RCA Inspiration's Phil Thornton Talks 'Preserving and Growing' the Legacy of Black Music

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Black Music Month co-architect and media strategist Dyana Williams and RCA Inspiration senior vp/gm Phil Thornton.

To help Billboard kick off this year’s celebration of Black Music Month, RCA Inspiration senior vp/GM Phil Thornton has penned an essay about the campaign’s crucial significance in the wake of R&B/hip-hop’s continuing dominance in the streaming arena. Thornton’s multi-faceted background includes stints as vp/gm of urban inspirational at eOne Music, artist management (Faith Evans, Michelle Williams, Mack Wilds) and executive producer (TV One series R&B Divas). He also sits on the board for the National Museum of African American Music, nearing completion in Nashville. As Thornton writes below, the tenets behind Black Music Month need to be practiced not just in June -- but year-round. 

It’s been 40 years since President Jimmy Carter named June as Black Music Month. The opportunity to celebrate our culture remains alive and vibrant as I’m sure it will long beyond my lifetime. Black Music Month in 2019 is both about telling our stories in real time -- as our artists, songwriters, producers and executives continue to push boundaries -- and celebrating those who came before us, whose shoulders we’re standing on. That’s a big priority for me as a music industry executive: to make sure that we preserve the legacy of black music. 

Of course, as we celebrate Black Music Month today, there is a focus on R&B/hip-hop because of the tremendous economic impact they’re having as the dominant genres in streaming. That impact is also being felt musically and methodically across all genres of black music. Take the contemporary expansion that’s happening in gospel, for example. While there’s still a place for the more traditional sector and choir music, people are now combining choir elements with more contemporary sounds like Kanye West has been doing at his weekly Sunday Service. There’s also a growing contingent of younger gospel artists like 21-year-old [RCA Inspiration artist] Koryn Hawthorne. While their message remains consistent with the genre, their music -- like Koryn’s “Won’t He Do It” -- leans more R&B/hip-hop and is landing on mainstream playlists because they fit in with their peers in other genres.

While R&B/hip-hop is doing amazing on the streaming front, I would love to see DSPs put more emphasis on what I’d call our underserved genres. What would happen if streaming platforms were intentionally seeking out 30- and 40-something African-Americans who still allocate a portion of their disposable income to concerts? I would love to see R&B artists like Jill Scott or Anthony Hamilton have the same footprint on these platforms as Lucky Daye and Ella Mai, for example. Of course, that means we label partners have to be more intentional about how we present and prioritize these artists.

Black Music Month also offers an opportunity to educate our artists and managers. That’s because we can’t have a conversation about preserving our legacy without having a conversation about ownership. More artists are forgoing the traditional route of partnering with a label. And when there is a label relationship, we’re seeing more creative and competitive deals in which ownership is a major component. But ownership means nothing if artists don’t know how to properly monetize their masters. 

Historically, we have the examples of how Cash Money co-founders Ronald “Slim” Williams and Bryan “Baby” Williams secured their groundbreaking deal at Universal Music Group. Currently, we can look at Quality Control co-principals Kevin “Coach K” Lee and Pierre “Pee” Thomas and the strategic partnerships they lined up with Motown and Capitol. We need to see more of that. We also need to see more Chance the Rappers, who are releasing music independently and still competing on the same platforms as major label-signed artists.

Black music’s future and its enduring legacy are the reasons why I joined the board of the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM), set to open in Nashville in 2020. I love the storyline that ties together the various genres we call black music. NMAAM tells that story while putting equal emphasis on what’s happened in the past, what’s going on presently and the future for which we’re currently building the foundation. 

Preserving the legacy of black music also means further cultivating the ranks of African-American executives. We need to continue to bring in a diverse pool of talent and then provide them with the mentorship and resources to set them on a trajectory to become senior-level executives across all industry sectors. Back when all the majors housed a “black music” department, that used to be a breeding ground of sorts. I’d actually like to see a revival of black music divisions at all the majors. It would benefit us on all fronts, allowing us to foster the next Sylvia Rhone, Jon Platt or Ethiopia Habtermariam -- while preserving and growing the legacy of black music.

I can’t think of a better way to honor and continue what Black Music Month co-founders Kenny Gamble, Dyana Williams and DJ Ed Wright started in 1979.


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