Slaves of the Music Industry

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

knows that The White Man Stole The Black Man’s Music. Right? That from
the blues and ragtime up through jazz, rock ’n’ roll and hiphop, the
black folk innovate, the white folk imitate. And the white folk make all the

the central line of a new essay collection, R&B (Rhythm & Business):
The Political Economy of Black Music
(Akashic, 338 pages, $24.95), edited
by sometime
York Press
contributor Norman Kelley. And like a lot of things everyone
thinks they know, the truth turns out to be rather more nuanced. While the book’s
theme is not new, Kelley has very astutely chosen and organized the 20 entries
to probe and illuminate the economics of popular music from a number of angles
and viewpoints that may not be so familiar to you. You don’t always have
to agree with the victim polemics that naturally inhere to writing on this topic–I
don’t, and to a degree neither does Kelley–to consider R&B
a great primer on how poorly the music industry tends to treat its artists.

Kelley tells
me he thinks the difference between R&B and similar books is that
this one "follows the money."

you look at the books on the economics of music, the black aspect isn’t
dealt with very much," he contends. "People have made the argument
that the white man stole the black man’s music and dah dah dah, but they
never quite connect the dots. How the industry works, the structure of the industry."
(Or, as he names one of his sections, "The Structure of Stealing.")
"What I wanted to do was not so much deal with the personalities, but the

One of the
reasons he wanted to do the book, he says, is that the nuts and bolts of black
music economics is "never really addressed by black intellectuals… The
‘black intellectual’ is a colossal fraud. This stuff is right under
our nose, and nobody [in the academy] ever touches it." He’ll credit
a nonacademic like Nelson George with almost getting the point, but ridicules
university types like Cornel West as fluffy poseurs (or what he has called in
these pages in the past "HNIC"–Head Negroes In Charge), spinning
obscurantist pomo theory about locating and interrogating the black image
blah blah blah. "They’ve gotten away with it because they use
the right jargon. Some white people hear a Negro speaking like that and they
think, ‘Oh, he must be intelligent. He’s saying the same things
I think.’"

The book–and
the polemics–begins with Kelley’s introductory essay. He writes that
the history of black music in America is a prime example of "the fundamental
economic relationship between whites and blacks in this society. Through various
modes of production and avenues of exchange, the relationship between the two
races has historically rested on whites’ ability to exploit and dominate
blacks’ bodies, images, and cultures. In the case of music, black artists
have rarely received the just benefits of their work, especially in comparison
to their white counterparts and those who control the music industry."

He cites
one critic’s contention that blacks in the industry labor under "plantation-like
conditions." The plantation owners being the handful of multinational conglomerates
that control the vast bulk of the music industry worldwide: AOL Time Warner,
Vivendi/Universal, Bertelsmann, EMI and SONY. Kelley memorably calls rap/hiphop
"a product of America’s urban Bantustans" and contends that "With
rap music, the inner cities have become the raw sites of cultural production,
and the music, once packaged, is sold to the suburbs, to white youths who feel
they can relate to [black youth] (but don’t have to pay the social consequences
of being black in a predominantly white society)."

Other contributors–who
include Chuck D, Courtney Love, Danny Goldberg and Reebee Garofalo–add
detail to this argument. There’s good basic history here, for instance,
on how the recording industry, which had ignored black music before the 1920s,
inexorably colonized the blues, jazz, r&b and soul music and packaged these
art forms for predominantly white audiences, most often, of course, ripping
off the performers and songwriters in the process.

But Kelley
also allowed for points of view that expand on his central thesis to make it
more inclusive of all popular music. Despite its focus on black musicians and
the undeniably terrible way the industry has historically treated them, R&B
suggests what I’ve always contended is a broader truth: The music business
is a big plantation where the overwhelming majority of artists, black and
white, jazz and rock and salsa, et al., labor as slaves, or at
best in indentured servitude, and most of them fail to make a decent living,
let alone become rich and famous.

Label veteran
Goldberg, for instance, offers a brilliantly clear lesson in how labels build
so many "recoupable expenses" into their contracts that an artist
who sells a respectable 200,000 copies of a CD effectively makes nothing from
it. Then again, neither does the label. It’s only when you sell in the
millions that economies of scale kick in and both sides profit. This explains
why the record industry (like other wings of the entertainment industry) puts
all its support behind potential blockbuster artists and tends to lose interest
quickly in even moderately successful acts. (I was reminded of something Mike
Doughty told me, about how Soul Coughing, despite selling some hundreds of thousands
of each of its CDs, ended its relationship with WEA technically owing the label
money for those "recoupables." Now, as a solo artist hawking his self-produced
CD on the road, he goes back to his motel every night with cash in his pocket,
owing nothing to nobody.)

Roberts’ essay deflates the myth of independent labels as havens of happy,
productive artists bucking the major-label system. Turns out many so-called
"independents" are owned, distributed by or otherwise intimately engaged
with the conglomerates, who use them as sources of cheap (and non-union) production,
the way other industries outsource production to Third World sweatshops.

Other contributors
note that, just as black artists haven’t been the only ones enslaved on
the music plantation, the plantation owners haven’t always been white folk.
Berry Gordy is often cited as an example of a black music businessman who enslaved
his artists as surely as any white mogul has. R&B points out that
many of rap’s most successful black entrepreneurs, like P. Diddy and Russell
Simmons, are middle-class, college-educated men who can be reasonably accused
of exploiting lower-class, urban black artists for the delectation of suburban
wiggers. The gangstas ’n’ bitches image of urban culture these rap
impresarios present to the larger world, this argument goes, is as stereotyped
and racist as any coon show dreamed up for the entertainment of whites 100 years

entries in R&B ponder why blacks have generally failed to develop
their own corner of the pop music industry in ways that are both financially
successful and good for the community. As Kelley says to me, "I think black
people have never really dealt with black music in the industry and the consequences
of that for black economic development. So you’re not looking at a talent
that you have [in the community] that you can exploit–"

Unless you’re
Berry Gordy, I cut in.

you’re Berry Gordy," he agrees with a laugh. Or Russell Simmons. But
even Gordy’s Motown, he adds, was swallowed up by the conglomerates eventually.
Gordy’s downfall, he jokes, was that "he went into what I call NIP
mode. I’ll use the polite term–Negro In Paradise." Wherein the
successful black man blisses out on his wealth and fame and access to white
power circuits, forgets his principles, loses touch with reality and eventually
flames out. Gordy’s hardly the only case.

Kelley believes the only way for the artists to wrestle more control of the
industry is to organize themselves–not a strong point for musicians, many
of whom, let’s face it, are giant egos pursuing a very personal dream of
riches, bitches and fame that leaves little time for uplifting their less successful
colleagues. (In this regard Kelley reminds me of the Mencken quote to the effect
that deep inside every American beats the heart of a capitalist.) Existing musicians’
unions are dying, the cunning bosses (and their legal teams) having long ago
divided and conquered them. If you’re in a unionized band, for example,
your vocalist is represented by one union, while the rest of the players are
in the other, and you may well find yourselves at odds over pay scales, rights,

Kelley sees
some dimly hopeful signs in efforts rap and hiphop musicians have been making
to organize themselves, and in the similar actions of rockers like Courtney
Love. Her open letter to "Fellow Recording Artists," issued in March
of last year, wisely focuses on a single issue: that the labels fail to provide
even basic health-care benefits for their artist-workers. Other issues musicians
might collectively address include the hideously convoluted contracts most of
them must sign to get records out, current work-for-hire practices and how royalties
and rights are assigned in an increasingly Napsterized environment. While these
are industry-insider issues that would hardly enflame support among the masses
of music consumers, Kelley cites one issue artists could use to enlist listeners’
support: the inflated price of CDs.

Kelley tells
me that white artists are well ahead of black ones in thinking about these issues;
it is a curious factoid that the lead goat among black collectives, the Rap
Coalition, was founded and is run by a wigga, Wendy Day. With the conglomerates
currently struggling to deal with the ominous specter of Internet distribution
as well as the sharp drop in revenues they saw in 2001, Kelley thinks the time
is right for artists to make some noise. Still, he concedes that the image of
pop musicians, whether headbangers or hiphoppers, sitting down anytime soon
at the collective bargaining table with the overlords of Bertelsmann is best
received with a healthy dose of skepticism.