandisers confab to encourage record industry execs and retailers to support artistic freedom unequivocally and not bow to the pressure of groups seeking to restrict the kinds of music that can be released or sold.

Branson’s remarks came during the NARM confab’s opening session Sunday, officially kicking off the four-day convention at the San Francisco Marriott and adjacent Moscone Convention Center.

Branson also warned retailers that if their stores are not inviting and their employees unhelpful, consumers will find other ways of spending their money.

Branson, who oversees the operation of 122 Virgin Megastores worldwide — in addition to Virgin Airways and the growing Virgin Cola — also urged record label execs and retailers to resist “the pressure of self-appointed moral guardians” who seek to restrict the kinds of music that can be made or sold and “who have made mandatory the presence of a ‘parental warning’ sticker concerning violent and questionable lyrics.

“As an industry, we haven’t stood up and defended our artists,” Branson said. “The words of our musicians are the popular poetry of the 20th century … they are a pure reflection of society. Our problem is that some people are afraid to look in the mirror.

“Let’s be proud of what we sell, let’s be excited by it. Some of it is genius. Some of it is crap. Let’s present it and sell it with the passion of what it is: entertainment,” Branson added.

Branson, whose goal is to make his Virgin Megastores entertainment destinations for consumers, noted that for the first time in a decade “TV viewing in the U.S. is down from 25 hours to 21 hours per household week,” and that more music buyers are turning to the Internet and computer games.

Branson has been following his own advice by linking the Virgin Megastores with movie theaters and restaurants.

“We must make it worth their while to leave their homes to shop, because in the not-too-distant future there’s not going to be any reason for them to do so,” Branson said. “If we are going to get people out of their homes and into a retail environment, they have to be entertained.”

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