Rhythm and Bullshit?: The Slow Decline of R&B, Part Three: Media Conglomeration, Label Consolidation

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Epilogue

On February 8, 1996, Bill Clinton signed into law the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996. At the same time Jay Z was preparing for the late-spring release of his debut, Reasonable Doubt, unaware that he and many other hip-hop acts were about to benefit from the atmosphere of deregulation and capital accumulation that the new law typified. Reasonable Doubt was released by Roc-A-Fella Records, an independent label founded by Carter, Karreim Biggs and Damon Dash. By 1998 Roc-A-Fella would enter into a joint equity deal with Def Jam, itself a former indie label, founded in 1984 by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin and later distributed by Sony and Polygram. When Roc-A-Fella and Def Jam agreed to partner, a 40 percent share of the latter was about to be sold to Polygram for $130 million. Shortly thereafter Polygram was bought by Seagram (yes, the liquor company), creating the Universal Music Group, which would later be acquired by the French company Vivendi. At the very moment that Vivendi/Universal (where Jay Z, 50 Cent, The Game and Eminem currently work) was unveiled, Clear Channel could claim ownership of more than 1,200 radio stations — 247 of them in the top 250 national radio markets. Clear Channel’s emergence as the dominant force in commercial radio was directly related to the bill that Clinton signed into law in 1996. Confusing? Of course it is, but imagine how confusing it was — and still is — for your local up-and-coming R&B artist who can’t find a major label to sign her or a urban radio station that would play her music even if she did.

Arguably the most noticeable of the wide-ranging effects of the Telecommunications Act has been the Clear Channeling of America’s public airwaves. Prior to 1996 companies were constrained from owning more than two radio stations in any market and could own no more than 28 nationally. The logic behind this was simple: As the Broad Artist Coalition and the Future of Music Coalition argued in their joint letter to the FCC and Congress in 2002, “radio is a public asset, not private property…. The quid pro quo for free use of the public bandwidth requires that broadcast stations serve the public interest in their local communities.” While many radio stations do some form of public-affairs programming — usually in the early morning hours on the weekend — serving the public is broader than that. Part of the responsibility of any radio station is to support music that speaks to local tastes. This is one of the ways that local music scenes have developed and been nurtured in the past, whether it was Rhythm and Blues in the Midwest in the early 1960s (which produced Motown and Curtis Mayfield), the Philly Soul of Thom Bell and Gamble and Huff in the 1970s or hip-hop in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1980s.

In the aftermath of the Telecommunications Reform Act, the massive consolidation in radio has left fewer people making the decisions about what music will be played. The ten largest radio conglomerates in the U.S. control more than two thirds of the national radio audience, with Clear Channel and Viacom (which, incidentally, owns both MTV and BET) controlling more than 40 percent of that. That these conditions impact what music you hear on the radio and the ability of local groups to get on their local radio station goes without saying. In the past, for example, if a particular region had 20 radio stations, 20 different program directors (PDs) would likely decided what would be played. In the current environment playlist decisions are now in the hands of a smaller group of PDs, who often cede some of their decision making power to regional and national program directors. Furthermore, as the Future of Music Coalition noted in their 2002 report “Radio Deregulation: Has It Served Citizens and Musicians”, in any given region, the concentration of ownership among a small number of conglomerates is even more intense. The Clear Channeling of radio has homogenized American radio. This is why urban stations in the major markets all sound the same.

The nationalizing of local radio has made it increasingly difficult for listeners in various locales to hold programmers accountable. One of the best examples of these struggles was the protest of New York City’s Hot 97 (WQHT-FM), after the station’s morning drive-time team performed a racially insensitive parody about the tsunami that destroyed portions of Indonesia and Africa. Though nationwide protest eventually forced the station’s parent company, Emmis, to fire a producer and a host at WQHT and to pledge $1 million in tsunami relief, the fact that the drive-time hosts felt comfortable enough to perform a bit that was so insensitive to its core audience in the first place speaks to the distance between the conglomerates that manage the stations and the communities they are supposed to serve. About the people who ultimately decide what’s heard on your local radio station, activist and journalist Davey D recently told Democracy Now, “we’ve got to know that these are 40 and 50-year-old men and women behind the scenes, calling the shots, deciding that at 7:00 at night, you can hear the Yin Yang Twins talking about ‘wait until you see mi d-i-c-k’ and that it’s not a problem.”

Along with radio consolidation has come the emergence of nationally syndicated morning drive-time programming (6:00 to 10:00 A.M. in most markets) geared toward African-American and other so-called urban audiences. Of these syndicated shows, the Tom Joyner Morning Show (TJMS) is best known. With a foothold in more than a hundred urban radio markets, the TJMS is potentially a formidable political force, as it can reach and unify listeners across the country. In its best moment, the TJMS is a digitized version of the chitlin’ circuit, the network of clubs, restaurants, hotels, dance halls and the like that were crucial components of black life and culture during the era of Jim Crow segregation. As African-Americans pushed for integrated social and cultural institutions in the 1950s and 1960s, the thinking was that the chitlin’ circuit would die off. But in the current era of niche marketing — which urban radio and R&B exemplify — the chitlin’ circuit survives not to unite to black audiences but to deliver advertisers access to a vibrant black middle class with disposable incomes.

Brian McKnight

Musically, the TJMS adheres to a standard “smooth R&B and classic Soul” format with no interest in breaking new R&B acts. Instead they have made even harder for local acts to break through. Nationally syndicated shows such as the TJMS or The Doug Banks Morning Show (on ABC Radio Networks), have made local drive-time personalities obsolete, thus denying many audiences the opportunity to have their local culture and music reflected during the drive-time hours, when listenership is at its peak. Despite being jettisoned from New York’s WRKS in early 2003, the TJMS cemented its domination of the urban market when Tom Joyner entered into a partnership with Cathy Hughes’s Radio One Corporation, the largest black-owned radio conglomerate.

Consolidation was not restricted to radio. In the late 1990s record-label consolidation also played its part in the demise of R&B. As Michael Roberts notes in his essay “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” label consolidation began in the late 1960s when WEA (Warner Brothers, Elecktra, Atlantic) became one of the first super labels (See Rhythm and Business). Motown Records, which the Harvard Report urged the Columbia Record Group not to purchase in 1972, was eventually sold to Polygram in the mid-1980s. The Columbia Records Group itself was purchased by Sony in 1988, at which point much of the popular music produced in the United States was controlled by what was referred to as the “big six”. With the merger of Seagram’s music holdings with Polygram in 1998 and the recent annexation of Sony music by BMG (Sony BMG Music Entertainment), six has become four. With the recording industry is dominated by four transnational conglomerates, fewer people make development and production decisions and fewer staff the A&R (artist and repertoire) departments responsible for signing new talent.

Because R&B had lost market share to hip-hop in the late 1990s and because new R&B was neglected due to the programming logic of “classic Soul and smooth R&B” formats, R&B became viewed as a retrograde genre. While undiscovered Soul and R&B artists suffered under consolidation, hip-hop has benefited. Forms of hip-hop thought to be regional as little as 10 years ago thrived in the new media landscape. The perception among both the record labels and radio programmers is that this older audience is unwilling to support contemporary R&B music to the extent that younger urban and crossover audiences support hip-hop (the success of “classic Soul and R&B” tours of course suggest otherwise). Even those acts perceived to have commercial potential among traditional R&B audiences — I’m thinking specifically of the Philly Neo-Soul scene that produced Musiq, India.Arie, Jill Scott, Bilal, Res, Kindred, Jaguar Wright, Amel Larrieux and Floetry — we’re marketed as throwback performers, whose proclivities for so called positivity were construed as an aesthetic value. Regardless of the critical acclaim that Neo-Soul (organic R&B) received, major labels and urban radio never thought it anything but a niche market. Of course, such top-tier stars of R&B as Mary J. Blige, Usher, and Mariah Carey (no longer marketed as a pop act) held their own in the marketplace, often trading creativity for familiarity, rehashing the production styles that first made them popular or acquiescing to the allure of hip-hop-style production in an attempt to remain relevant to younger urban audiences.

One would be hard pressed to think of an R&B artist, established or otherwise, that has received the kind of promotional support that 50 Cent or The Game received for their major label debuts. One recent exception might be Alicia Keys, though a fair amount of her initial success must be chalked up to Clive Davis’s bag of tricks — this is the man who helped established a little known teenage singer from New Jersey, Whitney Houston, as the best selling female vocalist of the last generation. And such artists as Ashanti, Ciara and John Legend weren’t necessarily promoted on their own merit but on the merit of their hip-hop benefactors. Lacking strong promotional support, many established R&B acts have little incentive to push the envelope on their recordings. The career trajectories of Gerald Levert and Brian McKnight are instructive. Though these two are easily the most consistent artists in contemporary R&B, their recent recordings rarely break from the formula that helped establish them more than a decade ago (Levert’s Do I Speak for the World? might be the exception). Their respective labels value such an approach because when peddling a known commodity McKnight and Levert can regularly move 500,000 units without any real promotional support.

Meanwhile consolidation allowed hip-hop to leverage its growing commercial power. As major labels began to seek out regional hip-hop groups to sign — much like the imperial powers of the past seeking to annex new lands (and resources) to their empires — it created the context where these groups could quickly and easily gain a national audience once they were added to the playlists of the urban stations of the major radio conglomerates (and video channels). The damn-near-hegemony of crunk in 2005 is probably the best example of this process. Crunk is not a new phenomenon — can anybody say MC Shy-D? — but the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996 allowed for the regional Southern sound to be heard in places like Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and other locales far-removed from the “dirty, dirty.”

Gerald Levert

But aspiring R&B artists have been challenged by what the Future Music Coalition calls the “twin bottleneck” effect. Basically, with intense consolidation in both the recording industry and commercial radio, artists are squeezed out of a hearing at both the labels and radio stations. While independent labels remain an option for artists, the reality is that the four major label conglomerates — the four industry gatekeepers — are responsible for more than 80 percent of what makes it on commercial radio play lists. As the Future of Music Coalition explains, “Major record labels have large promotional budgets. Because the promotional money is there, radio companies have an incentive to make access to the airwaves more scarce, and thus more expensive” (my emphasis). And of course, among the major-label conglomerates, the competition for the airwaves is fierce, as airplay directly affects sales.

What strategies can a label employ to guarantee that their artists will receive the kind of airplay that they deserve? In the early days of rock and roll, the practice of payola was critical for up-and-coming labels trying to get the attention of DJs, who at the time were primarily responsible for what was played on the radio. For example, there is a subtle scene in the recent film Ray, where Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records passes cash on to a DJ to get him to play Ray Charles’s breakthrough crossover hit “I Got a Woman”. But paying DJs to play certain records has been illegal since the early 1960s, when Cleveland-based DJ Alan Freed was indicted on charges of bribery.

As program directors replaced DJs as the primary gatekeepers of radio playlists, forms of payola have become more elaborate and covert (See Fredric Dannen’s Hit Men). In fact there were two notable forms of payola, that while highly suspect, were legal. One was the practice of using “independent” promoters to interact with radio programmers (thus obscured the possibility that labels are directly paying stations) and the other was that of “paid spins”, where songs for a particular label are played as part of an advertisement spot. The latter is perfectly legal, as long as its disclosed that the spot is paid for by said label. The case of independent promoters received much of the attention in investigations of illegal payola, simply because of the huge amount of money exchanged between labels, promoters and radio stations to guarantee that certain records regular airplay. According to Eric Boehlert, in the latest of his on-going articles on commercial radio at Salon.com, the practice of paying independent promoters cost labels as a group as much as $150 million annually. In this environment, virtually everything that appears on a station’s playlist has been paid for in one form or another.

Most radio programmers retreated from using independent promoters when Representative Russ Feingold and others in Congress, and most recently New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, began to raise questions about the process. (The same retreat occurred in the mid-1980s when Rudy Guliani, then an U.S. Attorney, and Al Gore, then a senator from Tennessee, announced payola probes). Though Boehlert can boldly claim that payola, in its most recent incarnation, is “dead”, he has also acknowledged that urban radio is the “Wild, Wild, West” of the record industry. Indeed, Cedric Muhammed of Blackelectorate.com, asserts that in the recent past DJs at Radio One, for example, have been “admonished” for playing music that is not on the station’s playlist and in some cases “terminated” if a non-playlist song is played five or more times. R&B artists who don’t appeal to younger urban/hip-hop audiences are already at a disadvantage at the major labels, and even those aligned with independent labels who do support them, like, say, Hidden Beach, home to Jill Scott, Lina and Kindred the Family Soul, are further disadvantaged because commercial radio is governed by how much one is willing to pay to get tunes on the air. While it’s easy to suggest that audiences have the power to demand music that they would like to hear, the reality is that an audience must first know alternatives exist. And mainstream commercial radio remains the place where most listeners become aware of new music.

The current radio and label consolidation, along with the emergence of hip-hop as the dominant cross-over genre and the perceived aging of traditional R&B audiences, has created the situation where the best R&B being recorded is simply not heard by the audience that would be attracted to it. Satellite Radio has been one of the places where new R&B can be heard, but the format’s overall audience is still paltry when compared to that of commercial radio. The alleged death of payola suggests that at the moment, at least, there exists the possibility for a more diverse range of music to hit the commercial airwaves, but even Boehlert laments that “tight radio playlists are unlikely to improve anytime soon”, in part because programmers “will rely more and more on proven hits singles as well as older, already familiar songs, leaving less airtime for new acts.” Ultimately, the current state of contemporary R&B has little to do with the mediocrity of R&B’s status quo — there is great music to be heard — but unless mainstream labels create conditions in which emerging R&B artists can be nurtured, without the pressure to cross-over to urban youth audiences, and audiences themselves become more vigilant about seeking out and supporting new music, much of R&B’s current greatness will fall on deaf ears.

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Part One | Part Two | Part Three

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