The Black Music Association Movement of Jah People

DURING A DEFINITIVE rendition of “Exodus” which capped an hour-long show by the Wailers, Stevie Wonder joined Bob Marley on stage and moved 2,000 members of the Philadelphia-based Black Music Association to their feet in a visceral optimism so strong that for a palpable moment all the tensions and doubts provoked during last week’s conference seemed resolved. Music has been known to do that.

Even so, the question remains: Can the B.M.A. and its collective membership radically restructure the business world of music in such a way that black musicians, responsible for so many dollars going into so many pockets, get an accurate proportion of that money?

Pogo’s phrase “We have met the enemy and he is us,” might epitomize the B.M.A.’s radical departure from traditional partisan politics: The very conglomerates and support organizations that the B.M.A. wishes to affect are among the “founding members” of the association itself. By all appearances, the B.M.A. expects to conquer the recording industry by swallowing it whole and absorbing those parts that will be most beneficial to those starving for change.

Formed in May and announced in September of 1978, the B.M.A. was organized to “preserve, protect and promote Black music” (and those who create it) for the mutual benefit of all in the industry. This ambitious platform was the brainchild of Kenneth Gamble (producer/composer of Philly International) and Ed Wright, ex-prez of the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers. Together they managed to collect $600,000 in seed money and recruit some 120 top artists and executives from all the major recording labels to help organize this dream last September in La Costa, California.

This first major organization meeting drew such notables as Stevie Woner, Berry Gordy (of Motown). Maurice White (of Earth, Wind & Fire) and other heavyweights from the performing sector as well as label presidents like Bruce Lundvall (C.B.S.), Mike Maitland (MCA) and Irvin Steinberg (Phonogram), who are now all member of the B.M.A. corporate government, in advisory or executive positions.

The B.M.A.’s outreach to all corners of the industry is based on the siren song of hard-line capitalism. As by both black and white participants said several times a day in the workshops: “We’re in this business to make money.” This phrase, repeated whenever it seemed that the heated disputes would completely degenerate into racial conflicts, set the tone for whatever progress was made during the June 8-11 conference. The name of the game was how to pool all visible resources and make a highly profitable business better.

Do It Yourself

Although the wealthy and powerful are significantly represented in the B.M.A., it strives for a grass-roots membership of black small business people who will benefit from such a broad power base. The strength and effectiveness of any organization is best judged by those qualities manifested in the individual members. And the rank and file membership of the B.M.A. at the present time is best represented by independent promotor/producers Joe Shamwell and Lee King.

Based in Jackson, Mississippi, they own 100 percent of their own operations which include a publishing firm (Jamvah Music), recording studios (Shakin’ Records) and a weekly television show patterned after Soul Train called Black Gold. In the past few years they have proved themselves so accomplished in running efficient, professional shows that no major black act can tour in their region without them and still make as much money. Having gotten their expertise by working in all phases of the industry — performing, writing and engineering — they participate in the B.M.A. with an optimism tempered by knowledge and understanding of the calculated risks that permeate this business. Lee King states: “I’m fundamentally an optimist, and I’m here to lend another arm to the struggle. I’m a soldier. Now if it turns out that this particular organization won’t work, well I may go off and start my own organization. But right now I’m ready to follow, to be another voice with the many.”

“The many” that King refers to were quite ready and eager to raise their voices. In the quiet year between the announcing of the B.M.A. and this conference, blacks in the industry had been impatient and critical of the time it was taking for the organization to refine its priorities and put its complex governing body to work on solving some of the many problems the B.M.A. promised to address.

The panels were set up to allow action-committee vice presidents from the B.M.A.’s four major divisions to tatives and the membership at large. From these dialogues it was hoped that the real needs and problems of music business people would be heard. Subjects covered by the panel included better deals in service between large companies and small black retailers; more job opportunities and upward mobility for blacks in management positions; improvements in national marketing tactics; a higher percentage of booking for black promoters; expanding international sales; and the effect of the disco phenomenon on the music world of the ’80s.

Productions and Shamwell/King were nonetheless determined to clear the air of present grudges before moving on.

The result: B.M.A. will compile a list of responsible black promoters to distribute through the industry and will use its influence to increase communication and trust between booking agencies and black promoters. On their part, the United Black Promoters will streamline their membership to insure that only knowledgeable, reliable professionals remain.

But last week’s conference was only the barest of beginnings. The B.M.A. has a number of important grievances to pursue in the economic area. They will investigate claims of ASCAP paying higher performance rights to white stations than black, and will look into the strange phenomenon of the trade charts — in which some black albums that sell in the hundreds of thousands fail to make the charts while white artists with fewer than 50,000 do. There remains, as ever, the problem of withheld royalties. And B.M.A. will look to increase the flow of advertising money into black retail stores and black artist development — in proportion to the revenue they bring in.

If the B.M.A. seeks to change anything in the recording industry it is the inequeal economic and social position for black music relative to the quality of the contribution black artists have consistently made to world Music. Joe Cohen, president of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers (NARM) once believed that the B.M.A. was going to be their adversary. Jules Malamud, creator of NARM and now Managing Director of the B.M.A., was able to convince him that the aims of both organizations were in perfect sympathy, with the result that Joe Cohen unveiled at the founders’ conference a 10-point platform of total cooperation with the B.M.A., including financial subsidies for the black retailer.

It now remains to be seen how seriously the record industry — including those corporations like CBS and PolyGram that sent representatives, will take the resolutions and directives of the Black Music Association. In short, if they will decide that equitable treatment for the creators of much of the music they thrive on is in their best interest.

Expect a progress report later this year.

Published in: Soho Weekly News, June 28, 1979