Written by Nicole D. Davis
The Congo drum opening, of the O’Jay’s, “I Love Music”, cuts to the core of our musical soul connecting us to the essence of our ancestry and the music many of us were raised on. We are familiar with the lyrics… “Music is the healing force of the world.” This song transcends race, socioeconomics, and our social conditions. As we celebrate Black Music Month, I took an opportunity to talk with a few women industry trailblazers who have supported and lead teams of executives to expose our cultural gems of Rhythm and Blues, Hip Hop, Jazz, Gospel, and Rock & Roll to the masses. Their resumes and reputations precede them; Phylicia Fant, Sharon Heyward, Cynthia Johnson, Daria Langford Trumpet, and Dyana Williams were kind enough to share some of their experiences and thoughts about our beloved music industry past, present, and future.
In 1978, Dyana Williams, affectionately dubbed the “Mother of Black Music Month”, along with songwriter, producer Kenny Gamble and broadcaster Ed Wright, petitioned President Jimmy Carter to designate June as Black Music Month. A large delegation of music industry pioneers journeyed to the White House reception to endorse the importance of recognizing the contributions that Black Music has weaved into the fabric of America, as well as, world culture. In 2000, Williams co-authored the formalized bill supported by Congressman Chaka Fattah, making June official Black Music Month.
Some of our panel shared what lead them to the music industry. Sharon Heyward notes, “I had just graduated from High School and had my daughter Monique and needed a job… The newspaper had two jobs – Columbia Record Production and AT&T. AT&T was pretty mundane and I figured I could always go do that… I went for Columbia Records Production and got the job. ” Soon after Sharon found her way to Buddha records and her journey began.
Daria recounts her entrance was more of a legacy, her Mom worked in her aunt’s local Chicago record shop while carrying her, she jokes, “I was literally born in a record store.” In high school, she worked in a record shop and her great love of music was amplified. She also got to see the working end of “the business”. “Growing up we were exposed to all kinds of music from Jazz, Soul, Classical, R&B, to Blues. While teaching elementary school by day, her Godfather pulled her into the industry after school by doing independent retail marketing. “I reconnected with some friends at an industry funeral and soon landed my first job at RCA as a regional promotion representative in Detroit… thanks to Jun Moon.” Langford notes her first promotion crush was Sharon Heyward. She recollects her first promotion staff conference call, “This chick was reading the riot act from the VP’s on down. I wanted to grow up to be just like her.”
Matriculating as an executive for women seems like a difficult but doable task. As with many, industries the question arose how they felt about sexism, the “boys club” and the concept of the glass ceiling. Cynthia Johnson, VP of Urban Promotion at Columbia Records, believes that the glass ceiling only exists if you put limitations on yourself, “Your perception of where you are and where you want to be are keys to your success.” As a regional out of Chi – Town, she wanted to take the next steps but was keenly aware that every position makes the world go round. CJ noted that you really have to approach the industry with a sense of personal balance, “What does having a particular job really really mean?”
Daria remarked that her mentor and Godfather, George Williams, passed along his street savviness by teaching her the record game and would always remind her it’s, “The book of the unwritten rule.” Seeing a Sharon or Legia Lott, as east /west coast regional directors meant it was attainable.
“Both of them were slangin’.” Daria never felt it was something, she should not or could not do. “It never occurred to me as a little local. I was never intimated. Getting the record played and being part of the branch was my initial job”.
Sharon shared that during her tenure Black Music Departments were like families. Run by Black men, you could always reach a Jim Tyrell or LeBaron Taylor for advice or support. “Ray Harris taught me budgets. You did not feel the pressure.” But be very clear that you could see the racial divide when budgets were managed by “white boys” and where the distribution of money was placed between Pop artists versus Black artists, Heyward emphatically stated “I just wanted what was fair.”
On the publishing side Poised creator, Audra Washington, feels that music is and was a cut throat industry because they were not trying to cut Black Artist a fair shake. We have heard many a tale of people signing away their publishing or striking ridiculous deals without counsel. The publishing side is where the residual money is. The more your song is played, sampled, re-recorded the more money the writer makes.
Contemporaries Daria and Sharon shared that there was not a specific playbook on how to break artists. The uniqueness of the music made you develop artist on a case by case basis. Relationships with your staff and radio programmers were essential to garnering airplay. Daria remarks, “I had really good teachers and learned how to study people and handle my markets.”
Sharon recalls the challenge of getting Lenny Kravitz’ “It Ain’t Over Till it’s Over”, to a top 5 R&B hit on Billboard and Black Radio. “It was not a matter of a record, I had to have Lenny in my office and say ok listen… I need you to go to radio with me. I need you to put a face to this. People gotta touch, they gotta feel, we need to go to DC. My man was a little earthy at the time… So we had to talk about him being more relatable to his Black side. When he showed up in his mauve Superfly suit he was amazing and everybody fell in love. Because he was always smart, his mother was Black… he knew… he just never had to go on that side. We were good!” Sharon lamented, “It would be great if Lenny put out a soul record, collaborate with Maxwell or Miguel, or write with somebody like an Angie Stone. Promotion is no longer enough. Now you have to look at it from a marketing standpoint. You need to put the package together. Not many are people doing that and that’s why R&B is such a mess.”
Black radio’s ownerships demise and the illusion that a Clear Channel or Emmis understands the genre even with Black programmers and jocks has exacerbated the problem. Formatting and merging black artist into the crossover Pop radio pigeon hole has taken its toll on R&B. The portal for new music has become very small and competitive. Hip hop and classic R&B radio sans current R&B has taken part of the market share.
Distribution deals of the past like Uptown, LaFace, Bad Boy that took a no holds barred approach. They were deemed crazily over budget by the establishment but most creative in artist development combined with the emergence of street teams. They left an indelible mark. Replicating the Berry Gordy approach by creating bodies of music with both R&B and Hip Hop artist including a cadre of producers, writers and artists that were featured on one another’s projects was a way to maintain the genres. Artists were required to bring their most creative, edgy music and have more than one hit on their album. With the advent of internet sales, free downloads being singles driven, artist don’t leave their entire soul on the floor.
Dyana feels “The digital divide has moved us towards the abolishment of Black Music, very few artist are now green-lit”. We no longer have conferences that unify executives and provide venues to showcase new artists. Back in the day, artists as well as executives could attend Jack the Rapper, Black Radio Exclusive, or Impact. All of these conferences were supported by weekly publications that provided information about the artist, charts and the like. “The lack of unity dismantles the music”.
We have to remember that income dictates access to unlimited use of the Web 24/7. Kids and adults may have smart phones but based upon the cost of their plan they are often limited to the amount of time they can spend searching for music and discovering new artists.
In the past radio promotion ran artist exposure, but today social media plays a large role in keeping artist in the forefront. Phylicia Fant, Vice President of Publicity and Lifestyle Strategy of Warner Music Group reports that, “Hip Hop is the voice of youth that has a non-traditional landscape including social media. I-Tunes is very political with regard to how you get selected, plus the budget needed for exposure, and placement.” The same holds true with the last bastion of brick and mortar music retailers such as Target. She notes, “Good music can break through!”
Many of today’s artist have taken a more comprehensive approach to the business of music, making sure they hold on to their intellectual properties, and branding opportunities.
CJ explains, “Artist are doing things differently. They are not just going down the traditional road. They are pushing the boundaries and are a little left of center.” The cross pollination… and multiple impressions in the overall marketplace helps sell records and breaks artists. Back in the day radio ruled sales. Music is now all over; radio, online, TV commercials, The NBA finals…”
In Paterson, New Jersey, Elementary School #7 is eliminating its music and science teachers due to state budget cuts. Essentially, this is making the development of our next generation of artists an impossibility from that inner city outlet. As supporters of Black Music, it becomes imperative for us all to promote our children’s creative voices in music and art. Our history is rich filled with flavors and expressions yet to be heard. Do not allow your public school systems to dismantle music and art programs. The next great artists are coming thru those doors. Become an advocate for all of our musical forms: R&B, Jazz, Hip Hop, Gospel and Blues. Attend local elementary, Jr high and high school concerts, support live music, new and upcoming local artist and support national concerts tours. Call your local stations to request new music. Make sure you down load entire albums not just the single for .99. Black music has always been our social commentary. Don’t let the systematic deletion of our voices take place on our watch.
Remember, “Music is the healing force of the world. It’s understood by every man, woman, boy and girl… And that’s why, that’s why I say I love music…