This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Adam White, author.
Most fans of popular music know the Motown Records’ story—know about the Supremes, Martha & the Vandellas, the Miracles, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye--but most don't know about the inner workings, and the individuals behind what was America’s largest black-owned music conglomerate.
At a delightful 400 pages and teeming with over 1,000 photographs, a lavish new book “Motown: The Sound of Young America,” available Sept. 13th (Thames and Hudson), co-written by former Billboard editor and record executive Adam White, and former Motown GM Barney Ales, who was executive VP/GM by the end of the 1960s and during a return tenure was president, provides a provocative peek into the company’s backroom workings.
Since the late ‘60s White has had a widely-respected career in music journalism both in the UK and America, writing for such publications as New Musical Express, Disc, Melody Maker, The Times (London), New York Post, Television Business International, Rolling Stone, and the British trade publications Music Week, and Music & Media.
From 1985 to 1988, White was New York bureau chief for Radio & Records.
Notably White served two extensive tours of duty at the American music trade Billboard in various editorial posts until becoming Billboard's international editor-in-chief in 1989, a post he held until 2002 when he was appointed VP, communications of Universal Music International (UMI), the London-based headquarters responsible for the Universal Music Group’s activities outside North America.
There is, perhaps, no one better--other than founder Berry Gordy Jr.—than the rough-and-tumble Ales to assist White in telling the inner secrets of Motown. Ales was Gordy’s right-hand executive in charge of Motown’s sales, distribution and promotion from 1961-1972 and, after a brief hiatus, from 1975 to 1978.
And the soft-spoken Brit White is very much Ales’ counterpart as a researcher, journalist, and true-blue Motown fan.
Your book is centered on Motown’s sales and promotion activities as opposed to what happened in the recording studio.
Well, surprise surprise. Look, once a trade hack, always a trade hack, right?
The book chronicles the fierce competition between two dynamic personalities, Motown’s founder Berry Gordy Jr., and Motown’s top executive Barney Ales, co-author of the book.
Both felt the divisions under them were the core of the company.
Yes. The fact is that each needed the other because no matter how wonderful the music is that you make, if you can’t get on the radio and, more importantly, if you can’t get paid for the records, you’ve got no business. But if you haven’t got good music in the first place, neither of those two other things are going to happen. So there was a mutual dependence there.
You first met Barney in London in 1967.
The first time was just blind chance at the Saville Theatre in December ’67. I had gone to see a show with Gladys Knight and the Pips, Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers, and Chris Clark. After the show, I went to a pub on Shaftesbury Avenue for a drink. Barney and a couple of his crew were hanging out there. By ’67, as a Motown follower, I knew who Barney Ales was. So we just met. It was a bit of fun. None the less both of us remembered meeting. My first encounter professionally with him was in 1974. He had gone to Decca Records in London to get a license deal in the UK for Prodigal Records. We had to cover it for Music Week. I got the call that he was in town, and did I want to go and see him? So that was our first professional connection. Afterward, we stayed in touch over the years. Then, of course, he went back to Motown. So when I was living in New York, and when I went to California, I always made a point of going to see him. We would spend time together.
Barney did two stretches at Motown?
Yes. From 1961 to 1972 when it moved from Detroit, and then 1975 to 1978.
One eye-raising story in the book is Detroit DJ Tom Clay’s contention that while at WJBK he was offered $200 from Berry to play Marv Johnson’s “You Got What It Takes” which Berry had produced and co-written (and was released by United Artists in 1959). Clay said he turned down the money, but Barney says Berry wouldn’t have done that.
That’s absolutely right. Those are the type of inside stories that were great to get. What started out as being an acquaintance became a friendship with Barney, and provided an insight to what I call “the backroom believers.” Everybody knows everything else about Motown. There have been biographies, autobiographies by Berry, Diana (Ross), and Martha (Reeves). All of the stars have told their stories, but the backroom people, those stories have not been told.
A story developing while America was undergoing racial strife and intense social changes. That 1960 photo of Barney and Berry and their individual wives at a Detroit club would have been provocative at the time.
Oh yeah. With the wives sitting on each others’ husband’s knee. I think they might have been arrested if they had been in the South.
Motown was considered a black company, but for years it primarily had a white promotion and sales staff. Why?
Because of the nature of the industry at that point. Remember that Motown depended entirely on independent distributors. Almost all of these distributors were owned by whites. There was one black distributor in Chicago, United Records Distributors, operated by George and Ernie Leaner. That was about the only black-owned distributorship in the U.S. of any clout. So the reality was that was the way the (record) business was. This is where Berry was smart. Because of Barney’s relationships and his experience before joining Motown...
Barney had previously worked at Warner Bros, Capitol and Aurora Distributing, an independent distributorship in Detroit
And he knew everybody in the game. He knew radio, and he knew distributors. At one point Warners had a big meeting in California that he went to, and he met everybody from the U.S. So he had those contacts. He knew how the game was played. He truly knew distributors. Therefore, he was the ideal person to navigate that part of the business at a time that Motown was beginning to make records that were making noise, and was beginning to have hits.
How had Motown been distributed previously?
It had independent distribution, but it was very spotty. It was primarily in and around the Midwest. It didn’t have the national reach. They had only just started to get a few national hits with the Miracles and were getting hits beyond the Detroit and Midwest area. That was their region. In order to get national, to get radio action outside that area, to get distribution and to get paid, Berry needed someone who knew the game. Barney knew the game, and he hired people who knew the game.
That’s really what made the difference.
It’s knowing how that business works. As Barney has said, “Berry wasn’t interested in going to the distributors.” And Barney wasn’t interested in going to the studio. The two of them knew their strengths. Berry, to his credit, didn’t care, what your background was. What color you were or where you came from as long as you could do the job. He hired Barney because he knew he could do the job. He gave Barney the freedom to hire the people he needed to do the job. And Berry also hired others (non-African Americans). His business advisors: tax attorney Harold Noveck and his accountant brother Sidney; and George Schiffer, a Viennese émigré lawyer who came in to be his counsel in the early days. Berry didn’t care who you were if you could do the job.
[Berry Gordy Jr. was quoted as saying, “‘I was hiring white people to sell my music, and a lot of black people felt I should have given black people those jobs. I always felt you should hire the best person for the job.”]
The UK roll-out of Motown differed from North America. Motown was first released in the UK by Decca's London-American label, followed by Philips' Fontana label, and then Oriole Records until its distribution switched to EMI. The BBC wouldn’t play Motown recordings in those early days.
That’s perfectly true. In fact, the only way that you could hear Oriole Records was their late nighttime show on Radio Luxembourg. Record companies could buy slots on Luxembourg. So EMI would buy an hour, and there’d be a Decca hour and so on. For a small indie like Oriole, they were lucky if they could afford half an hour or a quarter of an hour. It would usually be just before midnight or just after midnight. So that’s the only way that you could hear Oriole releases that they picked up from Motown.
[Oriole Records was a London-based label founded in 1927 by Morris Levy as an offshoot of his Levaphone label. Oriole began licensing Motown Records recordings in 1962.]
Also, AFN in Germany on Sundays aired a weekly U.S. chart countdown show that featured some early Motown American hits
Absolutely. That was something else. That wasn’t something people necessarily knew about. It (Motown) was hardly common stuff but because of my appetite for it, and because I just wanted to know everything, I really searched these things down. It really depends on how strong you feel about it. How much you do you want this stuff. Then you will go, and seek it out. But, yes.
Was the BBC’s refusal to play Motown or other recordings from other American R&B-styled labels like Sue and Brunswick based on the thinking that those type of R&B records weren’t right for the format or was it based on supporting domestic music?
I think that there were a couple of things. Firstly, they favored domestic artists naturally enough, and they did feel that those were the artists that their audience wanted to hear. The BBC at that point was the Light Programme (a BBC radio station which broadcast chiefly mainstream light entertainment and music from 1945 until 1967, when it was rebranded as BBC Radio 2), and it was not 24/7 radio. It was not 24/7 records. In other words, you couldn’t hear pop records any time on the Light Programme. They were in certain slots. In certain shows. There was a limited amount of airtime given to records. That was partly through an agreement with the musicians union that a specified amount of airtime would be given over to live music.
The same with radio in North America in the ‘40s and early ‘50s.
Exactly. So the BBC had a limited amount time to give to recorded music, and they tended to lean toward domestic artists, naturally. You also have to remember that a great many of the American big pop hits of the day were covered by British artists.
As in Toronto where it was difficult purchasing R&B records in the ‘60s—we’d go to Buffalo--being able to buy Motown in the UK shops, you couldn’t easily do it.
Absolutely, you couldn’t do it. The only way that you could do it was place an order. Not a lot of people are inclined to do that. It takes a couple of days. Maybe, it takes a couple of days for the sales rep of the label to show up at the store. Then they place the order, and then it can be a week. There was that sort of thing. Look, young kids are often intimidated going into a store and asking for a record. They have no idea what the process means. So that sort of thing doesn’t help. Absolutely. Certainly, those records weren’t stocked.
You had the Clifton Record Shop in your Bristol hometown, operated by ex-jeweler Bill Francis.
I was lucky in that case.
Among the British acts interpreting Tamla-Motown music back then were the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark 5, the Hollies, Manfred Mann, the Zombies, the Kinks, the Spencer Davis Group, and the Small Faces. Of course, the Beatles and Dusty Springfield led the way in spreading the word about Motown. The Beatles recorded their versions of Motown’s American hits, “You've Really Got A Hold On Me,” “Money (That's what I want),” and “Please Mr. Postman”
Yes, although it has to be said that people didn’t necessarily know what those songs were or where they came from, but the very fact that they were there opened the door. Not to mention (the covers) gave rather useful performance royalties to Jobete Music. So that’s absolutely true. Those early evangelists, the Beatles, and Dusty made a difference over a period of time because they kept talking about those records. But just the songs being on the albums wasn’t nearly enough, but their outspoken enthusiasm for the artists and the music made a difference.
EMI launched Motown in 1963 with Martha and the Vandella’s “Heat Wave?”
That’s right. “Heat Wave” was the first EMI release. It was on Stateside. The first Motown releases through EMI went on their Stateside label which was a generic label for all American pop and R&B. Anything that they wanted to put out.
The pivotal breakout year for Motown in the UK was in 1964 with Mary Wells’ ‘My Guy,” and the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go” and “Baby Love,” the company’s first UK #1.
That is absolutely right. First, there was Mary Wells, and then there were the Supremes.
“My Guy” was a pop recording, quite a distance from Motown’s R&B roots introduced by the Contours’ “Do You Love Me.”
You are quite right to argue that “My Guy” was a pure pop record, really. A magnificent piece of work, but it was a pop record, and it didn’t take long for it to break. “Do You Love Me” was covered by Brian Poole and the Tremeloes (reaching #1 on the UK chart in 1963). (Motown) had to contend with cover versions. Not only Motown, but a great many American record companies and artists had to contend with immediate cover versions (by British artists). Sometimes, of course, the publishers of those songs, sub-publishers in the UK, would get to hear the American releases before they were commercially released in the UK.
You tell a story in the book of UK publishers in meetings listening to new records saying, “This would be perfect for so and so.”
Absolutely. Of course, as I came to know true Motown, I was mortally offended by such things. I wouldn’t have the time or room for them (covers).
In 1965, while a teenager, you wrote a snarky letter complaining about Tom Jones’ hit “It’s Not Unusual” knocking off the production, and style of Martha and the Vandellas “Heat Wave,” and describing “the “slaughter” of Brenda Holloway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts” by the Spencer Davis Group.
To the Record Mirror, yeah
You also wrote, “I would like to meet the Fourmost—in a back Alley on a dark night.” Thinking about their cover that year of the Coasters’ “Girls Girls Girls?”
There were several records that I was complaining about. I considered “It’s Not Unusual” a knock-off from “Heat Wave.” But, yeah, you know what you are like as a kid. You are searching for an identity, and sometimes that is easy to come by if you can talk about what you don’t like as opposed to what you like.
When EMI granted Motown its own label identity in 1965, buying the music from Hitsville U.S.A. became easier in the UK. You placed a standing order with the Clifton Record Shop for each and every Motown single, EP and LP?
Of course. Particularly after Motown got the Tamla Motown label in 1965. When EMI launched the label in its own right, you could just have a standing order for everything that came out. I would just say to Bill, “Every time a TMG (Tamla/Motown/Gordy release) shows up on your release sheet, I want it.” Eventually, he said, “Why would you buy records that you haven’t heard yet?” But, of course, then I knew that there was a guarantee of the music being great.
Bill Francis launched “Motown Is Valid,” committed to carrying every Motown single, EP and LP released in Britain, to sell in-store and through mail-order. Meanwhile, you started working at the Clifton Record Shop where you soon launched a music newsletter.
We just kicked up that little mail order business with a newsletter. Bill went up to London and went to EMI. He said, “We want to set up this mail order service. We will guarantee you a certain amount of stock. We want every release that you put out; whether it’s a 45 or an EP or an LP. We will carry the entire line. When EMI chose to delete certain records, they would tell us, and we would buy up stock before the record went out of print. That proved to be a good little business. It was also when I realized that there was a network of like-minded people around the UK.
People like David Godin who launched the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society?
Yeah and other friends or those who became friends as a result of our shared passion. The guy who took over for me when I moved to London was another Bristolian (Roger Green) who was a huge Motown fan. You know what that’s like. You find yourself plugged into a network, however small, of like-minded people and it encourages you. It makes you feel not entirely insane. Then, of course, you share that passion. It can be quite powerful. You get to know more about the music; more about the people; and to this day a number of those people who I got to know at Clifton are still friends. Phil Symes, who ran the Jimmy Ruffin Fan Club, went on to become a very celebrated publicist in London in the film business. That network was very important in the early days, and Dave Godin was absolutely a key figure in Motown in the early years
I used to then buy a UK magazine that Dave wrote a column for.
Blues and Soul. The thing is, again, it’s that issue of distance that lends romance (to being a fan of American music). If it’s stuff that you can’t as easily get. If it’s 5,000 or 6,000 miles away, it is much more intriguing and romantic to follow that than the stuff that you can get down the road or if you turn on the telly, and there are the Beatles. Everybody can see this. But, it’s the romance of the distance that draws you in.
The other guy, who was influential at the time, was Norman Jopling, who wrote a column in Record Mirror every week called “The Great Unknowns.” It was about American R&B artists. So here was another writer determined to find out, and share information that often Americans weren’t necessarily interested in. The other guy that was very supportive of that was the editor of the Record Mirror, Peter Jones. So you look for bylines when you are young, and you are interested. Some of those people are the ones to whom you turned to find out the best assessment, the wisest take on what a new artist was or something that you knew nothing about.
The weekly one-page newsletter featured release information and other news about Motown and its artists. I would think that the U.S. music trade weeklies, Cash Box and Billboard, provided you with background content on new releases.
When I first started hearing about Motown Records, Record Mirror, which was sort of the best pop paper of the day, used to publish the Cash Box Top 50. I would follow it religiously.I had an aunt who lived in America. I would say, “Can you find this magazine called Cash Box and send it to me?” I had no idea what it was. That it was a trade paper. All I knew was that they published charts. So she started to send me copies of Cash Box and Billboard. Again as a kid, you are opening the door to another world, which I think that early on, in addition to the music, I got interested in the (music) business. When you feel deeply about something you want to know everything about it don’t you? You want to know who are these guys? Who are these songwriters and producers? And who are the guys behind the scenes? The trade press was very good at providing all that. Therefore, when I went to work for Bill, I could say, “If we were going to do this newsletter—which started out as a one sheet and two-sheet, and after I left it turned into more of a 6 and 7-page magazine—I knew what the trade press was. I said, “We need to subscribe to Cash Box and Billboard so we can see what’s going on. We can reprint the articles or, at least, we will have some idea of what is going on.”
Was Music Week publishing in the UK then?
It was. (Founded in 1959) it was called Record Retailer at the time. Billboard bought it in the mid to late ‘60s. It was going but the American releases and info were what we wanted. Remember that EMI didn’t put out every Motown release. In order to find out bout releases that weren’t being put out you had to go to the U.S. trades.
Did working at the Clifton Record Shop, and editing a music newsletter give you a bit of an identity at school.
Well, I don’t know. At that point, nobody really knew what Motown was so having much of an identity certainly at school it didn’t carry any weight because look the biggest bands in the world were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. So that’s what anybody in school cared about, and a few others. There were fans of American music but, by comparison of excitement and the creativity going on in British music, that’s really what people talked about which was one of the reasons that it took Motown awhile to get any kind of traction in Britain. The British music scene was so strong, so vibrant, and so prodigious.
In 1965 UK promoters Arthur Howes and Harold Davidson brought the Tamla-Motown tour to the UK for 20 dates, two shows each night. The only dates that sold out were the London and Glasgow shows. You saw the revue in Bristol?
I did indeed.
The shows with Martha & the Vandellas, the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, and the Supremes headlining didn’t do well.
They had simply overestimated (the popularity). The Supremes were the only act that had hits. That was the only act that people knew. The tour was ambitious in terms of the number of dates and it was ambitious to put on two shows a night. George Fame (added to the tour) told me that there was a sense that the music scene was then moving away from those theaters (the Gaumont, and the Odeon theatres). The pop scene was more vibrant, and people wanted to go there (to clubs) instead of what was mostly large cinemas converted into venues for concerts. Like the Odeon Manchester. It wasn’t cool.
Berry Gordy Jr. was set on building the Supremes and other Motown acts into nightclub attractions. The Supremes recorded “Live at the Copa” in 1965 and were popular enough in the UK to record “Live at the Talk of The Town” with new member Cindy Birdsong in 1968
Yes, indeed. I saw that show. I was lucky to get a front row seat. By that time, of course, because I had been in the business if you could call it that word but because we contacted EMI, we got great seats at the Talk of the Town. I was right there in the front row. It was very different from what I had seen three years earlier (in Bristol) but still extraordinary.
In 1968, you moved to London and worked for New Musical Express, Disc, Melody Maker, and later Music Week where you were quickly exposed to the business of music. Working at a music trade offers a different outlook at the selling of music
Of course it does. You get a deeper understanding not only of the business, which you expect, but you do get a deeper understanding of the relationship with artists and where artists fit in the food chain, and how all of that plays out. Arguably, the consumer press is only interested in certain things or determines that its audience is only interested in certain things, and doesn’t go there (to the business side). Still, when I went to the States to work for Billboard I discovered that half of the writers on the magazine were there because they wanted to talk to the artists.
Billboard publisher and editor-in-chief Lee Zhito brought you over to New York from the UK in 1978 to become a staff writer?
Yep, and I got to know the guys in New York and in California, and some of them were there because they were only interested—they were music junkies—but they were only interested in talking to the artists. I thought, “Wait a minute, you are on a trade paper, and the stories that you are writing are more about the artists. That’s not the point here.” I understood why they wanted to. Any job that gets you close to your heroes is something that you are going to take.
While at Billboard’s competitor Record World as Canadian editor, myself and others there looked down on Billboard as being pretty white, pretty safe, and...
And pretty old school.
Record World dived deeper into soul, disco, punk and country genres.
Being younger and hipper. Oh, it’s true. There are good reasons for that when Billboard was headquartered in California.
I didn’t know that.
I think it was from the early ‘70s to 1985 when Jerry Hobbs headed the team that oversaw the management buyout of Billboard from owner Bill Littleford.
Was Is Horowitz running the New York office?
That’s right. He was the New York bureau chief. So the managing editor, Eliot Tiegel, and Lee Zhito were in L.A. I subsequently read enough of Lee’s work as a reporter. He was a very good reporter in the ‘50s. So props to him for being a good journalist. But as he rose up the ranks, it began to be more difficult (to follow new trends), and it began to be of a different era. So some of the guys in L.A. running the joint were older than us young rebels who were into R&B and rock and roll and whatever, and you do see that in the’70s. One of the reasons that Record World was so much hipper and cooler was because the administration of Billboard was essentially a pre-rock administration. They had a hard time with what rock and roll eventually did.
In late 1980, Billboard relocated its editorial headquarters from Los Angeles to New York. Gerry Wood was named editor-in-chief, and you became managing editor. And later editor-in-chief.
That’s correct. Timing is everything in life, right? When they decided to move the magazine back, they needed people who could do certain things. I had been fortunate in my New York time, starting out as a staff reporter, and then becoming international editor. I was shepherding copy coming in from London and everywhere else outside North America. To Billboard’s credit, and I think this is where it can rightly hold its head high, is that it covered international better than any other trade. So the copy that would come in from the rest of the world, primarily from London, but also from Japan and Australia and wherever, was coming through me in New York for a period of time in the ‘70s. I came to learn my jobs at editing, layout, doing those nuts-and-bolts things. So that when the management decided to move the magazine back to New York and needed people to keep the thing going, I was lucky that I had learned those skills from those couple of years in New York; that when they needed a new team in New York I was one of them.
What was your first impression of America when you arrived to work at Billboard?
I had visited quite a few times previously. Remember that I had that aunt in New Jersey, and my uncle was the managing editor of Business Week. (Journalism) was in the family. My father (Peter) was a journalist. He worked first of all for the Western Daily Press, which was a big regional newspaper in the west country where I come from. It’s funny because he crossed to the dark side too. He switched between journalism and PR. He worked for British Overseas Airways Corporation at one point. But I had been to the States before along the east coast and along the west coast. A friend of mine is Fred Bronson. We became close friends in LA. So I would go and visit him there.
New York was very exciting, and that was during the time it was considered to be one of the low points of New York’s history for all sorts of reasons. But for me, it was exciting as hell. I was in the city that I wanted to be in, working for Billboard, the sense of improbability that I had at that stage of being a journalist in the music business, c’mon.
All the great record stores in New York like King Karol were operating then.
Oh, Colony Music on Broadway. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. The other cool store nearby was Downstairs Records which was in Times Square. Down in the basement, and you were in the coolest place in the world. New York was exciting, but because I had spent all of those years reading Billboard religiously, it wasn’t a totally alien environment that I was working in. I used to find when I would do interviews with executives that because I knew some of their pedigree--or I was certainly interested in--I would ask them things that they would themselves have forgotten, and they’d be impressed as hell that I knew anything about them. It sort of gave you credibility. Also, they are more comfortable with you so they are going to give you information that you don’t get if you are just another kid wanting to talk about the latest pop star.
Music trade writers like yourself were then somewhat embedded into the music industry. People returned your calls, and you lunched with them and knew their families.
Absolutely, and coming from Britain these people were like gods, really. So when I had the opportunity to meet them, I couldn’t believe my luck in being able to ask them all these questions about their background, and this and that. It was genuine and, yes, I think that it did help. They either opened up more or they certainly would be comfortable with me because I knew things that most people were not interested in asking them.
After the private equity firm Boston Ventures took over Billboard in 1985, you left to work at Radio & Records. You have said that’s where you really learned the record business. How much more so than at Billboard?
It was in the glory years of the ‘80s when the business was going so well that I learned first-hand what the relationships were between records and radio. To an extent when you are on a weekly trade (Billboard), you know that stuff but you have to cover all of the waterfront. You have to cover stories about publishers, international, and write about retail.
But at R&R I was pretty much focused on the relationship just between programming and promotion. I realized how important and how essential it (radio) is. It is the center of gravity.
Billboard was what you could call a horizontal trade. It had to cover the waterfront. R&R was a vertical trade. It had to cover just the radio business and the music radio business. As I got a much closer look at it, I came to understand the strength of the relationships between promotion people and programmers. They knew each other. You talked earlier about knowing their kids, hanging out with their families. That’s quite interesting. You don’t necessarily see that on a broad-based trade trying to cover everything. (Working at R&R) I came to understood better those relationships. How they were vital. What was good about them. What was bad about them. The other thing that I came understand was that the best radio programmers were always music people. They knew so much about the music, and about the artists. It just wasn’t that they were programming radio for listeners. They knew and loved the music. You could have endless conversations, hours of conversations with them about music to a degree that you wouldn’t necessarily have elsewhere. That is what I learned by that much sharper focus.
After you returned to the UK in 1988, you began working under the Billboard umbrella once more while at Music & Media.
It was a Billboard job. I was International editor-in-chief of Billboard but, because Billboard owned M&M, they put me on that assignment to begin with. I used to go to Amsterdam every other week as they put the magazine together. Then I’d deal with the issues, and try to evolve the magazine into an effective music trade. That was quite fun. But this notion of a European trade paper was difficult because markets there tend to be very national. So it was quite difficult to get across this notion of a European trade paper.
Europe wasn’t then the focus of the music industry either.
All of the big record companies in London had no idea really how things worked in the rest of Europe. The differences between markets. How much international repertoire was represented in one market as opposed to another. Countries like Spain and Italy were very strong with local repertoire but in Sweden, Holland and Germany there was a big appetite for international repertoire and artists. I had to understand all of that. It was pretty interesting.
During your stint an international head of Billboard from 1998 until 2002, it was a turbulent period in the music industry with the emergence of Napster, with illegal file sharing, and with widespread layoffs at labels. The industry didn’t seem to know where it was going.
I’m not sure we know now, particularly if you had spent any time in the business in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The ‘70s and the ‘80s were the glory days of the record business and for trade papers too. All those supplements, and all that advertising, all those conferences, and disco forums. There was a great deal of money in the business, and trade papers were right in the center of it. So you are absolutely right. It was more difficult. The business was changing.
What was it like working with someone as strong-minded as Billboard editor-in-chief Timothy White who abruptly died in 2002?
It could be incredibly difficult for any number of reasons. Not least of all he could be entirely arbitrary in the decisions he made about the stories that he wanted, and the people to do them. You’d get assignments, and you had no time to complete them. He would say, “By the end of next week, I want this.” You would look at the piece and think, “My goodness. What happens if this guy is out of town? We are not going to get the key guy in this story.” And Timothy was not interested in hearing excuses about why the piece couldn’t be turned on time.
The other thing about Tim was that he was music guy. He wasn’t a trade journalist. He was a music journalist. All that he was interested in...his heart belonged to the music and the artists. That was clear. He never made any pretense otherwise. But it was quite difficult for us who had been brought up in a trade paper environment to deal with that. It (his decision-making) was somewhat subjective. He would make assignments about certain artists, and you would think, “Why are we doing this? Are we doing this because of the business innovation that is going on behind this artist or because Tim likes the music?” Perfectly reasonable for him to like the music, and champion certain artists. That’s perfectly legitimate from a music point of view, but for a trade paper, that’s quite a difficult thing to do. And it was difficult for some of us who had grown up with the trade focus, and the behind-the-scenes focus. That was a challenge.
At the same time if a Billboard staffer expressed a belief in doing a certain article Timothy was supportive.
Yes. Absolutely right. That was one of the upsides because if he thought you believed in someone he would back you. But I think that it (his artist-based approach) made it much more difficult for Billboard to traverse the (music industry) landscape. Now true music people loved that approach, and Timothy rightfully had the respect of many great people in the business, but as a trade paper, it was difficult. Also, Timothy was not a manager of people and, unfortunately, when you are editor-in-chief of Billboard you had to do that as well. It’s not enough to hang out with Don Henley and know Joni Mitchell and Bill Murray. You have to know how the business works, and that was one of the challenges for us. He was more attuned to the music, and that’s fine, but it did make it difficult. Then, as the business was changing, it made it even more difficult.
You left Billboard in 2002 shortly before Timothy died.
I got the news at a Universal Music Group function.
You left Billboard to work at UMI (International division of Universal Music Group) after its chairman and CEO Jorgen Larsen recruited you.
I did. Jorgen had made me an offer two years earlier. I got to know him from covering CBS Records International. He didn’t much care for journalists, but he and I got along enough so that we could periodically have conversations, and I could write stories. At one point, he offered me a job. I turned it down. I didn’t feel like it was the right time for me to do that. He came back two years later. What changed in those two years, frankly, was my feeling that Billboard was not going in the right direction. It was going the way that Tim and (Billboard publisher) Howard Lander wanted it to go. So I was confronted with a situation where this is the way that the publisher and editor-in-chief wanted to take the publication. This is what they want to do. It’s theirs. That’s their right. That’s their entitlement. That’s what they do. So if you don’t agree with it, you have two choices. You either sit and moan and bitch and be unhappy or you say, “Okay, it’s time to go. It’s time to do something else.” So when Jorgen came back to me two years after the first offer, I said, “It’s time.”
Jorgen retired in 2005. You went on to work for his successors, Sir Lucian Grainge, and Max Hole. Did you previously know the Grainge brothers?
Well, I knew Lucian’s brother Nigel for years. Nigel, like me, is an American record junkie. I got to know him when I worked at Music Week, and we had a shared love for R&B. So I knew him before I knew Lucian.
Universal Music Group was in the midst of a change when you arrived.
Yes, it changed. Universal in those early years of 2000, it was a Vivendi company but Messier (Jean-Marie Messier, Chairman and Chief Executive Vivendi Universal) was on the outs when I went to Universal. There was real doubt about Messier and his strategy. He was spending huge amounts of money. Within a short space of time, it changed. He was given a heave-ho, and a new team came in.
Remember that 2002 was really before the business started to suffer from digital. There were signs. There were difficulties, but it was still a prosperous business with a lot of money in it. Nobody expected what subsequently happened. It was still very exciting. The main thing that I got out of it, outside of meeting a whole new crowd, is that when you are on the inside of a company like that, you really do understand the day to day nuts and bolts how the business works. As a trade journalist you never really have that complete access.
In recent years each of the multinationals has taken a new approach to their international businesses, investing more aggressively in building up their local affiliates. Shifting away from a reliance on the U.S. market to push their artists onto the global stage. Universal was one of the first to follow that path.
Well, it was able to do that because they bought PolyGram (in 1998). Basically, they started to set it up. In fact, it was under Jorgen that MCA started to open up affiliates in different countries beyond the UK and Canada and a couple of other places. They went into other territories. Then after Edgar Bronfman engineered the purchase of PolyGram, they came onto the world stage. They were a very powerful player, and all of those markets became of a different scale.
The other interesting thing about that time was that Jorgen was running that company outside of North America. As a non-American, he understood the global business--the world outside North America--better, perhaps, than most Americans would. So they were really able to take advantage of that scale and that global opportunity. And that continued.
As music consumers continue to transition away from physical formats and downloading towards streaming and as labels and artists continue to achieve broader engagement with global music fans through digital distribution, we have today a more vibrant music business, but I’m not sure that we have a mature business as yet.
Well, certainly not the one that it was. I think it’s still moving. I’m not even sure it’s got a shape now. It may take years before a real sense of it shakes out. I don’t think that we are there because of digital. Talk about a disruption. It’s only been in the last several years that streaming has begun to have the impact, and been able to raise the revenue that it has. So this is still a moving target.
At its core, you know that it is still about artists, and about people who spot talent and know how to work with talent. That is still the core of the business. But the hegemony of record companies is gone. To a large extent, they have lost that to the live business but the live business is not without its difficulties. As I said it’s a moving target; it’s a set of moving targets. Digital companies, technology companies can change everything tomorrow.
Not all entertainment companies embraced new technology as fully as they could.
I think that is the single largest mistake that the record business made many years was not developing closer relationships with technology companies. You like to think that it would have happened with Sony when they bought the music company (CBS Records Group in 1988) but it never really did. Hardware and software never really managed to sit together terribly well. As a result, I think that the software business, if that’s what you call music, is still hostage to the fortunes of technology.
Label executives feared a re-run of the MTV scenario where a company was built on their backs.
That’s absolutely right. To his credit Doug Morris (then as CEO of the Universal Music Group), at least, realized when video (streaming) came along that the mistake that the record companies had made giving MTV free programming was not going to happen again (with Vevo, which owned by Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and Abu Dhabi Media Company, launched in the U.S. in 2009). Now, it didn’t play out quite the way that everybody wanted.
Trying to differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive and combative market streaming services like Apple Music and Tidal have been bidding on exclusives on new albums in a bid to attract customers. To his credit, Sir Lucian Grainge has banned exclusives for Universal Music because they hurt artists and their sales.
I think that right. Exclusives in a different era were something that caused me a lot of grief when I worked at Billboard in the ‘80s. If you remember how powerful MTV became and how they had these exclusivity contracts with the labels to get the first shot at a new video by a superstar to the exclusion of other video channels that were trying to compete with MTV. They had a series of exclusivity contracts with the record labels which you might say were anticompetitive, but you also might say that MTV’s job was to get to #1 and to stay at #1 by whatever means it took. We had a really good reporter Leo Sacks who got hold of one of the exclusive contracts between MTV and Capitol Records. We put the story on the front page because it was the hottest topic you could get. MTV exclusives drove radio nuts. So we put the story on the front page, and all hell broke loose. I got grief from MTV. We got grief from Capitol. It was one of those situations where, as managing editor, you are getting brickbats from everywhere, but you know that you’ve done the right thing. You know that the reporter has nailed it, but in a trade paper that’s about the last thing that anyone wants to see who is involved with it directly. It was quite hot but I was proud of the journalist. It was the same thing in that exclusives drive people nuts.
Back to Motown if we could. One of the jarring images in the book is the double-page photo of Detroit burning in July 1967. The riot resulted in 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. It’s surprising that Motown survived.
I think so, especially because the company was less than a couple of miles from the epicenter of the riots. Most of the damage that was done was around the ghetto. I could never be entirely sure if they got lucky or if there was a thing (rumor) that Berry put in a few calls. I don’t believe that for a moment. People with more influence than him couldn’t stop what was going on. Motown got lucky in that instance, but it was a very ugly time. Arguably, those riots, I believe, eventually led Berry to, or was one of the contributing factors, that led to him to decide first to move to the Woodward (the Donovan Building at 2457 Woodward Avenue) in 1968. By that time he was spending more and more time in LA, long before he got into the movie business.
The move to Woodward Avenue was the start of the end of the Motown family environment which further dissipated with the move to California in 1972.
That’s what people told me for sure. Look maybe it was inevitable because of the scale of their success.
What was sad about the Motown 25th telecast in 1983 celebrating the label was that most of the artists had left the label.
They had all gone. Some of them, maybe, for the right reasons. Some of them for a bigger paycheck. Some of them for all sorts of different reasons, but ultimately Motown’s success made others realize what business there was in that field and everybody just steamed in. Columbia Records Group, in particular. They had that Harvard Study commissioned (“A Study of the Soul Music Environment” in 1972) to look at the opportunities in the black music market. Then Warners came in, and Capitol came back in.
Motown can be credited with expanding the market reach of urban music. It certainly had a direct impact on the birth of Philadelphia International Records in 1971.
Yes. Look Motown essentially became a victim of its own success. They showed the industry that it was possible to make money, and make stars out of R&B. Then everybody started to move in, particularly CBS backing Philadelphia International, and Gulf & Western bought Stax Records. The big companies moved in having seen what Motown had done. Obviously, that made it more difficult for Motown because it wasn’t part of a big corporation. It didn’t have as much access to capital. So the success that they had achieved then made the landscape much more difficult for them.
It’s interesting because when Stevie Wonder turned 21 (in 1971) and effectively came of age, and all of his prior contracts were null and void, he stayed with Motown. He shopped around a little bit, but he stayed with Motown because he felt loyalty and he felt a kinship. Unlike some of the other acts he kept the faith.
What was the main issue behind the 1968 split from Motown by the production and writing team of Lamont Dozier, and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland?
I think ultimately it was egos. Eddie certainly wouldn’t tell me specifically what the problem was. But I think ultimately it was about respect. The fact that their relationship....by that point they had been together for 7 or 8 years--and this is what Barney has told me--as the company grew Berry understandably had less time for his artists, and for the people that worked for him because he had so much to do. He depended on people to deal with situations and in that H-D-H situation he depended on George Schiffer, the lawyer to deal with it. But, if you are Eddie Holland, and you have known Berry for 7 or 8 years you want to be able to talk to him. You don’t want to be talking to the lawyer.
There was a similar falling out 1965 with Motown’s first major star Mary Wells who left for 20th Century Records
That was the first serious jolt (at Motown). H-D-H because of the enormity of their success, they were so vital to the machine. Yes, that was the first real crack in the system which to their credit they overcame. The other thing Berry had after H-D-H- was that he had a pretty good bench. He had (Norman) Whitfield making some extraordinary records, possibly the most innovative at that point. Then with (production teams) The Clan and The Corporation and other people he could call on around the company.
Berry came to realize over time that he was dealing with people more talented than him. Certainly with the likes of Marvin Gaye, and Steve Wonder.
By the time that this happened, this was toward the end of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. He had been successful for the best part of 10 years. He felt that he knew how to play the game. It was pretty difficult for him, and he admitted it, that these musicians, these stars were more talented, and wanted to take charge of their own careers.
Despite its success with the Rare Earth and R. Dean Taylor, Motown never got a firm fix working with white pop, blue-eye soul or rock acts. It signed the Rustix, the Dalton Boys, the Underdogs, Bobby Darin, and Stoney and Meatloaf, and picked up distribution of acts like the Easybeats (Australia), the Pretty Things (UK) and others.
Berry and the company were used to working with, and liked working with young artists, would-be-stars, that they could mold and shape. When someone came in with a bit of history, it was that much more difficult for those individuals or groups to adapt to the Motown way of doing things. At the same, the (Motown) team didn’t necessarily want to hear the artist’s opinion because they felt that they knew how things should be.
Who oversees the Motown archives today which are owned by Universal?
Harry Weinger in New York is the keeper of the flame (as VP of product development/A&R) at Universal Music Enterprises (UME). He has for years been involved with the catalog. He’s absolutely kept the faith for fans and for the artists with amazing releases over the years. “The Complete Motown” singles sets. Those are definitive sets, and with a great many other releases. One of the team there, Andrew Skurow, knows the Supremes inside out. He’s done some wonderful work with expanded reissues of Supremes’ albums. So they have people who really care which is why the catalog has had the “TLC” in the past 10 or 15 years that it has deserved, unlike some other labels.
Barney Ales had a co-writing credit on the instrumental “Congo” by the Twisting Kings in 1961. Why did he stop writing?
(Laughing). I will ask him that question. Fortunately, he’s done better with the Supremes’ single “Buttered Popcorn” (co-written with Berry) because it’s in “Motown The Musical.” Even though it closed on Broadway, it’s still in London and there is a roadshow around the U.S. He still gets royalties for “Buttered Popcorn” (released in 1961) to this day.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.
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