Slaves of the Music Industry

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Everyone 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 money.

That's 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 New 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."

"If 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 system."

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 in 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.)

Michael 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 ago.

Several 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.

"Unless 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.

Ultimately, 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, etc.

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.

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