'Notice to Black Artists': Behind R&B's Struggle at Radio & The Letter That Has the Industry Buzzing
No song spent more time atop the Billboard Hot 100 last year than Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," which logged 12 weeks at No. 1 and set the all-time record for radio audience when it reached 229 million listeners in a week. It did so by tapping the sound of classic R&B, which has sparked both controversy – its groove is close enough to Marvin Gaye's 1977 No. 1 hit "Got to Give It Up" to have sparked a since-settled suit involving the Gaye family – and ongoing discussion. That's because 2013 was also a year that didn't have a single black artist top the Hot 100 as a lead performer – the first time that's happened in the chart's 55-year history.
Why? The increasing dominance of pop at radio – across all formats – is one reason. But a satirical commentary by Sebastien Elkouby published on RapRehab.com the day of the Grammy Awards (Jan. 26) took aim at the marginalization of black artists in popular culture in general. It struck a nerve – especially in light of the apology Macklemore made the following day to Kendrick Lamar for "robbing" him at the Grammys.
"This letter is sad because it's not far from the truth," says the co-founder of one R&B independent label. The head of an R&B-focused marketing and branding agency boils down colleagues' universal reaction to the posting in six words: "I was thinking the same thing." An executive who works in the U.K. R&B music industry, adds, "[It] summarized a long-held feeling or fear about what's happening with black music, but [people] haven't felt confident enough to raise these issues."
One person who does is Jeff Robinson, president-CEO of MBK Entertainment. Robinson helped guide Alicia Keys to stardom and helms the careers of R&B singer-songwriters K. Michelle and Elle Varner. He says it was tough to break an R&B artist in 2001, when Keys' debut album, Songs in A Minor, hit No. 1, and it's even tougher now.
"With radio all playing the same songs by the same artists it's difficult to break through," says Robinson. "Even top producers are reluctant to work with new artists, preferring to take the easier way out to work with more established ones." Labels and radio have moved in the direction of branding the music as "adult R&B," whether it's from an established artist like Toni Braxton (whose recent album with Babyface, 'Love, Marriage & Divorce,' debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200) or a new artist like Varner. "So they tend to not believe in its selling power as they once did," says Robinson. "I couldn't disagree more."
"R&B has to be given a chance," says Reggie Rouse, PD of Atlanta mainstay WVEE, which plays a notable amount of new R&B music for its 18-54 audience. On WVEE, alongside Drake and Ace Hood you'll hear Tamar Braxton and Miguel as well as R. Kelly, Jill Scott and Anthony Hamilton. "I know we have to get ratings, but we jump off R&B records too quickly because it takes longer to research than hip-hop. R&B is the core, the foundation for pop, hip-hop and other music."
But radio playlists have indeed tightened, in part due to Nielsen Audio's Portable People Meter, which monitors listening more accurately than diaries once did. For some R&B stations this has meant playing a higher quotient of oldies or switching to another format altogether to retain audience and advertising dollars. Elsewhere it's created a drive to find the songs that get the biggest and broadest audience response, which often are pop songs that can work as cross-format smashes – like "Blurred Lines" or Lorde's "Royals," a hit on the Hot 100, as well as the alternative, hip-hop and Latin charts.
It's "killing our culture," laments the head of one indie label. "We're hitting a glass ceiling with such limited exposure." R&B industry executives and managers worry that the genre, like jazz before it, will continue to shrink in exposure and audience. Others say the music simply isn't strong enough right now, and point to the emergence of R&B alternative artists like The Weeknd and Frank Ocean as the future.
One thing that may soon change is the drought for black artists atop the Hot 100. Pharrell's "Happy" is No. 2 on the chart dated March 1, and has the momentum to go to No. 1. If it does, Pharrell will be the first lead black act to top the chart since Rihanna in December 2012 with "Diamonds." The only thing in the way right now? The reigning No. 1: Katy Perry's "Dark Horse," which is fueled by a hip-hop assist from Juicy J. If Perry's new video posts big numbers, the Hot 100 blackout may continue.
Read Elkouby's piece on the next page and a break down of some its key points.
Notice To Black Artists: Your Services Are No Longer Needed 1
Dear Black Artists,
We regret to inform you that the need for your services will soon come to an end as we enter a critical restructuring period. Fortunately, after having spent nearly a century meticulously studying your art, language, fashion, and lifestyle, we have learned enough to confidently move forward without your assistance. We thank you for your contributions but have decided to make some necessary changes as a result of your decreasing value. Focus groups show that consumers are looking for more relatable images. While 2013 marked the first time in Billboard’s 55 year history that there were no black artists on the Hot 100 chart,2 this was a great year for us with Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke, and Macklemore claiming the #1 spot on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart, proving that market demands are shifting. Consequently, in the next few months, we will be gradually phasing out your positions as we finalize this reorganization. In the meantime, we ask you to continue with business as usual, training your replacements Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber until instructed otherwise.
Your severance package includes a lifetime supply of Air Jordans, unlimited access to reruns of "Love and Hip Hop", a new 30 piece Tom Ford wardrobe, and the latest iPhone. Your medical coverage will be provided through ObamaCare.
We want you to know that your termination is in no way a statement about the quality of your work with us. As such, we would like to acknowledge your outstanding contributions to the industry over the past decades.
In music, we’d like to thank Kendrick Lamar’s thought-provoking body of work which has opened the door for Macklemore, a shining example of what intelligent rap looks like.3
In business, Jay Z's partnership with Samsung was historical as the Korean mobile company paid the rapper a mere $5 million and his company Roc Nation, another $15 million, a bargain deal relative to their standard annual $4 billion marketing budget and $220 billion net worth.4
In fashion, while Kanye West may be experiencing difficulties launching his own brand, his loyalty to European designers continues to add value to an already thriving industry that other entertainers like Migos seem to enjoy promoting for free.5
In cinema, "The Butler" and "12 Years a Slave" were Oscar-worthy gems, showcasing the strength and pride of a resilient people. We understand that this year, you will continue this tradition of inspiring historical films with the May release of "Belle" and the History Channel's forthcoming reboot of the groundbreaking 70's televised series, "Roots". Your work did not go unnoticed as it has inspired us to produce new historical movies of our own, depicting our rich cultural heritage. Upcoming releases include:
* "Son of God" produced by reality TV pioneer Mark Burnett and starring Diogo Morgado
* "Noah" starring Russell Crowe
* "Exodus" starring Christian Bale as Moses
* "Mary, Mother of Christ" starring 16 year old Odeya Rush
Just as your movies depict the struggles and achievements of your best and brightest, these powerful films are meant to inspire and remind us of our glorious past and divine lineage.
In an attempt to capitalize on the recent trend in movies that focus on triumphs of the African-American experience, we have recently begun developing films with similar themes. Channing Tatum has just been cast as the lead in the Nat Turner Story while Scarlett Johansson is reported to have accepted the role of Harriet Tubman in a forthcoming biopic. Like Quentin Tarentino’s "Django Unchained", both movies promise to offer the perfect balance between shoot-em-up style action and social commentary while boasting two smash-hit soundtracks featuring Eminem, Katy Perry, and Ke$ha.
Again, none of this could have been accomplished without your unwavering commitment and dedication to our mission. We trust that your transition will be smooth and wish you continued success with your new journey into Electronic Dance.
1. This posting on RapRehab.com appeared Jan. 26 the day of the Grammys. The author Sebastien Elkouby is a former publicist for KRS-One who now works as a creative consultant, freelancer writer for RapRehab and an educator.
2. There's a chart wather's nuance here: t was the first year in the chart's history that no black artist topped the chart as a lead performer. However four songs featuring black artists did claim No. 1 last year: "Thrift Shop" (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Wanz), "Can't Hold Us" (Macklemore & Lewis featuring Ray Dalton), "Blurred Lines" (Robin Thicke featuring T.I. adn Pharrell) and "The Monster" (Eminem featuring Rihanna).
3. After winning best new artist, best rap song, best rap performance and best rap album, Macklemore Instagrammed a screen grab of an apology text he sent Kendrick Lamar, who was nominiated for seven Grammys and won none. "You got robbed," it read in part. "I robbed you."
4. The value of Jay Z's deal with Samsung was actually $30 million. Samsung's global marketing budget is actually $14 billion, though its U.S. budget for 2013 was estimated to be $1 billion.
5. West has complained of his power struggles in the fashion industry, and recently left Nike for a deal with Adidas. Atlanta trio Migos released the single, "Versace," which repeats the designer's name more than 35 times in a row as a hook. The Versace store in Atlanta reportedly had a rise in sales after the song became a hit in September.