Ball of Confusion: Looking at Motown Now

Posted April 3, 2013 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

In the 21st century, Gordy and the next generation of execs plan to morph Motown into a ball of confusion with Broadway, gospel and stagnant R&B

Berry Gordy is smiling with glee over his latest Motown tribute, the Broadway spectacle of Motown: The Musical. He’s happy to see Tony nominee Brandon Victor Dixon portraying him on the big stage. “There were times that I said, ‘Damn, I wish I could have said it exactly like that,” the 83-year old Motown founder tells ET. “[Brandon] is phenomenal.” And Gordy has a lot to be proud about: Motown: The Musical was supervised and designed by Gordy himself, just like his 1994 best-selling To Be Loved autobiography.  And already it’s shaping up to be a box office smash. Since been in preview mode since March 11, the show has sold more than one million dollars in ticket sales for its first week. But there’s no real anxiety for Gordy as he forges forward into his own ‘Dreamgirls’ production. “It’s less pressure than I had with Motown because I didn’t know where I was going with Motown.”

Things are floating on cloud nine over at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on 46th Street, where the highly-anticipated show is already sold out for all of April and much of May. But Motown the company is in a much different shape than what’s been projected in Playbill.

When EMI was acquired by Sony/UMG last year, another major label went down the tubes, leaving us with only two superpowers to speak on behalf of the bulk of the music industry. In case you are unfamiliar to the names, it’s Sony/UMG and Warner Bros. At the end of the year, EMI (including Capitol) saw a sales slump, going from 2011’s 9.62% to 6.78. EMI owned and operated their boutique gospel imprint, EMI Gospel, which fostered gospel acts like Smokie Norful, Tasha Cobbs and VaShawn Mitchell. In an announcement made this week by UMG CEO East Coast Label Group Barry Weiss and Capitol Christian (mostly filled with Contemporary Christian white-bred acts) Bill Hearn, those black gospel acts will now be moving into a newly-developed gospel division at Motown called Motown Gospel. The label’s talent will be overseen by newly appointed VP A&R Aaron Lindsey, best known for producing records for cross-cultural records for Israel & New Breed.


Nielsen SoundScan Issues Report Card on Music Industry for 2012


The announcement also comes on the heels of a troubling pattern with the future of R&B and soul music. Although both genres have been forever associated with the Motown brand, sales continue to point towards a decline. Last year’s sales pointed out missed opportunities for hip-hop and R&B to expand beyond their comfort zones. R&B dropped 10.2 percent points, hip-hop dropped 11. For Motown’s current roster, Kem is the only sitting artist to break the mold, even though his Quiet Storm adult R&B style has been limited to urban radio airplay and shows no sign of crossing over. His last album, 2010’s Intimacy: Album III, went gold, just like his first two albums. Kem has a strong and dedicated fan base, but his career seems content in the complacency that hinders much of R&B. There’s no spark or enthusiasm to bend the sound, to experiment sonically, to push beyond the boundaries. And it’s a sad image for the Motown brand of today. It is simply a mere shadow of the valuable legacy that surrounds them.

When Berry Gordy last oversaw the daily operations at the Motown empire, the label still had crossover action. Lionel Richie was “dancing on the ceiling,” Smokey Robinson just wanted “to see her one more time” and latter-day acts with a new generation sound like Boyz II Men, Johnny Gill, Brian McKnight and the Boyz were helping to keep the label afloat. It’s been well over two decades since Gordy oversaw the everyday operations of the label. If he still had some kind of executive control over the factory that he once built on 2648 W Grand Boulevard, he would have taken a more cautious approach to a decision like this. Maybe he would have jumped at the idea to go into the gospel market, knowing that r&b and soul music is looking less soulful these days, but he still would have done it in the disguise of another boutique imprint, like Tamla, Soul, Gordy or MoWest.

Maybe I should refine that statement I just made. Soul isn’t less soulful today. The fingerprints of R&B and soul music is now all over pop culture. The hip-hop beats, the Motown grooves, the retro funk, the bluesy rootsy stuff – it’s all a part of the indie soul stuff. It’s in much of the burgeoning music of indie acts like Jamie Lidell, Mayer Hawthorne, Jim James, Topher Mohr, Gary Clark, Jr., Alabama Shakes, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, Larry G(ee) and Tortured Soul. It’s embedded in the flavors of major league players like Adele, Cee Lo Green, Alicia Keys, Bruno Mars, John Legend and Miguel. Today’s soul music may not be as colored or black dominated as it was when it was most popular, but it remains a vital component in the world of modern music. What is apparent about soul/r&b music is that African-Americans no longer have a monopoly over the sounds that they forever dominated. Gone are the days when Stax and Motown dominated the conversation on black product. Today, pop music is made with consumption in mind, and that also means that versatility must be rewarded, if you’re going to reach the masses. In the ‘70’s, Clive Davis struggled to take CBS into the black market because black labels like Stax, Motown and Philadelphia International Records had a complete understanding of how black product worked and had direct connection with black media and culture. That stronghold made it virtually impossible for major labels to run away with a total dominance in the black marketplace. Today, those labels are non-existent, except for the Concord Music Group-owned Stax, which has now emerged as a catalog-friendly distributor and a roots-based exporter of new content (see albums by Ben Harper, Warren Haynes, Leela James). And those acts housed at the reinvented Stax are actually producing content that reflects the tonality and integrity of its traditions. The music is totally complimentary to the works of their legendary heroes – including Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave and the Staple Singers.

Gospel was never excluded from the conversation of black-run labels like PIR, Motown and Stax: Gamble & Huff were brave to delve into inspirational content while preaching their social gospel content; Al Bell brought in the Staples and brought them into instant fame at Stax and even kick started a separate imprint for hardcore gospel acts like Rance Allen Group; Gordy okayed the release of Marvin Gaye’s social gospel commentary and did the same for Stevie Wonder. Most recently, UK’s Big Break Records reissued the self-titled Caston & Majors album, a very rare jewel in the Motown vaults featuring spiritual-themed imagery with a stroke of Broadway magnificence  But even Gordy was apprehensive in releasing that. “I began to write songs that were totally unrelated to Motown,” Leonard Caston says. “Because Motown was not a gospel label and had no intentions of doing gospel, I was left trying to figure out how to do something that would have an appeal and opportunity to be successful on the label that I was on. This was something that we fought for, like Eddie Kendricks fought for his [solo] project.”

Sony/UMG’s Motown Gospel current lineup, with the EMI Gospel acquisition, includes Tasha Cobbs, Tye Tribbett, Kierra Sheard and Smokie Norful. No word when their former EMI contracts expire.

There is no word if artists like Smoke Norful, Tasha Cobbs, VaShawn Mitchell or Pastor Charles Jenkins will remain with the label when their current EMI contracts expire, but the Motown Gospel label is announcing their decision to re-sign CeCe Winans, a former Capitol act in the ’80’s and early ’90’s who switched over to EMI Gospel in the 2000’s. Strangely enough, rather than signing her to Capitol Christian where she once reigned on the charts with her brother BeBe and where she would be most effective consider her previous pathway into crossover territory, she now has to suffer in a format that is wrongly marginalized by color and wrongly suited for her type of legacy.

Dr, Martin Luther King was right on the money when he stated that “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Had it taken a good look at the everyday functions of the gospel music industry, he would’ve broadened his statement to go beyond the realm of Sunday morning. Today’s gospel music industry remains a canvas of industrial segregation. Unlike pop and Top 40, which shuns from the malpractice of racial and genre grouping and focuses instead on assembling its playlists by what is generally popular to the masses, CCM and gospel fields has been forever separated. The same goes for their separate award shows. White circles honor their own at the Dove Awards and tosses courtesy awards to blacks in the urban categories they dominate, while the Stellar Awards specifically honor black gospel music, even if more white acts like Wess Morgan, Martha Munizzi, Ami Rushes are trying their hardest to break through the barriers of genre politics and stereotypes. When Nielsen SoundScan counts up all Christian-related content, they lump both formats together as if the races are intertwined. The combined totals saw a sales slump in 2012, but only by 3.40 percent. Sadly, that number is very misleading to consumers of black gospel music, especially when CCM normally outsells black gospel. Last year Christian rock band Casting Crowns went gold with their 2011 album, Come to the Well; acts like Chris Tomlin, Third Day and tobyMac have also gone gold. The aforementioned are CCM acts and hardly ever get played on urban radio. The same can be applied for popular black gospel acts like Mary Mary, Marvin Sapp, John P. Kee and Hezekiah Walker, who hardly get airplay on CCM formats.

What gospel bloggers and news sources are most leery in reporting is that there are only two major labels for gospel talent to scurry towards if they are remotely interested in going pro. There’s the aforementioned Motown Gospel, which is a prettier way of saying, “Welcome home, EMI Gospel.” And then there’s RCA Inspiration, which is a division of – wait for it – wait for it – Sony/UMG. And if you’re wondering what ever happened to Verity Gospel? The label that Tara Griggs-Magee and Max Siegel built? That’s RCA Inspiration. And guess who runs both labels? You got it – Sony. So technically, there’s only one major label left for gospel. And it looks like the glory days of major consumption of the black gospel product is teetering on the edge of destruction.

This is normal protocol with acquisitions. It’s bound to happen in this case, especially when the economy is showing that black product – especially in the fields of R&B, hip-hop and gospel – are showing weaknesses in being profitable. When one company takes on two, the work load of the boss suddenly multiples. And that’s already happening for the head of daily operations at RCA Inspiration, General Manager Geo Bivins. Before Verity turned into RCA Inspiration, Bivins was focused on his work assignments as the Urban Promotion guy at RCA. Now with Verity being squeezed deeply into RCA’s black division, Bivins is doing two jobs at once, managing both secular and sacred sides. And if you wanted to question Bivins’s previous work with gospel content, stop while you’re ahead. A recent press release reveals that Bivins’s promotional work stops at the feet of back-in-the-day giants like Snoop Dogg, Chingy, R. Kelly, Busta Rhymes and Notorious B.I.G. Stanley Brown, who used to supervise Island’s short-lived gospel label, has been summoned from Senior Director of A&R at the now-defunct Verity to Head of A&R at RCA Inspiration. He keeps his job, while many of the signed acts remain in limbo, especially as the newly-required EMI Gospel roster – now billed as Motown Gospel – settle into their new abode. Sadly, in the cases of most acquisitions, new homes for displaced residents are usually temporary. When big banks buy out little banks, they usually cut staff and positions. They trim excessive fat at the bottom. Meanwhile, big investors are super giddy over the newly-acquired stocks and assets, as well as the gold mine of the catalog. And with hardly any competition in a market that’s going south with every passing year, despite the fact that syndicated programs at urban gospel radio gives them the advantage with pre-programmed playlists usually dominated by the majors, the future of gospel in the corporate world isn’t looking like streets paid with gold. With no real competition in place, the only people they can compare themselves with besides their white Christian counterparts would be those who are actually selling millions of albums in the mainstream – like Adele’s 15x platinum-selling 21, or Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience, which sold close to one million on opening week; a feat so dumbfounding in today’s digital world. Gospel artists aren’t able to produce those kind of numbers. Although that kind of feat was accessible during the urban contemporary gospel craze sparked by Kirk Franklin and Amy Grant in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, it seems laughable now for gospel acts to achieve that kind of success today. The last gospel act to do that, to go gold, was Marvin Sapp with 2007’s Thirsty. According to Billboard, last year’s top artist in gospel was actually Lecrae, a hip-hop inspirational rapper who took his Gravity album to number one on the Billboard Gospel and Christian charts. It also went to number 3 on the Billboard 200. It even took home the trophy for Best Gospel Album at the Grammy Awards. To date, the album has not gone gold, nor have any of Lecrae’s records, despite the fact that he’s signed to the Atlanta indie label Reach Records.

So what’s the point in Sony turning Motown into their personal lab rat for the sake of making gospel artists feel like their rubbing elbows with artists who are from a different time and dimension from them? I’m not trying to belittle Smokie Norful, Tye Tribbett or CeCe Winans. They are talented and gifted in what they do, even though I personally prefer my gospel music to sound like something organic and not like it’s been cooked on the same stove as T.I. and Trey Songz. They can call this new venture ‘Motown Gospel’ all they want, but I don’t want the Motown that millions like me grew up to love – best known for brewing a different class of soul and for birthing Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees like Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, Martha & the Vandellas, Gladys Knight & the Pips, to be associated with acts who will probably never see the Hall of Fame. Not to say that CeCe Winans won’t ever enter the HOF, but if the Fame hasn’t put James Cleveland or Clara Ward on the ballot, then the acts at Motown Gospel have a very long way to go.

And rather than playing with gospel acts who are hardly going to sell albums in the gold range (that’s 500,000 units), how about seriously putting in the time to develop and strengthen the Motown label. When’s the last time we saw a Motown act hit the Top 40?

And here’s the facts on Motown’s current acts:

With his first three albums going platinum, Ne-Yo has fallen into a major slump. The ambitious Libra Scale, released in 2010, only went silver, with 345,000 sold. He moved from Def Jam to Motown with very little results. Although he managed to pull off a hit single with last year’s Top Ten hit “Let Me Love You” and managing to go gold with it, his album R.E.D. has not witnessed that kind of success. The album sold 66,000 copies in its first week and has yet to go gold.

Besides winning four Grammys and being snubbed notoriously for most of them, India.Arie has only sold 3.3 million records in the US. 2006’s Testimony: Vol 1 did well, going gold and becoming the first No. 1 album for Motown in over twelve years. Its 2009 follow-up, Testimony: Vol 2., failed to capture the same glory, selling only a meager 324,000 copies to date. Word has leaked that Arie is planning to drop a new album very soon, but Testimony: Vol. 2 – a four-year old album – remains her most recent album.

Erykah Badu’s last album, New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), was released in 2010. Despite earning critical praises, and peaking at number 4 on the Billboard 200, it has only sold 380,000 copies to date. Her last gold record was 2003’s Worldwide Underground.

Good luck on making that Motown Gospel thing actually work. Here’s hoping that it puts a smile on Berry Gordy’s face.



J Matthew Cobb is the managing editor of HiFi Magazine.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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