Black Music Month 2013 - Part 1 (Why Black Music Month)
June 3, 2013
As we launch the first of our current series for Black Music 2013, we take a brief look at the current state of the music and radio industries. Then we’ll focus a little more on Black radio this time because it determined so much of the success of the music. If great songs and artists never got on the radio, never had hits, and never toured, our world wouldn't be the same. The future of the format and Black music is still shaped and determined by Black radio.
Most people know that June is the month that we celebrate Black Music. They also know that Â it is a month that has enormous significance for both the radio and music industries. Many don’t know why.
Today we live in a culture of instant gratification, where the attributes of patience and determination are often hard to find. While the spirit behind all those terms is still appropriate in 2013, the buzzwords “conservatism” and “rugged individualism” have taken on new meaning. While black is still and always will be beautiful to some, being black alone no longer puts bread on the table or gas in the tank.
What have we learned? Some of the lessons we already knew. Â We just reapplied them. It wasn't as though no real programming was going down in Black radio before the end of the ‘80s and ‘90s. It was just that there wasn’t as much real science and research being applied, even among major-market stations. PDs at Black radio up until the beginning of the ‘60s and ‘70s were usually just "chief announcers." They put up announcer schedules and worked with the public service and news directors to make certain shifts were covered. They did not offer advice to air talent. They didn't recruit, set salary plateaus or plan contests and promotions.
Even those who had the title simply didn't function as PDs. The reasons were many and varied. The primary reason was that they (the programmers at Black radio) had not been trained and they lacked the experience that would allow them to program with confidence. Most owners and managers didn't want to risk their stations to these untrained PDs.
During this period, programming had reached a point where the pressure had come from a lot of community-based groups to find and train some African-Americans to be put in charge of the growing number of Black stations that were springing up all over the country. Naturally, the first ones to be recruited were usually the announcers who had tenure in major markets.
Some of these guys had little or no knowledge of ratings, research or recruiting, but eventually some companies began training their chief announcers to become radio executives. The next step, of course, was to put some Black GMs in place. This task was somewhat easier because there were some Black salesmen and sales managers who could make the transition to the top management level.
Programming had become somewhat of an art form for other formats. No longer were DJs given the freedom to program their own shows. Gone were the theme songs and the creative freedom to include comments in between the songs they played. So was the clutter. Clutter was extraneous talk, long promotional announcements, and scheduled newscasts outside of mornings.
News, with the advent of deregulation, was limited to just the hours between 6 and 10a, and the result was that Black radio became much more controlled, lean and mean. A lot of jobs and people were eliminated in the process.
But progress was made. Those who were programming Black radio figured out how to cut the current playlist down to about 40-45 titles. They made certain that the oldies that were played were former top hits, and even learned to blend songs so that the smoothest possible transition occurred between songs.
About 1965, the composite hour theory was born. That theory said that every hour was like every other hour. The little shows done by each of the individual DJs were less than the big show, which was the whole of the broadcast week. The training was begun by the white PDs and finished by the Black PDs who eventually replaced them. DJs were brought in, usually after their shows, and forced to listen along with the PD to their tapes. Areas that needed improvement were pointed out to them.
The result was that Black PDs emerged who knew how to set up a station to win. They learned how to construct contests and how to make certain that there were no repeat winners. Research was used to determine what the most wanted prizes were.
On the music side, records were rotated throughout the broadcast day so that overplay and underplay of songs was carefully controlled and the audience found they could listen longer. All these practices made Black programming more competitive. In some markets, such as Memphis, Birmingham, Atlanta and Mobile, Black radio stations moved to the dominant position in the market.
In 2013, Urban radio is still letting go of some songs that they thought were no longer relevant or hip with their P1s â€¦ something that happens a lot once they cross over. Once listeners who are P1s to the format start hearing those songs on "their little sister's or brother's station," they often change their opinions of it. This is especially true of certain rap artists.
Just because an artist gets picked up by multiple formats doesn't mean that we should stop playing it in drive time. After all, isn't that what we want? As a business we are way over-thinking this issue because of the complaints of a very vocal few in the audience. Not that we don't care about those vocal few. We do, but we're in a mainstream business, which means we want 51% of the vote. If it's an act you consider still important to your audience and the format, you should support it. But it's also important that the artist(s), their management, and label know that imaging the artist with the station will be necessary for the station to consider treating them as core artists instead of song-to-song.
Payola & Consumer Spending
Another thing that was part of the Black music experience is payola. It exploded in 2005. That was the year in which New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer continued his inquiry into the music and radio business. His investigations even looked at company e-mails and found that certain major labels offered outright bribes to radio programmers in the form of vacation packages, electronics and other gifts.
The probe showed that, contrary to listener expectations, although some songs were selected for airplay based on artistic merit and popularity, airtime was also often determined by the undisclosed payoffs to radio stations and their employees.
Despite the payola findings, for Urban and Urban AC stations what is also emerging in 2013 are statistics that show the tremendous buying power that exists in the estimated $300-billion consumer market created by African-Americans. The total black population has increased in the last decade. Projections for population growth by the end of this decade show increases to at least 35 million consumers. Spendable income should grow at the same pace to exceed the $300 billion now available to advertisers, which Â include music purchasers.
The size of the African-American population, coupled with the propensity of blacks to spend a disproportionate share of their disposable income on music, continue to make marketing to African-Americans essential to the record industry.
New technologies are not legislated into being. They emerge and we plunge with them into whatever vortices of change they generate. We legislate after the fact, in a perpetual game of catch-up, as best we can, while our new technologies redefine us, as surely and perhaps as often as we've been redefined.
We attempted to come up with some of answers to the question of why. During the next three weeks we will share some stories and develop some new interest in our music and radio roots.
The history of racism in the music business has been documented in many ways, including the PBS television series on rock and roll. It showed how after the British invasion, the careers of black artists who had been "crossover" artists, meaning popular with both blacks and whites, took a sharp downward turn. When a black artist or group recorded a new song, a white group like the Diamonds or Pat Boone would do a cover version before the original version was released.
Record companies have cheated incredibly talented artists such as Ruth Brown and Little Richard. Many have lived and will die in obscurity after (or without) even brief moments of fame. This includes many whose music is still loved and played on the radio and continues to enrich our lives.
America today continues to be a conservative land whose people are preoccupied with safety, growth and economic stability, more selfishly perhaps than at any time in the last few years. There is nothing wrong with that except, realistically, individual and corporate gains are coming at the expense of the downtrodden, poor and have-nots -- groups whose major constituencies are America’s minorities. Many of these minorities are African-Americans with little or no hope. So just to maintain our current status quo, we must combine our efforts on a national basis.
As we celebrate June -- Black Music Month 2013 -- one of the goals and obligations those of us who are a position of influence is to work to better educate and assist those who seek career opportunities in radio and music and to help those already established in the field to reach higher levels of success. This is part of true empowerment.
Black Music Month is also a time when those of us in radio must recognize our responsibilities and take full advantage of our tremendous reach and influence and combine that with forward vision. Today, it’s not just about race, levels of income or struggle; it’s also about possibilities and dreams. Black Music Month is about recognizing that our history and our future exists because of the possibilities of those dreams.
(Next week Part 2)