Starting in the early ‘70s all the major record companies made a commitment to being in the black music business. Up until then prolific independent labels like Detroit’s Motown, Memphis’ Stax, New York’s Atlantic and a tapestry of small record companies dominated the market. With few exceptions R&B and soul stars had always been developed and released by scrappy, culturally connected, sometimes unscrupulous, independent record companies usually owned by hustling businesspeople, whether it was Berry Gordy at Detroit’s Motown, Joe and Sylvia Robinson at New Jersey’s All Platinum or Sid Nathan at Cincinnati’s King.
These labels were places where the line between the music world and the underworld often blended, where accounting was questionable, royalties miniscule, and strong-arm tactics not unheard of. If you were black and had musical talent these were the doors that were open to you for the middle part of the 20th century. Some of these labels were owned by numbers runners or partially financed by criminals, whether they were connected to the Mafia or just small-time gangsters who loved music. There was a culture of exploitation around black music, one that mirrored the exploitation that most black Americans endured in an American economic system that excluded them.
The million selling successes of Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and others in the ‘60s soul music explosion led CBS, RCA, MCA, Capitol, Polydor and other corporate financed major labels to inaugurate black music departments with the ability to break new artists, sign established acts and recruit top writer/producers to distribution deals in lieu of starting their own indie labels.
As a result, Motown and Stax were strip mined for performers and staff. So were other smaller regional labels. New York based Atlantic became a part of WEA, a distribution operation that merged the might of Atlantic with west coast entities Warner Bros and Elektra. James Brown ended his long-standing relationship with Cincinnati based independent King Records for a deal with the European label Polydor. CBS records, under the direction of Clive Davis, spurred by the mainstream success achieved by Sly & the Family Stone, were aggressive in bolstering its roster with acts plucked from black owned indie labels (Bill Withers for Sussex, Johnny Taylor from Stax, the Jacksons from Motown), while giving established hitmakers the Isley Brothers (T-Neck) and Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International) the ability to record under their own label deals.
Moreover, the staffs at these black music departments, which included A&R executives, radio promotion, publicity, retail merchandising and college promotions, were well paid in comparison to the R&B indies, including health insurance and corporate credit cards. Entire black suburban towns in New Jersey, Long Island and in the San Fernando Valley were populated by this generation of upwardly mobile black label employees and their families, creating the black record business Buppie, and sending scores of kids to private school and colleges.
In fact, at labels like Columbia, Warner Bros and RCA, many black executives came from life in corporate America, bringing fresh marketing ideas to black music. As a result, the record business, which had always been a viewed as a seedy world by the black middle class, became a viable, exciting career option for students at Howard, Hampton, and other historically black colleges.
But by 1978 many blacks in the industry saw these departments as golden ghettos. The budgets of these departments were decided by white executives and much of the hiring had to be approved by white higher ups, making many of the employees feel they worked on a musical plantation. This unease was heightened by the limitations put on the black departments when an artist went pop. Once an Earth, Wind & Fire or O’Jays single had become a hit on the R&B charts and was crossing over to white audiences, the Pop department took over and the black staff that had developed that hit weren’t allowed further involvement. Despite being part of a huge corporation most of the black employees were segregated into a very specific niche. In the ‘80s, when I covered for black for the entire decade, of I rarely met a black employee working in any label’s Pop department.
This was particularly galling since black music’s “crossover” potential was crucial to why the major labels had invested so deeply in R&B. For them R&B was a farm team where you could develop pop stars in the mode of Syl & the Family Stone. Motown had proven black singers could soar on the pop charts. But, in this new era of corporate control, that music would profit major labels while having only limited black behind the scenes involvement.
Not only did this create dissension amongst the black staff but among the artists as well, but not always because they supported the black staff. Many of the performers, who’s personal goal was always maximum sales and mainstream superstardom, felt having their music first go through the black music department restricted their vision. And, in fact, some of the bigger black stars were able to have their singles released to pop and R&B stations simultaneously. But that was a select group. So, if the black music departments reflected an acceptance of the music’s power, they also reinforced the sense that there were ceilings placed on both its executives and black artists.
Much of the money for BMA’s launch came through the major label’s black music departments, which meant the purse strings for an organization hoping to address issues surrounding the music had be approved by white executives who, in many cases, would be perceived as the problem. This would tension between its mission and funding would haunt the BMA’s short history.
Next week: Decline of R&B/Soul Labels