Rhythm And Business: The Political Economy of Black Music
Edited by Norman Kelly
As a major premise, black musicians getting a raw deal from the recording industry is easy enough to argue. The minor premise, that blacks were chosen out particularly for shabby treatment stretches the thought a bit farther. After all, the music industry is notorious for the art of the raw deal, shoddy accounting, and outright theft from artists of all ethnic persuasions. In this collection of essays, combing through the facts supporting major and minor points takes on an academic quality that makes for mostly dreary reading, with only the occasional tidbit to keep one slogging along. It’s the history of blues, all right, written by the accountant and not the road manger.
Split into several parts, this book grew from an essay written by Kelly entitled “Rhythm Nation: The Politics of Black Music.” Rather than extend the thesis himself, he chose other semicolon-laden titles to fill out a book. The result is a thoroughly documented publication that could stand up to any hostile tenure committee in the world. The result is NOT a light or lively read. Some essays are so dry and pedantic that I nearly gave up and did my taxes — you can skip the 1987 NAACP report “The Discordant Sound of Music.” To summarize in a sentence, “There aren’t enough blacks in music business, and there should be more.” If you want the sawdust backing this self-evident truth, it’s there, but I recommend you glide on to other sections.
More enlightening are the historic stories of early race music labels like Paramount. (“The Anatomy of a Race Music Label”) This nice little history by author Stephen Calt details the rise of J. Mayo (Ink) Williams, a man who put many early artists on shellac for the first time. Another gem is “Crossing Over: From Black Rhythm and Blues to White Rock and Roll” by Reebee Garofalo, presenting a concise synopsis of the business practices of race music, the union fights over the spoils of radio and recording, and how Motown rose and flourished by ripping off black artists. Danny Goldberg also contributes an interesting economic analysis of just where the money goes for a mildly successful act. (“The Ballad of a Midlevel Artist”). Yeah, there’s a slug of cash sloshing around, but only by financing new acts of the backs of more successful acts can a recording company survive. And frankly, there are tons of loser acts out there — visit any used record store and check out he dollar bin. Who WERE those people, anyway?
A few points come from these stories loud and clear. First off, entertainment is a cutthroat business, and it’s all about moving product out the door. Neither black idealism nor black solidarity nor black recording technicians will change the economics of the business, no matter how strongly anyone protests, and no matter how deserving any past or present artist is. It’s not just white management ripping off the black artists. It’s white AND black management ripping off ALL artists — and if they didn’t they might not survive long enough to bring the next group forward. Some of this is greed, pure and simple. Some of it is a relic of copyright laws they predate radio and mass sales of mechanically recorded music. Some of it is naivete on the part of talent — people desperate to reach for stardom may accept any terms for the chance. When that chance fails, they are left empty handed.
Rhythm And Business is at best a book for some one deeply concerned about the theoretical redress of racially-induced economic unfairness. Perhaps unintentionally, it argues the problem stems not from racial antipathy, but the system that rewards capitalists who profit from capital risked, and that there may never be a real, fair, solution to the problem. There is good advice offered, but whether a beginning artist could actually use it is an open question. As Ink Williams said, “We only know how good you are by what the sales figures tell us.” If you haven’t sold anything yet, well…
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