General News / June 20, 2017

OPINION: Let’s call Motown for what it was – pretty shitty

General News / June 20, 2017

OPINION: Let’s call Motown for what it was – pretty shitty

“Make a good product, then make something similar, and make it quick”


Those were the words chosen by Gil Cruz in his recap of Berry Gordy’s approach to music production and artist development in a TIME Magazine article about the history of Motown Records. When Gordy founded the Detroit label, he would purchase a sign for its HQ on Grand Blvd, that read Hitsville U.S.A. If the influence of Gordy’s experience in car manufacturing, also in Detroit, on the landscape of music wasn’t evident beforehand, it would demand the attention of all onlookers thereafter.

The core of Detroit’s manufacturing industry was straightforward: ‘Products that appeal to the masses generate income’. Motown’s idea was to follow up that idea musically: ‘Once people react to a product, repeat it until it no longer works’.

DP117860(Detroit assembly line – image via The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The number of influential artists whose music Motown was responsible for is almost incomprehensible, and it’s certainly incomparable. Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, The Isley Brothers, Barbara Randolph, The Jackson 5, and Rick James to name but a few all recorded in ‘The Snake Pit’, and the efficiency of the label is one that has probably never been matched.

The result of this methodical approach is the carving of the ‘Motown Sound’ into the imaginations of writers, fans, and other musicians almost immediately from first hitting the shelves of music stores. The Motown Sound, famed for its use of uptempo drumming, harmonies, and hooks, relied on some of the greatest session musicians ever to grace a recoding studio. It can thus, be easy to forget that while the label was on the end of a consistent praise for being a pioneering voice in the establishment of black-owned music distributers, it meant that a ferocious degree of artistic theft, often through copyright and control on artist development, was going on behind the scenes.

There is, inevitably, more than one side to the Motown story from here: On the one hand Gordy’s label gave a wage to a lot of people who, without it, would have been unable to find work. But to be the hit factory it claimed it was, Motown had to be a finely tuned, at times ruthless, machine.

Countless stories of underpaid musicians, and dropped artists who wouldn’t tow the party line are often forgotten in romanticised nostalgia.  Another, messier, side to Motown’s similarity with Detroit’s auto industry was Gordy’s belief that, above all else, products capable of appealing to the masses should be produced for as low a cost as possible so as to maximise financial return, and this informed every move the label made. Albums, in general, were recorded as quickly as possible, artists were often payed disproportionately small lump sum fees for recording sessions, and musicians having ties cut with the label after briefly working at Hitsville USA was commonplace.

Photo of Florence BALLARDThe Supremes’ Florence Ballard – image via. HuffPo

In 1976, Florence Ballard died on social welfare while The Supremes generated millions for the label. Publishing rights generally remained the sole property of Gordy with the exception of some of the older musicians on the roster. Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye both infamously hired their own copyright lawyers to make sure they were getting the correct financial cut from their record sales.

Berry Gordy was an incredibly smart man who, if he were creating Motown from scratch today, would probably have spotted the avenues the champions of EDM predicted in the late 00’s – those same avenues that tech-house acts are exploiting now. Ironically, riding the wave of the festival / dance renaissance, Gordy’s son and grandson formed LMFAO. Remember them? They were the next Sonny and Cher – the voice(s) to take duets into the 21st Century!

LMFAO were …polarising. To the believers, they revitalised the frat party in an era where pop music had run out of ideas and was becoming rapidly stale. They were the tour de force that The Chainsmokers could only hope to be today. To the cynics they were a complete fucking joke that were completely fucking awful. Easy enough, right?

What’s interesting about LMFAO (arguably the most intense concentration of all things EDM into one hypergroup) is that while, on face value, they represented the antithesis of records like Stevie Wonder’s The Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, if you make it to any lengths beneath the surface, they’re a direct embodiment of Motown’s values: Music produced quickly, cheaply, and aimed at whoever will give the largest financial return.

In 2011, the US hadn’t fully awoken to the EDM behemoth that had been holding Europe hostage for what seemed like an eternity. The precedence that large scale electronic music could appeal to the masses was being set in Miami and the corners and earlier time slots of Coachella. Interscope Records had figured out a way to appeal to a (very) large amount of people through LMFAO, in exactly the same way Berry Gordy had done with Diana Ross, .

o-BERRY-GORDY-MOTOWN-MEETINGS-facebookBerry Gordy, Founder and of Motown Records – image via. HuffPo.

EDM, like Motown, works on the exact same premise as Detroit’s motor industry: Once you fabricate a product that people react to, repeat it – more importantly, repeat it quickly! It may have been responsible for some timeless records, but make no mistake, Motown was a viciously commercial label.

Nostalgia is natural and revisionism has a odd way of generating perspective. It’s easy to look back at the Motown of the 60s and 70s and imagine Gordy & Co. as puritan activists, that based on their discography, were interested in nothing more than introducing the world to amazing music – you’d be wrong.

Motown was a hugely successful commercial entity in a time when black music happened to be in one of it’s most innovative eras and today, it’s found a way to reinvent itself again. Riding the wave of the Atlanta trap sound in hip hop, it’s currently distributing records by Rich Homie Quan, Lil’ Yachty, Migos, and OG Maco. Drawing inspiration from the Motown of old, Hittsville U.S.A. has once again found a product people react to and are saturating the market with it. It’s 2017, and ATL-trap is influencing every popular record that’s released while drawing as many critics for being overly commercialised and lacking depth.

Gordy was a genius at tailoring music to the masses, not an activist – Do the maths…