Detroit and the Music Industry

Editor’s Note:

While Detroit has produced great soul, punk, and rock artists, its musicians and creative industries as a whole do not live in a vacuum. They live and work in the economic environment and infrastructure created by the government.

While low rents make it easier for emerging musicians to live in Detroit rather than New York, the lack of agents and recording companies having offices in Detroit staffed with decision makers who can get artists signed to a recording contract and provide financing for their studio time or tours, forces some musicians to leave.

Without the above, the capital necessary to finance musicians and the music industry in a manner where some of the spin-off benefits from creative talent born and bred in Detroit remains in the city will just not be there.

New initiatives in Detroit like Motown Musician Accelerator and gBeta Music-tech are just two building blocks, but, as shown by the success of Lulu Kennedy’s London Fashion East program which has been discovering budding fashion designers and guiding them to commercial success since 2000, they can become one cornerstone of a revitalised industry.

Setting up shop in Brick Lane, London Fashion East, helped initiate the redevelopment of parts of London’s East End and helped establish and grow London Fashion Week, the international fashion trade show held twice a year which generates hundreds of millions of pounds in economy activity and approximately 100 Million Pounds in direct taxation revenues for London each year.

Similarly, Capital Music Group (parent company of Motown Records) has in 2019 established these mentoring programs to help Detroit based musicians and tech companies.

Selected musicians will be given recording studio time, funding for equipment, and information on distribution, touring, and other business and legal aspects of the music industry while the tech start-ups will be introduced to potential investors, experienced entrepreneurs, and music industry people who can help refine their software or App technology.

The music industry can only complement and be one component of a city’s economy and infrastructure.

But in Detroit it can be a big component.

Below Marissa Charles reminds us of how Motown was once run like the assembly lines at Ford or Chrysler turning out hit after hit as that was how deep the talent was.

Motown: A Business That Became An Industry And Then A Legacy

Marissa Charles

As I sit here to write about the Label-de-force that is Motown, I must admit, that as a child and for most of my life, I was not a fan of the music. I could never imagine that any music my parents danced to, could be cool.

I did however know the name and that what lay underneath it was bigger and more important than a young girl with a big attitude but narrow opinions on something that was obviously much bigger than she could at that time fully comprehend and appreciate.

America would not have moved forward during a period in its history when it realised change was needed if music and Motown had not been one of the cogs in the wheel of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

But before the music could become part and parcel part of the political movements seeking change in society, it had to be created.

Berry Gordy, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and many more created a factory of perfectly honed and crafted artists and musical works never before seen and which for some has not been equalled since.

Gordy once said of his formula, “ A kid could walk in one door, an unknown off the street, and come out the other door, a polished performer.”

The car industry would have done well to invest in the type of innovation shown by Motown artists, performers, and producers.

While the work and talent that went into building Motown is not measurable and anything but basic we can try and have some fun and explain the steps as if it was an assembly line but it was anything but mechanical.

It starts with the man who created the name Berry Gordy grew up in a town that breathed cars since the invention of the automobile. Gordy began his career as a boxer but then got drafted to Korea in 1952. He returned home to open a record store selling jazz records but this proved an unsuccessful venture. He started working at the Lincoln-Mercury car plant but music came back into his life when he co-wrote the hit song Reet Petite and six more songs which climbed the R&B charts. This led him to start producing local artists that he was acquainted with it and in some cases friends with. One of these friends was Smokey Robinson who encouraged him to invest some money in the establishment of a record company. Gordy’s past experiences with the failed record shop, the army, and even factory work formed a character that would see him start and build something that would encompass order, discipline, focus, and an end product that anyone regardless of age, sex, colour, or race would enjoy and want to buy.

Create the look In 1960m the Tamla Motown label was born with its first stars being The Miracles, The Marvelettes, The Supremes, Mavin Gaye, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder and many more.

Gordy taking a page out of the Hollywood moguls trained his people in house and took it very seriously. He established and built an Artists Development Department at the label hiring Maxine Powell, a former stage actress and model to run it. She polished her students by showing them how to talk, stand, and dress with elegance and a diamond sharp refinement and finesse. Martha Reeves said of her time with Powell, “ I don’t think I would have been successful at all without her training.”

Gordy did not want his female singers and performers to sexualise themselves or the music. Instead he wanted them to be either the girl-next-door or glamorous. His male artists had to be clean shaven and whether dressed in suits or casuals looking as if they had just bought the latest most expensive fashion styles of the day. Powell told her charges that they must be ready to be invited to the White House and Buckingham Palace.

Create the work ethic The car factory Gordy worked at instilled in him an assembly line like work ethic and he applied it to his music business. The artists, songs, and records were the end products. The session musicians, recording technicians, and image makers etc were the factory workers. And Motown at one point was turning out hit after hit like an assembly line.

Create the music When Gordy created Motown he knew that songwriters and songwriting were different from performers and performing. He hired a number of professional songwriters including the unyielding trio of Holland Dozier Holland. They had 50 top ten chart hits over their career. Brian Holland did not envisage such success saying, “ I would be a fool if I told you I knew these songs would be so big. I felt we could be successful, but I had no idea that these songs would live as long as they have.”

The three had their own specific system when it came to songwriting. Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier would compose the melodies and tracks but the lyrics were to be left to Eddie Holland. The the session musicians known as the Funk Brothers would be brought in to give the songs the Motown sound. They would provide the backings to Motown recordings from 1959 to when the label moved to Los Angeles in 1972.

All these elements turned out such a powerful sound and brand that it crossed racial divides during times which were rife with conflict because of Vietnam and segregation. Middle class and working class kids who were used to segregation in music and everyday life were now supporting and joining the civil rights movement. White audiences related not only to the music but to the style and elegance of the Motown singers and performers they were now watching on television.

Gordy said of what he wanted to achieve, “ Motown was about music for all people - white and black-, blue and green, cops and robbers. I was reluctant to have our music alienate anyone.” Nonetheless as already mentioned Motown through its music played a big role in the civil rights movement. But is highly doubtful their music would have alienated anyone on the right side of history. Gordy produced a record documenting/recording the Walk To Freedom held in Detroit in 1963.

At the end of the day, Motown has been an essential part of my life and has helped shaped how I view myself . No other record label could ever have done that. Smokey Robinson sums it up best with “ Motown is the greatest musical event that ever happened in this history of music.”