The State of Black Music and Beyond: Looking Through the Rearview Mirror
An award-winning music executive who loves to share his thoughts about the music business, politics and other social issues.]
For someone who grew up loving music of all genres—especially black music—and turned that love into a career, it’s bittersweet to look at the current state of black music. Now when I look at black music, I don’t look at the creative process as much as I look at the business side. Creatively, every generation puts their stamp on music, which has been true from bebop to hip-hop. Some will say music today is not as good as it used to be, but since music is the “soundtrack of our lives,” the love of music really is less objective and more subjective.
The business of black music between 1970-2000 created hundreds of jobs, including putting blacks in the executive suites of major record companies, and increased black radio ownership across the country. The latter phenomenon included Inner City Broadcasting, former owner of arguably the most influential black radio station in the country, WBLS-FM/New York, and the broadcasting empires built by Cathy Hughes (Radio One) and Russell Perry (Perry Broadcasting). Looking back, I get a sense of pride. Conversely, now when you look at the diminished roles blacks play by and large in record companies and the loss of black radio ownership, it’s easy to say black music is in a crisis state. The success of black radio and black music inside record companies has always gone hand in hand.
In the 1970s CBS Records (today Sony Music Entertainment) commissioned what is generally referred to as the “Harvard Report,” but was formally titled “A Study of the Soul Music Environment.” The purpose was to corner the black music market. This study, in short, showed that in order to capture the black marketplace, labels needed more black people in marketing who could relate to black music, black culture and black radio and also form alliances with independent black labels (http://www.popmatters.com/feature/050603-randb/).
Legendary music executive Clive Davis, then president of CBS Records and who commissioned the report, has made black music one of the hallmarks of his career. He immediately established joint ventures with Philadelphia International Records, the hit factory helmed by songwriter/producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and Al Bell’s Stax Records. Davis would later take Columbia Pictures’ Bell Records and rechristen it as Arista Records. In the 1990s Arista created joint ventures with L.A. Reid & Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds’ LaFace Records, Sean “P-Diddy” Combs’ Bad Boy Records and Dallas Austin’s Rowdy Records. This led to a formidable alliance, providing dominance for Arista much like the dominance CBS enjoyed 20 years earlier—second only to Motown when it came to black music. This became the blueprint of other major companies. Some call them “culture vultures” since the end game was to capture the black music market.
From the 1970s through the 1990s, these joint ventures spurred the creation of black music departments, later divisions, within record labels. These divisions often operated autonomously within the labels. At first, executives held the title of national director of special markets, which evolved to vice president, senior vice president, general manager and, at some companies, president of black music. The designation “special markets” in itself was a slap in the face: as if to say, black music was abnormal.
Such divisions freed the white executives from having to handle these projects, allowing them to work on the industry’s formats of choice namely rock and so-called “pop.” Translated, that meant white artists or music that appealed to white audiences, which made up the majority of the population. The pop distinction is discriminatory because pop is short for “popular,” which in essence says black music isn’t popular until white people like it. Another topic for another day.
Simultaneously during this period, black radio was gaining more prominence in markets across the country. Black music-formatted stations began to dominate the ratings, giving black executives inside labels more leveraging power. The rise of disco also boosted black music. Some argue the first disco song was “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” by Eddie Kendricks, former lead singer with the Temptations. Others say it was Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover.” However, it wasn’t until John Travolta donned a white suit and the Bee Gees laid down the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever that disco became a national pop culture phenomenon. Now fast forward to 1999: rap was viewed as a street/black thing until white rapper Eminem, produced by Dr. Dre, sold 1 million CDs. Then the status of rap/hip-hop changed. Another topic for another day.
By the 1980s black music was really thriving, having survived the disco backlash. As labels tried to refocus on rock music, a new art form was beginning to seep through the streets of New York City: rap music. Meanwhile, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Kool & The Gang led another form of black music chart dominance by creating music that satiated the appetites of white music lovers exposed to black music like never before during the disco era. Black radio stations like WBLS-FM/New York, WHUR-FM/Washington, D.C., and WDAS-FM/Philadelphia found a way to mix R&B, jazz, Latin and contemporary gospel into a winning format. This all gave rise to the building black music industry, creating employment at labels and opportunities for entrepreneurs.
However, the term “black” would be replaced with “urban,” primarily because black radio couldn’t secure mainstream advertising dollars despite notching top ratings, especially in New York City. This led WBLS Program Director Frankie Crocker to create the term urban, designed to demonstrate that he was programming to a lifestyle. He also felt this would be less offensive to media agencies which even today have trouble advertising with black media outlets. Record labels would also soon adapt the term because urban made non-blacks at the labels feel more comfortable. I think it also opened the door for the systematic eradication of black executives. Black music doesn’t just denote who is making the music, but the essence and soul of the experience that gives birth to the music.
By 1994 there were no less than 30 black executives in decision-making positions at the various major record labels. The heads of these black music divisions (senior VPs) often reported directly to the president or CEO of the company, making them a part of the company’s executive management team. They controlled overhead costs, marketing budgets, artist signings—in short they managed anything to do with black music, an important cost center inside the record label.
Stemming from this as well was the growth of black trade publications like Black Radio Exclusive, Jack the Rapper, Impact and increased coverage in Billboard, “The Bible” of the music industry. Black music became a multimillion-dollar industry inside of a billion-dollar industry. During my years at Clive Davis’ Arista Records as VP of Black Music Promotions, the majority of our music was black and the label led the industry in chart share and market share while earning record profits. Clive treated black music like pop music. In February 1996, Arista had six of the top 10 spots on Billboard’s R&B charts—a feat not attained since Motown in the 1960s.
Today it’s a very different industry. Whites are running black music—even the iconic rap label Def Jam, one of the blackest labels during its heyday—and there are no more divisions to head—at least not for non-black executives. And black executives are still restricted to primarily black, excuse me, urban music.
However, the nuances of targeting the black music consumer still exist, and marketers of this music who limit black executives do so at their peril. The good news is we can revive an industry in free fall by looking through the windshield and the rearview mirror. But there’s one caveat: those who have been driving must get in the passenger seat and let someone else drive. Another topic for another day.
David Linton is the Chairman of the Living Legends Foundation Inc. and a music marketing consultant, based in Atlanta. Linton’s essay is the second in a continuing series of essays on the “State of Black Music and Beyond.”