Media, Technology, and the African American Music Business
African Americans have participated in all aspects of music-making in the United States since before it became a country. Their talent, creativity, technological know-how, business acumen, and organizational skills have survived systematic discrimination at every stage of development from the Industrial Revolution to the digital age.
Music Publishing and Sound Recording
Prior to the invention of sound recording, the primary medium for the distribution of music was sheet music, and publishers were the dominant force in the music business. In the 1880s, publishing companies began to converge in an area of New York City that came to be known as Tin Pan Alley, initially without a single African American firm among them. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), founded in 1914 to reap the fruits of the Copyright Act of 1909, generally skewed its membership toward composers of pop tunes and semi-serious works. Of the society’s 170 charter members, only six were African American. Most Black artists were excluded from the Society and thereby denied the full benefits of copyright protection.
Sound recording proceeded on a different path. Early demonstrations of Thomas Edison’s “talking machine” recorded people whistling, singing, telling stories, and playing musical instruments. Many ethnic groups—their humor, folklore, and cultural values—were introduced to each other and to the mainstream public through the medium of sound recording. Nearly 40 African American artists, ranging from minstrels and touring vaudevillians to notable quartets, representing blues, jazz, ragtime, cabaret and classical music, recorded during the formative years of sound recording (1890-1919). Many of these recordings have only recently been recovered as part of the history of African American music.
Things changed in 1920 when Mamie Smith’s recording of “Crazy Blues” started selling 7,500 copies per week. Known as “race records,” these records ushered in an era of classic blues recordings (also known as vaudeville blues) by African American women, followed by country blues recordings by African American men. The initial success of the “race market” encouraged the formation of a handful of Black-owned independent labels, including Sunshine in Los Angeles and Meritt in Kansas City. Harry Pace and W. C. Handy started Black Swan in 1921. Mayo “Ink” Williams founded Black Patti in 1927. Notably, not a single Black-owned label survived the Great Depression intact.
Radio, Records, and Rhythm & Blues
As African Americans were making headway as recording artists, the birth of commercial broadcasting in 1920 threatened the survival of the recording industry as a whole. Because radio offered free live music, record sales plummeted from an all-time high of $106 million in 1921 to a low of $6 million in 1933, at the height of the Depression.
Early radio was dominated by three national networks—NBC, ABC, and CBS—and virtually all the music heard on radio was either in the public domain or licensed by ASCAP. By 1939, ASCAP had alienated radio with its excessive licensing demands, so the National Alliance of Broadcasters formed its own performing rights organization—Broadcast Music Incorporated. BMI challenged ASCAP’s monopoly on copyrighted music by signing up blues and country writers, including scores of African American artists writing and performing rhythm and blues. Their blues-based sound, with honking sax players and blues shouters at the mike, presented a more raucous energy than the big swing bands of the era and deviated significantly from the smooth and melodic sound of mainstream Black pop.
Ignored by the major companies, a number of independent R&B labels came into existence in New York (Atlantic), Newark (Savoy), Cincinnati (King), Chicago (Chess), Houston (Peacock), and Los Angeles (Modern, Imperial, and Specialty). Don Robey’s Peacock label was the only Black-owned R&B company until it was joined by Chicago’s Vee-Jay Records in 1953, owned by Vivian Carter and James C. Bracken.
The introduction of television in the late-1940s hobbled network radio by attracting most of the national advertising. This encouraged the formation of hundreds of locally programmed, independent radio stations, which, collectively, brought rhythm and blues to a national audience. By this time, DJs spinning records had become the staple of radio programming, as it provided an inexpensive alternative to the live studio orchestras that remained in residence at the network stations.
With both Black and white DJs, R&B radio soon flourished nationwide and proved to be popular with white as well as Black audiences. WOKJ in Jackson, Mississippi, reached more than 100,000 Black listeners. At 50,000 watts, WDIA in Memphis could broadcast to nearly 10 percent of the country’s 12 million African Americans.
Rockin’ the Technology
The eruption of rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950s encouraged a tilt toward African American cultural sensibilities and performance styles, as numerous African American artists “crossed over” into mainstream culture. While Tin Pan Alley recordings favored bland performances and production values, rock ‘n’ roll incorporated the capabilities of the technology into the creative process itself, using echo, editing, overdubbing, and other technical effects to distort or enhance the live performance.
As this relationship deepened in the 1960s, it served to separate Black artists from white rockers. Black music was built around the hit single, at a time when white rockers had begun promoting extended compositions, psychedelic influences, and concept albums. Rock artists now labored over every cut in the studio, experimenting with new sounds, adding special effects, and layering, multitracking, overdubbing, crossfading, and mixing to perfection. A whole new radio medium—FM rock radio—opened up to accommodate these new sounds. Only a few Black acts—notably, Sly and the Family Stone and the Jimi Hendrix Experience—found a ready home on FM rock radio. By the early 1970s, about 80 percent of each sales dollar was in albums, and album-oriented rockers with more access to the new medium were much more likely to reap the benefits.
Throughout this period, the televised dance party American Bandstand provided national exposure for rock ‘n’ roll stars, Black and white, who also made regular appearances on family variety shows like the Ed Sullivan Show. Into the 1960s, shows like Shindig and Hullabaloo also provided some exposure to African American artists. Soul Train, the brainchild of writer, producer, and host Don Cornelius, debuted in 1970 as a Black variation of Bandstand in Chicago. One year later it went into national syndication. By 2005, it had become television’s longest running show in first-run syndication, with 1.25 million viewers in 105 markets. The Soul Train archives have become a veritable treasure trove of African American cultural history.
Black Music in the Disco Era
If rock had turned toward art, disco embraced artifice—shimmering polyester outfits, stylized dance moves, machine-made music by independent producers playing and/or programming synthesizers and drum machines. Systematically ignored by radio, disco initially owed its primary exposure to the creative genius of club DJs, who relied on these bass-heavy, extended-play recordings to “peak” an audience to communal dance ecstasy. Club DJs organized themselves into “record pools” for the distribution of new releases and word-of-mouth promotion. These grassroots efforts not only bypassed the entrenched airplay marketing structure of the music business, they also created a new market for 12-inch singles and remixed releases, which provided the foundation for hip-hop recordings in the next decade and continues to thrive to this day.
Beginning with this bottom-up strategy, the disco phenomenon soon reverberated throughout the music industry. By the mid-1970s, the pop charts were bursting with disco acts, most of whom were Black or integrated groups. Following the overwhelming popularity of the Saturday Night Fever (1977) film and soundtrack, radio (including Black radio) could no longer ignore disco. By 1979, there were two hundred all-disco stations broadcasting in almost every major market. Syndicated television programs like Disco Magic and Dance Fever provided national exposure. Some 36 million adults thrilled to the musical mixes of 8,000 professional disco DJs, who serviced the estimated 20,000 disco clubs. At its height, disco spawned a sub-industry whose annual revenues ranged from $4 billion to $8 billion.
African American Artists Want Their MTV
By the 1980s, technological advances had brought into being the most powerful music promotion outlet ever—MTV. Initially, its programming brought acts of racial exclusion to new heights. Fully two years after its launch, People magazine reported that “on MTV’s current roster of some 800 acts, 16 are Black.” New music video outlets formed in reaction to MTV’s restrictive programming policies. Black Entertainment Television (BET) and the longstanding Soul Train provided the primary video exposure for Black talent in the early 1980s.
It wasn’t until videos accompanying Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982) broke the color line on MTV that the video music channel began airing African American artists with any regularity. MTV began programming hip-hop around 1987. Although at first buried in a late-night weekend slot, Yo! MTV Raps soon moved to a daily afternoon schedule and became one of the channel’s most popular programs.
Hip-Hop, Didn’t Stop: Transforming Equipment into Instruments
Hip-hop began in the 1970s as a South Bronx street culture comprising DJing, MCing (rapping), break-dancing, and graffiti art. In hip-hop, creative artists and consumers transformed existing tools of reproduction—notably, the turntable and the cassette deck—into productive technologies that served the creative process directly. Hip-hop DJs turned dual turntable rigs into full-fledged musical instruments through the use of techniques such as scratching and back-spinning. Double-cassette-deck boom-boxes became localized radio stations of the street, capable of recording, duplicating, and disseminating the music long before official recognition by the industry.
Early hip-hop DJs began their careers by hard-wiring their turntable rigs into power from the street lamps of public parks and soon moved into New York’s downtown club scene. MCs, initially part of a DJ’s crew for purposes of announcements and crowd control, began “rapping” their own spoken-word poetry over the DJ’s turntable gymnastics. The practice of superimposing spoken-word lyrics over a particular segment of an existing song provided the template for hip-hop recordings. In this way, “sampling” (incorporating segments of existing sound files into a recording), along with the construction of a rhythmic backing track, became integral parts of hip-hop production. Hip-hop production became ever more sophisticated and complex in the digital age with the introduction of digitally produced samples and percussion grooves and the addition of R&B-inflected vocals. The practice of sampling remained a staple of hip-hop, even as it became a legal minefield with respect to copyright violations, clearance issues, and licensing fees.
Although critics regularly predicted its early demise, hip-hop style proceeded to influence everything from ballet and modern dance to fashion design and studio art, pop, rock, funk, soul, and jazz. In the new millennium, hip-hop became the dominant sound of US popular music culture, supplanting rock as the new paradigm for popular music.
Black Music in the Digital Age
Even at the start of the new millennium, it was clear that the future of music would be tied to an online, interactive, digital environment. Rather than harness these new technologies, the corporate music industry chose to fight them. As a result, the international music industry lost more than 50% of its sales, with annual revenues plummeting from $38.5 billion in 1999 to $15.9 billion in 2010. African American personnel felt the pinch. As Billboard reported in a retrospective article on Black executives: “These changes left a sizable number of talented mid-level and higher promotion, marketing, A&R, and distribution executives on the street.”
Still, this development was not entirely bad news for African Americans in music. As early as 2000, the comprehensive Pew Internet and American Life project found that African Americans were more likely than whites to listen to music online and to download it from the Internet. And independent companies, where African Americans were more likely to be concentrated, would be better positioned, because they were more nimble and their audiences tended to be younger and more tech savvy.
In the age of the Internet, promotional vehicles like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, and streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music, hold out the possibility of a more level playing field, where African Americans are as likely to find success as anyone else. In the end, perhaps all those African American artists and entrepreneurs who were downsized by the major labels in the name of profitability and economies of scale will have the last laugh by finding a comfortable and lucrative home in the digital world.
- Bricker, Rebecca. “Take One,” People, 4 April 1983.Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History, 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.
- Brooks, Tim. Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004.
- Chura, Hillary. “Cornelius Still on Track,” Advertising Age, 7 March 2005. http://adage.com/article/special-report-syndication/cornelius-track/102286/
- Mitchell, Gail. “Black Execs Downsized,” Billboard, 30 July 2005.
- Reebee Garofalo, Rockin’ Out: Popular Music in the USA, Ed 5, (Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2011.
- Spooner, Tom and Lee Rainie, “African-Americans and the Internet,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2000. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/media/Files/Reports/2000/PIP_African_Americans_Report.pdf.pdf
Learn more about Black Radio through the Digital Collections at the Indiana University Archives of African American Music and Culture.