Hit Men

Hit Men by Fredric Dannen is a wonderful and sobering read on the music industry from WWII to 1991.

It left me looking up at the sky. There are some nuggets about race relationships. Music is all about that, after all. After WWII, Black American music takes over the world: it’s selling like crazy in the country and it’s influencing absolutely everyone (wealthy white UK folks would import those black records –blues, R&B- and create bands like the Beatles, if you didn’t know).

“The separate designation of pop and R&B bears explaining. Pop in the record industry is an euphemism for white; R&B means black. Until 1949, Billboard listed music by black artists as “race” records, but then a staffer named Jerry Wexler coined the term rhythm and blues. This is about all that has changed (though the industry has found other euphemisms, including “soul” and “urban”). A rock record by a black act is automatically R&B –regardless of its sound–unless white radio plays it and white people buy it, at which point it is said to “cross over” to the pop charts. Since white record buyers outnumber blacks by a large margin, a crossover hit means a bigger payoff.”

The built-in discrimination! Wonderful. Because meanwhile in white culture R&B is considered the worst shit when at first, it was pinned just to stop using the term “race” records because that’s a bit offensive and not very marketable.

R&B was simply a marketing term and became the symbol of “bad” black music, for no reason at all. It is messed up.

Then there are the stories of artists getting screwed over:

“The seventies provided some classic horror stories from this scenario. When Teena Marie was signed to Motown in 1976 by founder Berry Gordy, she had no attorney at all. When she asked to take her contract home before signing it, she later testified, a Motown official admonished her: “Don’t you trust us?” Motown assigned as her manager the common-law wife of Berry Gordy’s brother. Result: two of her albums made an estimated $2 million for Motown, while the label paid her about $100 a week for six and a half years.”

Ruthless. George McCrae was owed $100K in royalties by the label and was ready to hurt the boss. The boss gave him a few thousand dollars cash and the keys to the Cadillac outside. The car was rented.

The entire industry has been based on screwing over people. Whatever it takes (many executives were war vets, basically soulless mfs). Payola is rampant and the labels basically control the top 40 radios by the mid 70s. And then, a very important thing happens: disco.

“The Network [people bribing radios] took root in 1978, the peak year of disco. It was no coincidence. Disco created the climate that made the Network possible. The dance music breathed new life into the Top 40 format, after a decade of strength in album-oriented radio. More important, the disco phenomenon was fueled by hype, by the mistaken belief that hits are bought, not born. Of course, you can buy a hit, but not profitably. It was going to take the record industry a long time to figure this out.”

Hype. This is all there is in music from then on. It’s all about artists that can create hype. Hype is dangerous: yes, when it works bam, 30 million copies of Saturday Night Fever sold. But that’s impossible to reproduce the next year and the year after. It’s unpredictable. And then video games happened:

“In 1980 the Atari unit grossed $513 million, almost twice as much as the year before, while sales for the records group increased to $806 million. And the Atari’s unit hadn’t even existed five years previous. Overnight success breeds shortsightedness, and Warner Communications began to believe that video games were a better business than records.”

They reverted back real quick after 1983 and the video game crash. Hype is dangerous.

Oh did I mention the strong links between the music industry and the mafia? Man there are some details in this book and now I understand that it’s not so weird that they found some narcotics ring going on at a famous music label back in 2011. In the book no one was ever convicted. The government tried, with the help of the FBI, but it never went anywhere. The music industry is very powerful.

So, if you think there’s actual demand for an artist, there’s none. It’s all marketing money. Is the artist bankable? Then yes, you’ll see that artist a lot.

If you think charts are a pretty accurate picture of the market, they are not. They are completely fabricated to fuel hype and advance marketing plots. And if they were that much gamed in the mid 70s, I can’t even imagine the mental gymnastics they’re doing to produce today’s charts. It’s all bogus.

If you think only good artists survive, well, it depends.

Sometimes it feels like the entire entertainment business only exists to funnel money for some future real estate firms which will steamroll the earth.

Music is dope though.

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