Soul and The Business of Music

So, I’m still reeling from the comments made a few weeks ago by Terius Youngdell Nash a.k.a. The Dream when he said, “Blacks can’t do soul records anymore.”  Maybe reeling is too strong of a word and over emphasizes my response to what he said. Let’s just say his statement has kept me thinking about the state of Black music and the music industry for quite a few days now.  My prolonged thinking about his statement is not predicated on if what he said may or may not be true but rather what I hear on the radio in terms of soul music.  I don’t hear it!  You see, for some time, I’ve heard people say that Black music is changing–artists don’t sing like they used to and the music lacks a certain dimension.  The sound that was once front and center in a soul song has now paled in comparison to what was once heard on the radio or is simply missing altogether (think of the vocals and music of Al Greene, Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, Aretha Franklin, Patti Labelle, and Chaka Kahn).  This is indeed what I hear from people of a “certain age,” like myself, who have had the opportunity to witness the evolution of music over the past few decades.  From what I hear on the radio Blacks in fact don’t make soul music anymore.

So, I was thinking, “why is this?” and  “why don’t I hear Blacks singing soul music on the radio anymore?  Something has changed.  Is it that Blacks can’t sing with a soul sensibility anymore?  Let me be clear, when I say soul, I’m speaking of a voice, which possesses the ability to grab your attention and drag you through emotional highs and lows weather you want to or not.

Chaka singing soul

I’m speaking of the kind of voice that contains enough power to fill almost any room without being mic’d and can navigate the chordal dynamics of a live band without getting lost in the sonic and melodic interplay of the instruments.  Furthermore, someone who has a bit of musical acuity must wield this voice.  The person wielding this voice can and will stop anyone in their tracks.  It is hard to ignore.

But wait, surprisingly, this voice does in fact exist.  It can be heard in the small clubs, coffee shops, backrooms, the parking lot of churches, rented halls, weddings ceremonies, funerals, and talent contests from New York, Atlanta, to Austin, and Los Angeles.

Marvin Gaye (David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives)

They are just not heard on the radio.  Why not?  The music industry has changed! There has been a disturbance in the force!  I feel record companies have evolved from small enterprises led by individuals who had real interest in music and music culture to large companies run by executives hell-bent on the promotion and sale of a product with huge profits in mind.  At one time, small enterprising leaders were more often than not willing to take a chance on artists and their artistry.  They recognized “talent” and the importance of developing that talent as well as understood the value of uniqueness.  Today, record companies employ executives who are imbued with a business sense and have no real ground level connection to music and its culture.  They do not take chances; it’s not good business sense.  Today’s record company executive is simply about the product and the bottom line.  A question like “Does investing in this individual, group, or band make fiscal sense given our financial outlook and projections this quarter?” is what ultimately drives today’s record company.  Don’t get me wrong, I know the small record enterprises run by individuals with a connection to the music had a bottom line as well.  They too wanted to make a profit.  However, the drive for a profit did not diminish or compromise the integrity of the music, in fact, these individuals wanted to capture the essence of the music and keep theirs and the music’s integrity intact (think Stax, 50s and 60s Atlantic records and Motown).  Being true to the music and letting the artist explore, expand, and flourish in their musical endeavors made great radio several decades ago.

Moreover, record companies are money-making entities refined and designed to profit and are no longer in the business of developing or showcasing soul music and its culture.  For the large music companies (Universal Music Group, Sony/BMG Music Group, Warner Music Group, and EMI) the music and the artists are strictly a product to be sold.  The ear for soul music no longer holds capital within the large companies.  Record companies function in such a way as to make a quick return on their investments.  Taking time to develop an artist is a no go–artists’ music must be immediately viable.  In order to do this, record companies must continuously seek out the next popular “sensation” to market and sell, which by its very design the product tends to be disposable.  As a result, speaking for myself, in terms of soul music, when I listen to the radio I am subjected to less than mediocre efforts.  Gone are the intelligent soulful hyperboles and any decent poetic aesthetic imbedded in lyrics.  Ultimately, to a certain extent, record company executives become the final arbiter of musical taste of an entire population.  Are you serious?!!!!

In the end, can Blacks do soul records?  Yes, they can.  They can record songs thick with cultural history individual talent and musical skill that will sit you down.  But these recordings will not be found on the radio.  Record companies neither have the ear nor the financial drive for Black soul music. That’s okay, the Dream and I can listen to Internet radio!

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2 thoughts on “Soul and The Business of Music

  1. I loved your article. And I agree with you and The-Dream as well. Alot of musicians has been forced to be pop-friendly. One example: Usher. I like him but loved him when he did RnB. But anyway…I guess thats why I don’t listen to the radio..

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