Motown

NELSON GEORGE HS CLThe creation of black music departments meant bigger advances, larger recording budgets, more coordinated national promotion, and better royalty rates. However, artists still didn’t own their masters, meaning they were actually more employees of the record companies than independent vendors in partnership with them. On this labels, large and small, wouldn’t budge.

So, while the working conditions for black musicians were definitely enhanced by ’79, it also created new challenges. Artists perceived to have crossover (white) appeal were treated differently than those that weren’t. At an indie sale of 500,000 were applauded. At CBS or Warner Bros the goal was 1,000,000 sales or more. Over the course of the ‘70s this crossover pressure began to affect what songs were recorded, how they were recorded, and which were heavily promoted as singles.

Many of soul’s most vibrant voices were urged to cut disco records (Johnny Taylor’s 1976 hit “Disco Lady” was one of the most successful.) However, for many, disco became a creative dead end that alienated their core fans and won few new ones. The late Aretha Franklin’s disco oriented 1979 album, ‘La Diva,’ is the nadir of this trend, selling only 75,000 copies in the U.S. during its initial release and ending her historic relationship with Atlantic Records.

 

Finding a strategy to overcome racism, both within the pop department of major labels and at pop radio, was a major preoccupation of the artists, their managers, and black department A&R staffers in the late ‘70s. Disco was not the answer. However, many were looking at the success of the Commodore’s Lionel Richie, who was penning pop number one ballads (“Easy,” “Three Times A Lady,”) turning a hard charging funk ensemble into an easy listening hit machine. Richie songs with the Commodores’ foreshadowed, not just his ‘80s solo career, but a road map many others would follow, one that would later justify the need for a return to rawer sounds in black music. (Check the careers of James Ingram and Whitney Houston for two examples.)

While covering the BMA conference all these issues above, and probably a few I missed, bubbled to the surface. Panels devolved into shouting matches. There were tense conversations in the hallways of Philly’s Sheraton Hotel. A group of black radio programmers, feeling their issues were not being properly addressed by the BMA, formed their own new organization, the Young Black Programmers Coalition.

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It was a contentious, spirited conference. None of the later conferences had the same intensity or openness. More importantly the BMA never fulfilled its potential as an advocacy group for the music, including the major goal of getting an annual television special on one of the big three networks. There were some highlights though. Stevie Wonder performed at a banquet and Bob Marley joined him onstage, a moment I’ll never forget.

The BMA conference was my baptism of fire in a black music world that would become my journalistic beat and artistic inspiration for the next decade. In 1981 I was named Black Music editor of Record World magazine, one of Billboard’s music trade publication competitors, and I then rejoined Billboard in the spring of ’82. So, from January of that year until the summer of 1989, the trends, attitudes, and customs of the people who made and sold African-American music I contemplated on a daily basis.

A lot of what I observed was disappointing. I quickly began to realize that for all the marketing meetings and promotional strategies employed by major labels, most of the folks in the industry didn’t have a clue as to what would sell or why it did. Much hyped records would pass my desk and never make it past #50 on the R&B chart. Some would zoom up the singles’ chart based on radio play, but have no legs in the real world, selling a few thousand copies to be followed by an LP that went, not gold or platinum, but wood.

Few of the people I encountered in the black music biz were as passionate about music, its history, and its makers as I was. I’d go to showcases where the vice president for black music for some major label would trumpet his latest signing as a major star. The new act would do two or three songs of questionable musicality or just formulaic competence. Then at the bar or buffet line I’d find out the VP and the act had the same attorney, or the A&R executive on the project got kicked back $30,000 out of the signing bonus by the manager or the singer had to give an executive a blow job to close the deal.

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While Kenny Gamble and company’s dream of the BMA was never fulfilled, he took the fruits of his success with PIR records to institutionalize himself in the real world, tangibly improving the lives of his fellow Philadelphians. It’s a message in the music I hope the current leaders in black music are taking to heart.

 

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