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The Green Side Of White R&B

What’s the deal with so many white music artists singing black music? Why do white artists who sing black music get better promotion than black artists? Why is R&B music now synonymous with Hip-Hop?

These are some of the hot topics that often come up in private conversations with my industry associates and colleagues. I will attempt to shed some much needed light on these delicate, sensitive and somewhat controversial issues.

To really understand the phenomenon of white music artists singing R&B, you should begin with an examination of the motivation and purpose behind the establishment of “black music divisions” at record companies in the 60’s. While the success of Motown as a black owned operation has been well-documented and highly publicized, many of the competing record labels of that time lacked the personnel to adequately exploit the abundance of musically talented black teens.

White owned record companies shrewdly appointed black music executives who were more in tune and in touch with black music (and the black artists that created and performed it), to help interface with them. This was, after all, a time when race relations were strained and tentative.

Many record companies and radio stations took note of the increasingpopularity of R&B music among white teenagers and attempted to preserve racial barriers by denying them access to it. Their denial constituted a potential economic problem since the music industry (like most industries) thrives on supply and demand. Their solution: provide their darling teenaged kids with a "white" alternative; someone who "sounded" black and performed "black" music, a la Elvis Presley, whose popularity was soaring. It wasn’t uncommon for records in that era often to have two different versions - a white version and a black version - which was serviced to the appropriate audience.

In the 70’s, the push toward equality and peace gave birth to a moregregarious and unified music industry. Top bands like Sly & The FamilyStone, Tower of Power, Earth Wind & Fire, and The Commodores emergedand enjoyed success throughout the 70’s, but many lacked crossoverappeal and forced black music executives to search for other viable options in order to save their jobs. One option was Disco - the hot novelty genre.

Disco was more than a new genre; it was a cultural release from thelingering social anxieties and racial tensions of the 60’s and emerged as the dominant format because of its mass market appeal and universal acceptance. The music industry eventually sobered up from the lecherous activities and rampant drug abuse of the disco era in 1979, just in time to endure the worst financial year of its existence.

With slumping record sales and a gluttony of music acts that were signed to perform disco songs, the R&B music community returned to its soulful roots and searched desperately for an answer to rectify the problems that plagued it. The answer wasn’t written on the wall, but it was found in the album "Off The Wall" by Michael Jackson, which helped to transition R&B music back into a more "Pop-friendly" format; a la Motown.

While Michael captured the heart's and imaginations of white America with his unhuman dance moves, there were plenty of black music pioneers upholding the funky values and virtues of black music as we we marched into the techno era of the 80’s. R&B music seemed toundergo a much needed resurgence.

The R&B bands of the 70’s started to downsize in personnel as more emphasis was being placed on solo acts (a la Michael Jackson) and vocal groups. For the R&B music artist, the advent of technology superseded the need to be backed up by a band, ushering in the producer era which R&B music is heavily predicated on today.

It was also at this time that many record companies began merging and restructuring – a move that resulted in the loss of hundreds of jobs for black music executives who were worked in the black music divisions.

Shortly thereafter, we witnessed the birth of “blue-eyed soul” aswhite music artists who were performing R&B music begun to receive heavy and steady financial backing by their record labels. Hall & Oates enjoyed unprecedented success in the early and mid-80’s a litmus test for the acceptance of white artists performing R&B under the guise of Pop music.

While Hall & Oates may have raised a few eyebrows in the R&B music community, eyes were opened widely when George Michael, a formermember of Pop teen group Wham!, won a Grammy for the best "black" album in 1989. It was the first time in history that a white solo music artist topped the R&B charts. The R&B music community was outraged as veteran black music artists Freddie Jackson and Gladys Knight denounced the political voting practices of the Academy that renders the nominations.

While the award was well-deserved in terms of record sales and radio airplay, the color lines of who qualified as a "black" music artist had been redefined. When the smoke cleared, the music industry in general, and R&B music community in particular, would both be changed forever.

As we stood on the doorsteps of the 90’s, more black music executives lost their jobs as record companies continued the trend of merging, restructuring and downsizing in an effort to diversify their business interests and increase their profits.

Rap music was (finally) being fully embraced as a commerciallyviable genre and record companies moved quickly to cash in on it. The appeal of low investments, and (potentially) high returns, constituted a major shift in business practices at record companies, and black music artists found themselves jockeying for position on therevamped priority lists of their now predominantly white musicexecutives. After all, Rap was already achieving magical "underground" sales.

All the record companies needed to do was bring it to the surface and supply their distribution and marketing resources them. Since much of the music was already recorded, they could also circumvent many of therecording costs as well. While the music industry made an overtand deliberate attempt to position itself to supply what appeared to be an insatiable demand for Rap music, it lost sight of the distinction between R&B music, and Rap music.

R&B music lovers helplessly watched as orders came down from white music executives to incorporate elements of Rap music into R&B songs to make them more competitive with Rap, since Rap music artists posed a clear and tangible threat to the record sales of R&B music artists.

At the time, Mariah Carey and Color Me Badd were enjoying newfoundstardom that came (once again) as a result of white music executivespushing a novelty agenda of white music artists performing R&B music.Both of the aforementioned acts were initially viewed (by black audiences) as alternatives to their black competitors (Whitney Houston and Boyz II Men respectively), but with such strong marketing and promotional campaigns, both Mariah Carey and Color Me Badd were able to establish their own identity.

Today, the trend continues with white music executives diligently marketing and promoting the novelty agenda of white music artists such as Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera, Joss Stone, Anastacia, etc. singing R&B. Some insiders say that the music industry continues to deliberately and intentionally find alternatives to black music artists to service to whiteaudiences such as Britney Spears, who was presented as an alternative to Janet Jackson, and Nelly Furtado, who draws similarities to Erykah Badu, you decide.

While some will argue that it’s not a simple matter of black versus white since some of the aforementioned music artists are not "white" but are of different ethnicities or even “part” black, the fact is that the widely held opinion in the black community is that if you don’t look black (possessing obvious African American features), then you are not. You are something else other than black; and "white" becomes a description of an unknown racial category.

The new business model of the music industry has created newopportunities for black entrepreneurs, but many of them lack the financial resources to take advantage of them. As a result they are often forced to participate in the production of Rap music, or R&B music with Rap production as they try to manufacture or supply product and artists that will enable them to embark upon partnerships and joint ventures with the same record companies that dissolved their black music divisions in the first place.

History and research shows that the music industry has continued tosystematically reduce the role of the black music executive. Many of those who remain are often relegated to the now dispensable role of liaison, gatekeeper and hand-holder for troubled rap acts in this new Hip-Hop era. A far cry from a time when they were once responsible for finding, developing and supporting premier black music artists who created some of the greatest music that we now view as the soundtrack to the this country’s history.

Those songs are still the choice of middle-aged Americans who tune into oldieradio stations across the country that have adopted "Classic Soul" as a new format. Where does that leave R&Bmusic artists of today? They are left to compete or join forces withrap artists since they have been lumped into the same"Urban" or "Hip-Hop" music category.

The formulaic use of R&B to inject a commercial element into Rapmusic has contributed significantly to the fusion, and confusion regarding the distinction of both genres. This can be traced back to the 80’s when R&B acts such as Lakeside and Confunksion had huge hitswith songs that incorporated Rap ("Fantastic Voyage," "ElectricLady," and "Square Biz"), R&B music embarked upon a trial marriage that turned out to be a permanent one.

R&B is now used to bolster the talent level perception, blackaudience appeal, and record sales of white music artists inevery genre. Even Country (a genre that is guarded by a closed-knit circle of protective white executives), borrows heavily from R&B.

Country is a genre that is ripe for infiltration by conventional R&B artists, but unlike R&B music - which has become a community genre with no one race retaining the inherent rights to perform it – thelikelihood of that occurring is slim because of the unquestioned andunchallenged exclusion of other races.

The significant issue in white R&B music artists versus blackR&B music artists can be narrowed down to one question: who gets the greater commitment and promotion from their record companies to service a larger audience of consumers?

When one considers the commitment level, dedicated resources, and promotional opportunities which are more abundant for white R&B music artists, and that blacks only account for 15% of the population, and that white music artists inherit a larger audience to begin with, understanding the green side of white R&B becomes much easier.

© Copyright 2006.

Submitted by:

Gian Fiero

Gian Fiero has over 15 years of experience as a former personalmanager and current music industry consultant who specializes in musiclicensing, in which capacity he facilitates the search for, andnegotiates the use of, songs in all forms of media. He has been apanelist, mentor, and moderator at many industry conferences, and afrequent guest lecturer on music business topics at San FranciscoState University's Music Recording Industry Program; Oakland's HighSchool for the Arts; California Lawyers for the Arts; the U.S. SmallBusiness Administration; and the Learning Annex. Additionally, he isthe creator of "The Fiero Filter," an industry tip sheet for contentusers; and the senior music reviewer for The Muse's Muse.

gfc@musesmail.com





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