Dropping Urban: De Ja’ Vu all over again

Written by on June 27, 2020

An open letter written by renowned music industry executive David C. Linton

When I read that Republic Records was going to eliminate the word “Urban” from their lexicon, I had to chuckle and thought of N.Y Yankee Yogi Berra’s “This feels like Deja Vu All Over again”. I mean it seems like we’ve been here before.

However, then it was removing the word “Black” replacing it with “Urban”, which led to the dismantling of Black Music divisions in a so-called effort to have one harmonious company. Black executives fell for it too. Well, we know how that turned out. For those with short or no memory, I’ll remind you later.

Coffee Conversations with Greg J: David C. Linton discusses his open letter and views – Removing Urban – De Ja Vu all over again?

companies are removing the term "Urban" from thier vernacular. This move in the wake of all the protests and as the people stand up against racism and seek social justice. But what the heck does this mean? Urban wasnt a term we gave black music. It was soething that companies needed to feel less threatened….. Renowned industry veteran David C Linton joins us on @coffeconversationswithgregj to chop it up and discuss his open letter…… we'll talk about the industry past and present and what this all means….. Thursday, July 2… 9am pacific…… @coffeeconversationswithgregj, Kalimba Song Coffee Company Beach City Radio Beach City Perspective

Posted by Coffee Conversations with Greg J. on Thursday, July 2, 2020

Let me go back to the Urban word… How did we get here? WBLS/New York legendary Program Director, the late Frankie Crocker, was programming the #1 station in the #1 market, yet Madison Ave ad agencies weren’t buying WBLS. If I recall one of my conversations with him, at one time they were #1 in the ratings but like 8th in sales billing because they were perceived as a black radio station.

“CROCKER SMARTLY DEFINED HIS STATION AS ONE APPEALING TO AN URBAN AUDIENCE. URBAN COMING FROM THE WORD URBANE MEANING ‘SUAVE’, ‘REFINED’ OR ‘SOPHISTICATED’.”

We would later learn of the “Don’t buy black” dictate among some agencies. Prior to WBLS, black radio had a stigma about its audience, based on the kind of ads they ran (Payday loans, jocks talking jive, rent-to-own companies, sound familiar?).

Well, WBLS didn’t have those kinds of ads on the air. In fact their air personalities were polished, didn’t yell at you but were considered “Urbane” (hold that thought). Let’s not forget that then WBLS was owned by a black company, Inner City Broadcasting, owned by Malcolm X’s former attorney, Percy Sutton.

Now, in a city of 8 million people at that time (late ’70s to mid-’80s) you couldn’t be number 1 with just black folks listening when you still had several outlets fighting for that audience. Crocker smartly defined his station as one appealing to an Urban audience. Urban coming from the word Urbane meaning “suave”, “refined” or “sophisticated”.

His description of the music was “Urban Contemporary”, which later was shortened to Urban. Thus WBLS played contemporary music for an “Urbane” audience living in the New York City metropolitan area including the suburbs. The co-opting of the word came from music labels or industry publications who loved to re-define and classify things. Urban sounded less restrictive or provocative than Black.

Then white radio consultants picked up the term and applied it to their black formatted stations. The industry took a word and redefined. As a Program Director it made sense but when I became a label executive it didn’t.


Short memory? Let me remind you. Black Music departments, later divisions, were created to help companies get into the black music business. They delivered in a big way. Companies gave black executives their own little playground within the company so the rockers could rock and well, the black guys/ladies could do whatever they did and the two shall never meet except in weekly company meetings. But something happened. Those Black Music divisions were churning out hits and delivering profits.

Conversely, the pop/rock areas were not delivering as big of hits, and definitely not as consistent or fast as the Black Music divisions. One of the keys was the diversity of black music. Black Music Divisions comprised all of the music emanating from black artists, R&B, Hip Hop, Gospel and Jazz, while the rest of the company focused on rock, alternative and so-called pop songs. The term “Pop” was always strange to me since it’s short for Popular. As if the Gold (500K) and Platinum (1mil) units sold by music from the Black Music divisions didn’t signify popularity.

“THE SUCCESS OF THESE DIVISIONS WAS SO UNDENIABLE THAT THE TITLE OF PRESIDENT OF BLACK MUSIC WAS GIVEN TO SOME, AS A WAY TO PROMOTE THEM BUT KEEP THEM SEGREGATED.”

The head of Black Music divisions had promotions, marketing, publicity, sales, A&R and any other area needed to successfully sign an artist and deliver a hit to the marketplace. Most importantly, he/she had the autonomy to sign off on budgets. Most times he/she reported directly to the President of the company.

The success of these divisions was so undeniable that the title of President of Black Music was given to some, as a way to promote them but keep them segregated. The black executives had autonomy and even parity in salaries, staff sizes and, God forbid, budget sizes. So the slow dismantling of Black Music divisions had to happen but how?

David C. Linton, Chairman – Living Legends Foundation; Program Director WCLK – Clark Atlanta College

First you rename it, and tell the executives you want no barriers, we are all the same. Yet, we have to call you something. Enter the term Urban. This would also eventually give license to anyone of any color inside the label to manage the area.


This slowly began to happen after the dismantling of the Black Music divisions as the various departments, except promotions in some cases, began reporting to departments headed by white executives who always thought they knew all music, including black music, better than anyone else.

Yet, of all those black executives who were running those successful Black Music divisions, only a handful got a shot to run the whole company. Ed Eckstine was the first at Mercury in 1993. Some got imprints and titles but Ed was the last word. We have to take Motown out of the equation because it was a black-owned company. Yet it was because of Motown’s success, black executives at majors got a shot.

“JON PLATT IS NOW THE MOST ACCOMPLISHED BLACK EXECUTIVE IN THE BUSINESS AND HE’S EARNED EVERY BIT OF IT. THE SAD PART IS THERE WERE OTHER JON PLATTS WHO DIDN’T GET THE SHOT.”

Yes we had L.A. Reid (Arista & Epic), now at Hitco, and Sylvia Rhone (Elektra), now at Epic, who broke some glass ceilings. Jon Platt is now the most accomplished black executive in the business and he’s earned every bit of it. The sad part is there were other Jon Platts who didn’t get the shot.

So as Republic loses “Urban”, I guess it’s good, but it doesn’t excite me until I see some parity for black executives in running not just departments, but companies. They are bright enough, smart enough and if they need mentors, I know where they can find them. The Living Legends Foundation Inc. has been around for 29 years as a resource and advocate for Black Music professionals. The Board is comprised of those key black executives from various fields who ran those departments /divisions, administered millions of dollars in budgets, making music companies billions. We want to help preserve the culture we cultivated.

The real questions are what are they going call the black executives now and will it lead to real equality – which in the music business is control – or is this just another self-serving, feel good moment?


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