A Critique in (Originally Three, Now) Four Parts
This is the second part of what was originally a three-part—now broken up as a four-part–series dissecting the commercial music industry’s history of exploitation of Black music and Black artists. This analysis was prompted by the industry’s announcements of working to address racial injustice in its business practices and the world at large in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many others. But racial injustice is a keystone component of the music industry since its founding at the turn of the 20th Century. In this segment, we explore specific areas point-by-point where Black music and Black artists have historically been short-changed by the music business.
In the interest of brevity, much nuanced, complex and extensive information in the popularization of Black American music and its manipulations by the music business has been distilled to several essential developments as populations shifted, tastes evolved, technologies advanced and business trends shape strategies. It is critical to remember that White performers were exploited by the same practices as well, but Black performers (and other non-White performers) were typically more susceptible to, more exposed to, and more directly targeted for harmful situations and strategies employed by the music industry:
- The Advent of Radio and The Birth of BMI – In 1940, ASCAP, intoxicated by the windfall in record sales from radio (sales of $757,450 in 1932, octupled to $4.3 million in 1939, peaking at $5.9 million in 1937) announced it would double broadcast licensing fees. The National Association of Broadcasters, representing 600 stations, fought back with a boycott and formed their own clearing house, Broadcast Music Association (BMI). Not having access to the more popular writers of the day, BMI relied on those marginalized by ASCAP—Black artists, White rural artists and other ethnic groups, all creating from their regional styles and genres. Through radio, America was force fed doses of Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Roy Brown, Ivory Joe Hunter, Johnny Otis, Antoine “Fats” Domino, Big Bill Broonzy and Wynonie Harris until the ASCAP embargo ended ten months later. But the vast majority of Black composers never received writing credit nor performance mechanicals—any residuals generated from radio play went straight into the pockets of label executives or managers/handlers. In the years since, the publishing and writers’ credits remain in the hands of record labels or publishing companies (long since gobbled up by music conglomerates). Very rarely do the artists’ surviving descendants receive any royalties and these companies to this date fight relentlessly to maintain the copyrights. In subsequent years, more equitable participation, payment distributions and crediting were made available to Black writers, but always contingent upon contract terms established between music creators and record companies (which, fairly often, were not equitable).
- Black Music/White Faces and Coded Language – The terms “pop,” “jazz,” “classical,” “blues,” “rhythm & blues” “rock ‘n roll,” “country,” et. al., serve only as shorthand for the demographics of performers and targeted consumers—they have no mooring as musical form or style. With keen regard to “race music,” the designations specifically and pointedly inferred racial subtexts (often scatological—“jazz” was lifted from a French term for ejaculation; “rock ‘n roll” was lifted from a blues reference for intercourse). In the case of the critical music shifts to follow over the course of WWII—particularly as orchestras became less viable and started downsizing—from the jazz side, “bebop” emerged from the Swing Era, while blues music was modernized (or rather “jumped the blues”), giving birth to “rhythm & blues” (coined by former Billboard staffer turned legendary producer, Jerry Wexler). Rhythm & blues was the taproot of practically every significant style of popular American music to follow. But while executives recognized the increased value in Black forms, they were also keen on the challenges, given America’s hostile racial climate. As such, historically, Black styles had to be reinterpreted by White artists for acceptance with broad audiences. Popular songs by Black acts were routinely turned over to White acts and—with higher budgets, greater production values and better marketing—generally outsold the originals. In the case of “rhythm & blues,” which explicitly inferred Black entertainers, Whites could not occupy that space. Infamous disc jockey, Alan Freed, concocted the term “rock ‘n roll,” creating cover, not only for Blacks who were embraced by White enthusiasts, but for Whites who sought to participate in the new style. This pattern persisted/persists for White artists, White disc jocks on radio (and later TV), White agents, White A&Rs, White promoters, White salespeople, White execs, White writers and critics, White audiences—every link in the food chain had Whites in front of Black music styles and Blacks in the back. Black artists needed strong action on Black charts, radio spins and press before steering to pop audiences—a “two-step authentication process,” of sorts. And as the new styles generated millions in sales—R&B/rock ‘n roll drove sales from $213-million in 1954 to $603-million in 1959—the ethnic formula embedded, despite shifts in music and America’s body politic to follow.
- Radio Shell Games – As America entered the Space Age, the music business was propelled further by cultural evolutions, economic prosperity and ever-improving technologies. Television, and its outreach to millions of homes, made million-selling records a regular occurrence, turning a boom into a conflagration. But even as Black music was openly embraced throughout the nation, old obstacles remained. Black radio markets/charts continued to be the litmus test for Black artists to cross over to pop. And music categories morphed into even more confused race nomenclature. For one, “rock ‘n roll” gradually became just “rock” while purging Black acts from playlists. Rhythm & blues was honed to Black music easily marketable to pop audiences, while “soul music” surfaced as a term for Black artists tracked only to the Black community. Payola, the practice of bribery to put songs in rotation, was a scourge plaguing radio from its earliest days (and quietly persists today). While there were legitimate hits, payola engendered favoritism, boosted records of suspect quality, kept deserving records off the air, artificially drove up promotion costs and attracted organized crime. Payola adversely impacted White acts also, but with bigger average budgets and not having to prove themselves in two separate markets to achieve one goal, the practice was far more debilitating to Black acts. To fight it (or at least better mask the appearance), terrestrial radio stations gave control of the playlists—once the purview of jocks—to program directors, then later to programming consultants and now computer algorithms. Further, once radio adapted frequency modulation (FM) as the standard for broadcasting music, programming morphed into hyper-segregation, a.k.a. “formatting.” Terms like album-oriented rock (AOR), country, urban (Black), Top 40/contemporary hit radio (CHR), enabled programmers to discriminate against artists and advertisers to tailor spending without appearing overtly racist. These practices are standard in television, public relations, print media, and now, online media as well.
- The Rise (and Fall) Of The Independents and Major Label Cannibalism – New oxidized tape technology at the end of the Second World War enabled low-cost recording devices, affordable and accessible studios and an explosion of independent record labels throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, including Atlantic, VeeJay, Savoy, King, Chess, Sun, Peacock, Specialty, Modern, Imperial, Brunswick, Chess, King, Roulette, Stax and Motown. These labels distributed modern Black music at an accelerated pace and were responsible for launching the careers of its bedrock performers. But even with the boom in sales and the new possibilities for Black artists to have sustainable careers, these same artists were consistently getting fleeced by these companies. The indie labels drafted many of the business’ most onerous contracts on record, underwriting significant portions of an artist’s career and livelihood in exchange for the lion’s share of profits on sales and royalties. Typically, these contracts ended at the label’s discretion, allowed no transparency, held scant provision for the rights of the artists and saddled them with insurmountable debt. For this reason, Ahmet Ertegun, co-founder and president of Atlantic Records, in 1988 founded The Rhythm & Blues Foundation to provide financial assistance for aging R&B artists. As to America’s three largest majors (CBS, RCA and Warner Bros.), they did not actively engage popular Black music until the late 60s/early 70s (some 20 years after the market was already homesteaded). Decca and EMI-Capitol were early adapters and the independents were gaining larger market shares, rising from a 15.7 percent in 1955 to a 42.7 percent in 1959—for a brief span, the majors lost half their share to the indies. To counter, the top three penetrated the market with extreme prejudice, literally and figuratively (CBS was especially noted for commissioning the infamous Harvard Report, their literal roadmap to absorb and dominate the market). The top majors consolidated with indies, halving them from 40 companies in 1960 to 20 by 1971. By the 80s end, the two largest remaining indies—Stax and Motown—had shuttered. Compounding matters, from the 1990s to present day, majors merged or bought out other majors, then multinational conglomerates swallowed them. To date, there are only three major music distribution firms on the planet: Sony BMG, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group, controlling up to 80 percent of the market in any given year. As the smaller labels were absorbed, most of the contract terms with artists remained intact (and largely weighted against the artists), despite the change in parent companies. The corporate structures within the labels were set up as (and still remain) segregated. Majors established “Black music divisions”, a staff of in-house administrators to implement all label strategies for Black music, whether it be with the label’s own talent pool or monitoring and brokering activity at subsidiary labels. These divisions have less autonomy, fewer resources, and more creative shackles. They also had far less leverage, as every valuable Black artist they’d develop would usually be turned over to the pop division. Consequently, these labels still adhered to the age-old method of requiring Black artists to build sufficient traction with Black audiences before being marketed to White audiences.
The third part of this analysis will focus on modern age (post 1980s) technological shifts and the layering of additional bad faith policies on top of a bad faith framework established from the music industry’s beginnings.