MICHAEL JACKSON AND THE MARKETING OF BLACK POP
Industry “Image building” in the ’80 and the success of Prince, Ray Parker Jr., and Michael Jackson.
Found in a copy of BAM magazine a number with Michael Jackson on the cover which gives a very good perspective of what was the music industry in the ’80. Hope readers enjoy it.
As fans filed into The Jackson’s first Victory tour concert in Kansas City, two blonde and blue-eyes 15-year-old girls every – every inch covered with Michael Jackson hats, purses, buttons, pants, shoes, socks, gloves, bumper stickers , T-shirts, probably underwear —plead with Mickael Jackson’s attorney to deliver a stuffed likeness of their 26-year-old heartthrob. Lawyer Garry Stiffelman promise to take it, mash note attached, to Michael.
“OMYGOSHHHHHH! I love Michael so much! I can’t believe it! He’s going to give it to Michael!” They yelp, pawing each other like puppies.
After the concert, the doll sits in Michael’s hotel room.The girl’s fantasies were fulfilled. They’d connected with Michael Jackson. All over America, on every stop of the Victory Tour, girls of all races are waiting hours to catch a glimpse of this latest pop infatuation.
In the guess of ” Who Coming to Dinner” age of a decade ago, Michael Jackson’s ability to make white girls fail faint would have raised a few eyebrows. But in 1984, Jackson has broken nearly as many recording industry records as he has teenage hearts. With 35 million copies of his album Thriller sold worldwide and eight Grammys sitting somewhere in the Encino home he shares with his parents, Michael Jackson can hold court with The Beatles, Elvis and The Rolling Stones in the palace of rock and rolls. Michael’s different though. He’s black.
“Michael luck is a marketing publicity phenomenal. He is the kinda of guy everybody accepts and loves. His sex appeal doesn’t threaten anybody”, explains Dick Griffey, President of the American Black Music Association (BMA) and Solar Records. It’s that appeals – exposed marketed and promoted by the sheer force of Michael Jackson’s personality and talent – that has made him a multicultural symbol. His success has also helped others black artists – especially those aiming to capture a predominantly white audience – around the world of mainstream rock, said various rock music industry executive in recent interviews.
The result, they claim will be more opportunities for Black artists in the pop music world. Prince, Ray Parker Jr, Jermaine Jackson, Tina Turner, The Pointer Sister and Peabo Bryson are among the names dominating this year Top Ten Radio waves. Other longtime stars of the pre-disco era Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross among them continue to have a strong hold on the pop mainstream.
Those who remember the ’60 know the recent resurgence of black artists on top charts is not a new phenomenon. Black music was commercially successful a generation ago when Berry Gordy’s Motown Records and Phil Spector set the pop tone for a decade. “There’s a big difference today’s (black) artists and black of the ’50 and the ’60”, say the Jackson publicist Howard Bloom, who also handles Prince and Ray Parker Jr. “It was unlikely that a large number of white women were going to swoon over Nat King Cole”. The Blacks were there, but they were in the background, they were there to offer entertainment” Bloom adds that the era’s blatant racism forced blacks “to know their place. These days, the Jackson and Prince are role models and sex symbols for white audiences just as Elvis Presley was,” says Bloom. “I think is very positive. It shows that the civil rights marches have come to something”.
In the last two years, Top 40 radios formats and the 1981 advert in MTV have revitalized the rock industry – and the black pop sound, industry executives insist. In 1982, black artists recorded only 9 percent of the year pop hits, according to Radio and Records Magazine. Compare to this year when the black artists so far recorded 23 percent of the songs that have been in the Top 10. As one industry execs put it “Top 40 knocked down the race barrier at MTV, and MTV reinforced the Top 40 format”.
While black artists are making records, they are also braking them for the first time, black act records sic of the ten best selling albums on the Billboard charts in August. And six black artist scored top ten singles. “Not since 1972 have so many black artists appeared on the Pop Charts”, according to Matt Wilson, research Director of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 radio show. Despite having been categorically denied access to mainstream radio black artists has long pollinated white music.
The roots of rock and rolls are buried deep in black musical traditions. “As far back as the ’20, there were references in “rock and rolls” on so-called “race records”. In the ’30, the story goes” Sam Philips, owner of Sun Records, remarked “if I could only find a white man who had a Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion of dollars”, he said. His discovery was, of course, Elvis Presley. It’s no secret, either, that some of rock’s greatest white stars stole music from black musicians, popularised the tunes, and made millions of dollars. In August Little Richard filed suit seeking royalties for songs made famous by Presley, Mick Jagger, and even Pat Boone.
More and more, however, black artists are popularizing their musical idioms and making millions themselves as in any business attracting a wider audience means more profits. The pop and black market constitute about 75% of the records buying public, according to Billboard (about 15% is black, 60% is pop). Figuring that they stand a better chance of making more money on someone who’s racial, record companies tend to play down a pop artist’s race.
“Take Lionel Richie or Michael Jackson, people don’t think of them as white or black. I’m not saying this has always been true. But in music at least, we are becoming more and more color blind”, says CBS Records executive Bob Altshuler. That may be for big-selling black artists acts who usually have white managers and advisors.
But black artists and managers – selling hards driving “urban” sound – tend to disagree.According to BMA President Dick Griffey. “We are certainly not living in a color-blind society. It’s very color conscious” says Griffey. “If it was a white cat doing Rick James music (funk a delish rock) he’d be on the pop chart and getting radios play.
Certain sound and images get accepted easier”. “That’s why selling black acts to pop audience take more than talent,” says Neil Portnow, Vice President of Arista Records “it takes image building”.
Image building –or marketing seems endemic to Michael Jackson. He’s as widely recognized as the President and probably more popular. He hasn’t always enjoyed mass culture adoration, though. There was a time when he begged for –and was refused – a spot on the cover of Rolling Stone. Today, he’s still the same shy, self-effacing guy he has always been, close friend and associate maintain, “Somehow – I’d attribute to it to religion, family and a sort unworldliness all at once—he does retain an unmistakable if rather spaced out aura and humility, mission, and service. All he wants is the chance to entertain every single human being in the entire world” wrote Robert Christgau in Village Voice.
Yet Jackson consistently refuses interviews, provoking the media to speculate that his persona is fabricated for promotional purposes. The Jackson’s publicist insist’s that Michael image reflects his personality. Jackson is ”apolitical and color blind, sexually safe, a nice, middle-class young man who still lives with mom and dad and espouses conservative values”. Says Bloom. His music, an infectious blend of reggae, disco, pop, rock, soul, and rhythm & blues, eschews traditional black street themes and a Rick James style, urban, funk beat.
The success of Thriller produced by multiple Grammy winner Quincy Jones, renowned for making black crossover artists, put Michael’s videos on MTV, he was one of the first to break the network’s nearly all-white format. Jackson learned his commercial moves at a young age. At five he sang lead for the Jackson on Motown label a company known for producing black crossover stars in the ’60. In 1979 after the release of his solo album “Off The Wall, Michael changed.
The Afro was replaced with the “wet look” and though denied at a world press conference reports circulated that he had his facial structure features “smoothed”. “To round it all, he dressed in a tuxedo, as if it were a symbol of his crossover into
white-dominated entertainment” writes Paul Honeyford in the recently release book “The Thrill of Michael Jackson”. “To avoid being considered too black,” Honeyford writes, “Jackson seems to have changed his appearances to gain widespread acceptance“.
It was about that time that Jackson tried unsuccessfully for a cover story in Rolling Stone magazine. The publisher responded to Jackson publisher Norman Winter: “Dear Norman, while I do agree The Jacksons are talented, they have been on the cover, and while “Off The Wall” is a great album and Michael is a talented young man I don’t think he is cover material“. Five years later besieged by thousands of requests for interviews with Jackson, Winter lately crowned to a crowded Kansas City MO hotel lobby “I sent the letter to Michael and he put it on his wall, next to another letter that he got a month ago from publisher Jann Wenner saying “Dear Michael, I’d love to have you on the cover and I’d like to have Richard Avedon photograph it”.
By appearing on many magazines covers Jackson broke another race barrier. He forced the predominantly white mainstream press to take him, and consequently other black pop artists more seriously. Other record companies and artists have followed Jackson’s lead.
Michael brother Jermaine Jackson came to Arista last year and “told us I want to have hit records” say, Arista Neil Portnow. “Whatever he takes either he’d write them, or somebody else with a more pop sound would. He told us he wanted more hits to appeal to mass audience. He had this in his mind from day one. We were concerned with building his image as a star”.
“That’s was his and our point of view from the very beginning”. Arista is promoting Jermaine on the Jackson’s Victory Tour, on national TV and MTV, in videos and in front of audiences that aren’t black. “We translate Jackson mania to Jermania. We covered all the basis”, Portnow says. At the same time, Arista kept Jermaine face in black magazines and Newspapers. “We didn’t want to risk, losing our base,” he says “the people who accepted Jermaine from the beginning”. It’s not easy for lesser-known artists “It’s very hard to get the record company rock staff to pay attention to black artists” say publicist Bloom “the first thing that is noticed is the color of his skin. He gets shunted over to the black music division”.
THE VICTORY PRODUCTION – THE ROADSHOW
Each Jackson show requires over 1500 workers, with a stage design that requires five days and 240 people to erect the Stage itself that is 90 feet (or seven stories) tall. 140 feet wide and another 90 feet deep. Inside are five huge elevators manned by 20 technicians. It is estimated that each Victory show eats up 3 times the power used to generate any previous musical event, including Woodstock. The tour travels with 2 giant generators which together provide 18000 amps of electricity. That’s enough for a small city. The sound system designed by a group of top-notch engineering and Randy Jackson is consistent with the rest of the tour set up BIG.
The hanging equipment alone weighs 65000 lbs and include 240 custom built speakers cabinets and 2200 light. The band, consisting of Tito, Jermaine, Randy, and 4 backing musician use a total of 24 keyboards, most of which are pre-programmed polyphonic synthesizers, plus an auto designed Yamaka drum, bass, and guitars. In addition to the Jackson and their band, you’ll see a half dozen robotic creatures affectionately called The Kreetons, who are shipped from city to city in 3000 crates.
For those who are sitting at the top of the track, a huge video screen is mounted above the stage enabling every seat in the venue a clear view of the action. Four cameramen and a director work out of the small television studio erected below the stage. The Jackson entourage needs 22 computers to keep everything in order and 7 high powered ones just to execute the show. All of this combined a mere 375 tons fits neatly in 24 huge semi-tractor trailers, which covered over 6000 miles from the tour start last July through to its finish in December.
A machine gun, a butterfly, a black widow spider, a large amp man head…no these are not props on stage with the Jacksons, they are the actual shapes of Jermaine Jackson’s Yamaka BB3000 bass bodies. Developed in conjunction with the Cinema City Studios and Guitar Lab of Costa Mesa, the instruments were based upon Jermaine own design idea.
Last you think Jermaine was the only Jackson to get creative with his axe designs, brother Tito’s play a guitar known as “the Jackson slagger”. Using the neck from a Yamaka SBG 3000 guitar, the body of “The slagger” is shaped like a huge baseball glove, with a ball in the pocket. The glove is made of actual leather, while the neck is a bat-like wood grain pattern.
The band keyboards, though not as visually arresting as their guitars and basses, are startling in terms of sheer numbers. Randy Jackson plays both a Yamaka DXI-FM digital synthesizer and a KXI hand-held remote keyboard.
Supporting keyboardists Pat Leonard, Jal Winding and Rory Kaplan alternate between 11 DX7 FM digital keyboard synthesizers, a GS1 FM digital keyboard, and a C7 grand piano, joined together by MIDI.
Drummer Jonathan Moffett uses a Yamaka Power Series double bass drum kit—comprised of two 24 x 16 kicks, six rack toms (form eight to sixteen inches) Moffett cymbals are Zildjian. All of the above are mixed throughout Yamaka MC consoles with Yamaka R1000 reverb.
Backstage and in their hotel rooms The Jacksons practice and compose with Yamaka PF15 electric pianos MT44 4 channel multitrack cassette recorders and RX15 rhythm machines.
THE MARKETING OF BLACK POP IN THE ’80
“Traditionally segregated the black and pop music division in record companies are not usually separated but equal. Many times budgets afforded are small in comparison to those given to promising white pop acts. Plus, a black artist still has to prove himself on the black charts, but we continue to build his image as a pop artist” Portnow says “We always felt the opportunity would be there, we had just to wait for it. It was a situation where good work paid off. Parker wrote the theme song of Ghostbuster by default. After rejecting the original soundtrack artist for the movie, Columbia pictures contacted Ray and some other artists to write the song on assignment. He had a couple of days to do it” Portnow says “if we ever did image building or determinate that he has mass appeal, nobody would have thought to call him”.
“For a movie, they usually don’t call anyone who’s too closely identified with any sort of music, whether is too Country, too Street, too Jazz, because it turns it off the mass appeal”. The pop radio success of “Ghostbusters” – it was a Number One hit – convinced MTV to air Parker’s star-studded video, a cameo by Chevy Chase, Carly Simon, Paul Simon, Randy Newman and other.
“Because we had that video we were able to give to Parker a new persona. He always had an image but this solidifies his image as a rather smooth handsome, sexy songwriter” says Portnoy. ”Good looks give artists a winning edge with their teenage MTV following, but even a dapper demeanor won’t make it on MTV unless the artist song becomes a hit on rock radio”. Says Bloom, adding “radio has been the biggest obstacle for black musicians, trying to make it with white audiences”.
These days Prince is king of radio requests lines. Fron the beginning Prince’s manager Steve Fargnoli and Warner Brothers decided Prince would hat both the black and the pop charts, according to Bloom. “The press motivated Warner Brothers to see Prince as a rock artist, as opposed to black or “urban” sounding artists,” Bloom says. That done, “Warner Brothers flew radio programs directors from all over the country to see Prince concerts. It worked. Fusing white rock and roll with black, dance funk, Prince now threatens to overtake Jackson mania as the next, next big thing”. Pauline Kael of “The New Yorker” stated his “Purple Rain” as a “landmark” film of a sort. Prince considers himself a revolutionary force because he, like his band, represents a fusion of the races and sexes, and because his music is his own, self-taught eclectic mix.
“Purple Rain is the black crossover movie that many of us expected a decade ago when
Diana Ross appeared in “Lady Sing The Blues” and showed the kind of talent that made she seem a natural attraction to both black and white audiences. A new generation has come along that is jaded about old movie stars self-absorbing emoting and when Prince turn his life into a soap the audience loves it”, Manager Fargnoli agrees with Kael.
In explaining Prince impact Fargnoli offers a blueprint for pop stardom in the ’80. “We look for artists that are talented and who appeal to a broad spectrum of people. Pop can appeal to blacks and white, and then it does, it mean more money for the artist, the record company, for everybody” Fargholi says. “What you need is to focus on what the kids want. Finding an artist who has that sound, who can take various elements of all kinds of music and make it a hit, that’s the hard part. Very few artists have that talent. It’s a gift.
“But you do find that talent” he adds laughing “ you exploit the hell out of it “. Though changing in rock industry portent progress, the President of the Black Music Association believes black artists still have a long way to go. “All sad as it is, in 1984, we still live in a racist society. Blacks are still in minority, we’re still categorized, we still have separate black charts, separate radio stations”, says Griffey “Thank God for them, without them, black artists would never get an opportunity. That’s not a problem for me. It’s a plus. It’s a fact of life. Really though, it comes down to the color of the money, not the people” he adds “and kids want to hear black music. That’s the bottom line”.