'Notice to Black Artists': Behind R&B's Struggle at Radio & The Letter That Has the Industry Buzzing
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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.