Buying In and Selling Out: African-American Ownership of Record Labels in the Twentieth Century
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Throughout the twentieth century, African-American owned record labels seemingly served as embodiments of entrepreneurialism’s capacity to generate social uplift for the race as well as wealth. However, an examination of Black Swan Records, Motown, and Def Jam Records, demonstrates how this assertion is undermined by the actions of their owners. Harry Pace founded Black Swan Records in 1921 not only to showcase black artists, but also prove the African-American audience was capable of appreciating classical music and other high culture. However, faced with financial pressures, Pace expanded the genres recorded on Black Swan to include jazz and other genres deemed “low” culture, as well as released records by white artists under black names. Berry Gordy’s refusal to allow his Motown artists to take a public stance on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s came from his belief that their participation would be detrimental to the company’s profitability. Gordy’s belief in selling black respectability to the commercial mainstream formed the basis of much of his decisions in running Motown, and became its ultimate legacy. Although Russell Simmons sought to market black rebellion under the assumption white consumers would find it more authentic, his decisions made as owner of Def Jam was demonstrated how entrenched black music had become within mainstream culture. When artists went too far in their persona of rebellion, such as members of Public Enemy, Simmons was quick to cast them aside in order to preserve the label’s viability. The three owner’s actions to remain commercially successful despite seemingly in opposition to their stated cultural and racial goals demonstrate the priority of economic realities inherent in consumer culture taking precedence over idealistic efforts. In commodifying race, the resulting music was foremost a commercial product, and diminished its cultural value. This work challenges earlier studies of African-American popular music by arguing that the positive attributes of presenting black artists to a mainstream audience were weakened by the economic considerations of running a business and the demands of a consumer culture.
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Tully, Stuart Lucas, "Buying In and Selling Out: African-American Ownership of Record Labels in the Twentieth Century" (2016). LSU Doctoral Dissertations. 3246.