*In this special edition of The Living Legends Series, EURweb.com contributor Gwendolyn Quinn talks with the Chairman of the Living Legends Foundation, Inc., David C. Linton about the State of Black Music. This week, Thursday, October 6, The Living Legends Foundation will honor seven distinguished honorees in music and entertainment.
“I am honored to be in leadership during the organization’s 25th anniversary celebration,” says Linton. “Currently, to my knowledge we are the only existing organization serving the African American music community in the manner we do. I’m delighted that we are developing and implementing new ideas to move the organization forward. Yes, the industry and many of our black executives have been downsized over the years, but there is still a solid and strong community of former and current black executives to keep the mission of the Living Legends Foundation alive. Over the next year, we will announce new initiatives and programs.”
With a career spanning nearly four decades and over 90 million music units sold, Linton, an award-winning music executive worked with global superstars including Whitney Houston, Prince, Chaka Khan, Salt-N-Pepa, Outkast, just to name a few. With an extensive background in education, radio, marketing, management and consulting, Linton is a recognized leader in black music. A former general manager at WSHA-FM and talk show host at WPTF-AM both in Raleigh, NC, he created radio station WRVS-FM at Elizabeth City State University. During his tenure at the labels, he has held mid and senior level management positions at Warner Bros, Reprise, Arista, Capitol, and Island Records. Linton is passionate about continuing the legacy of the foundation and continues as a consultant to independent labels and artists.
Gwendolyn Quinn: With over 35 years in the record/music industry, tell us your take on today’s A&R/urban music. What do you like? What do you dislike?
David Linton: I’m not one to say today’s music isn’t as good as the music of previous eras because each era or generation puts its own spin on music. This has been true from bebop to hip-hop or rock & roll to heavy metal. What I will say is different is what I see as the A&R process. It appears A&R of today relies more on technology vs. feel. The process is more about jumping on the bandwagon of something that’s already in progress vs. signing an artist and giving them time to develop. It’s all about how many YouTube views, how many Twitter followers or if you’ve already released a single, how many downloads. There’s nothing wrong with hedging your bets, but where’s the fun in taking something from nothing and creating something? In black music (I prefer black over urban since urban is a lifestyle and we don’t have suburban music), in my opinion, we only have a handful of real creative black executives at labels with the power to sign the deal without a filter. I believe this stifles the process, hurts creativity and variety in music choices. It seems as if everything is cookie cutter and the ones that are different have a hard time breaking through. I still love the various flavors of black music: R&B, hip-hop, jazz, and gospel. What I dislike is that it’s not getting a shot to break through or an opportunity to be signed. Urban radio has been slimmed down to either hip-hop/R&B and Urban Adult Contemporary (UAC). Jazz and gospel are treated like second class citizens. If I had one real dig against today’s music, it’s the lack of creativity and depth. Music has always been about love, sex and life, yet writers were more creative. Today, writers don’t seem to have vocabularies deep enough to be creative. Johnny Bristol’s song “Hang on in There Baby” was all about sex, but the word sex or any four letter word wasn’t used to describe what was about to go down.
GQ: What’s your views on the State of Black Radio?
DL: As someone who got into this business through radio as an on-air personality and former programmer, I’m really disappointed where black radio finds itself today. It has lost its localism, in part due to syndication, consultants and corporate consolidation. However, more importantly, it is no longer, in my opinion, really serving the “In public’s interest, convenience and necessity.” Black radio has fewer voices talking to its audience in an intelligent and informative manner. When something of importance happens, I have to turn to news talk stations. That was never the case during my days in radio or growing up in New York City. Black radio was the tool that kept the community informed and mobilized it for action. Having local announcers only in middays, evenings and overnights, but not in your key dayparts (morning drive and afternoon drive) is akin to broadcasting malpractice. Radio was designed to only sound the same during national disasters, thus the original term “clear channel.” Radio now sounds the same from city to city or state to state, and it’s boring. I used to love to get in the car and drive to different markets and hear different stations to get a flavor of that particular city and to steal programming ideas (LOL) and hear music I wasn’t playing. My favorite App is Tunein. It would have saved a lot of gas, but when I listen to stations now, they all sound the same. I also think the job possibilities for true radio personalities are diminishing as comedians and recording artists are getting the few openings that become available. Also, how many times can you play Maze “Before I Let You Go” (sorry Frankie, not picking on you).
GQ: What’s your thoughts on the State of Retail for today’s recording artists?
DL: Is this a trick question? Retail really doesn’t exist as we knew it. Digital downloads and streaming are convenient, but I think it robs the lover of music an experience of intimacy. It robs the artist the opportunity to connect with his fans via liner notes and it deprives the audience from learning more about the artists. Some will say we have social media which is good, but nothing beats holding an object. If you don’t have anything to touch or feel, there is no bond thus music doesn’t have the same value to the listener. I mean you can look at a woman and admire her, but when you touch her, there’s a bond and the connection is complete. When a Best Buy or Wal-Mart are your major retail outlets, music is an add-on. I remember the experience of going to a record store and the staff’s main priority was selling music. It was like stepping into a world of just music and the other commodities sold (incenses, rolling paper, etc.) were the add-ons. I remember when stores introduced listening stations. Music was the focus.
GQ: What’s your views on the overall State of Artist Development and Marketing for recording artists?
DL: I don’t see it happening with black artists today. I believe the focus on hip-hop artists was so desirable because labels didn’t have to spend money to image or develop them. So that money went to other artists, not necessarily black artists. There are no girl groups, no male groups, who’s the next Whitney or Beyoncé? Those artists had to be developed in some cases. Yes, they had talent, but it had to be refined. All artists need media training. These are things artists need to succeed and to properly represent themselves. I hear some artists during interviews and I cringe. Sometimes artists hurt themselves in terms of marketing opportunities. If all they are talking about is slinging, stacking and Glocks, the marketing opportunities become limited.
GQ: What is your biggest disappointment about the record/music business?
DL: I would say my biggest disappointment was the stubbornness of the industry to embrace technology. I believe if the industry had embraced technology, beginning with Napster vs. fighting it, things might be different. In fighting technology when the “profits of conversion” (Vinyl to CD) had peaked, the industry found itself facing a monster they ignored for too long. I remember when the monitoring systems BDS and Soundscan were introduced as a way to monitor radio airplay and sales and how so many people fought it vs. learning how to use it to their advantage. This resistance, among other things, eventually led to downsizing, consolidation and of course, the last hired are the first fired which resulted in shutting down black music divisions or reducing the black workforce. Of course it was done in the name of breaking down barriers, but it was a one way street in most cases. We didn’t see an increase of non-blacks working in rock or Top 40 departments.
GQ: What do you feel your biggest contribution to the record/music business?
DL: I’ve been blessed to work with some of the biggest artists on the planet, like Aretha Franklin, Prince, Whitney Houston, Salt-N-Pepa, Outkast, and have gold and platinum records representing 90 million units sold, yet I consider my biggest contribution is the people I’ve been able to help by teaching or employing them. When I see my former students from Shaw University or Elizabeth City State University like Chris Conner of WWDM or Traci LaTrell of WHUR, respectively, becoming masters of their craft, I am proud. When I see a person who I hired grow as an executive or if I gave someone an opportunity and it improved their life, nothing beats that to me. A very close second is the work I’m doing with the Living Legends Foundation. I think it’s important for us to document the accomplishments of our colleagues and trailblazers in black music, as well as, helping our colleagues when a financial crisis occurs or now, investing in the future with the establishment of the Living Legends Foundation Scholarship during my chairmanship.
GQ: What is your most memorable story in the record/music business?
DL: That’s a tough one. I’ve had so many memorable ones. I will have to say it was being chosen, when I was Vice President at PolyGram Label Group (which ultimately became Island/Def Jam), to spend a week in Brighton, England for an intense Executive Management Course. The course was attended by a select group of executives from PolyGram/Phonogram companies around the world. It gave me a world view of the music business and what companies really thought of their executives. The first thing they taught was “In a global company you don’t have power, you have the illusion of power.” It helped me to not take my positions or titles too seriously. It also helped me become a better judge of people, their strengths and weaknesses and how to get the best out of them. I thank Rick Dobbis who was president for making it happen. The irony is that after less than a year, I left PolyGram to join Clive Davis and Jean Riggins at Arista Records. From a pure “Damn” moment, it was meeting my radio idol Frankie Crocker for the first time at the BRE Convention or holding Otis Redding’s Grammy Award for “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” at his home or holding Prince’s Oscar for “Purple Rain” in his home! Those are three pretty memorable moments. Then there’s flying to different cities on the company’s G-5 corporate jet with other senior executives to see Salt-N-Pepa and U2 concerts. I’ve had so many, it’s hard to single out just one.
GQ: What was the best advice you ever received from someone and by whom?
DL: The best advice was given to me by the late Jimmy Bee, who was one of my earliest mentors in the music business and it was twofold. Jimmy said, “Lil brother, once you realize most people in this business will only want to be your friend because you can do something for them, and when you can’t and they stop calling or answering your call, you won’t be disappointed.” The other was when you negotiate your way into an employment contract, always negotiate your exit. Both have served me well.
GQ: What are you most optimistic about in the record/music business?
DL: The music itself. The business will always evolve and in some instances, go back to the future. We are now back in the singles business. Who would have thought after so much emphasis on the full length album in the 90s, it wasn’t until the people’s revolt (Internet) showed us singles are really the backbone of the business. I’m concerned about the devaluation of music from an economic standpoint for the creators. I think the intellectual property and royalties must be protected and must be fair. I believe the market will force the correction, if we listen to it.
GQ: What’s next for you?
DL: Most people don’t know I am a writer (former journalist), political junkie and I love public speaking. I write ad copy so if anyone needs ad copy or editing done, I’m available. Currently, I’m writing a book about my career in the music business and I will continue to devote time to the Living Legends Foundation (livinglegendsfoundation.com). I still do radio promotions on a selective basis. I’m currently working with new artist Annalé whose new single “Roses” is climbing the UAC charts. I’m also a licensed insurance agent, and I lead the marketing team for the online store of my church, The House of Hope Atlanta (www.hohbookstore.com), so I stay busy.
Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media specialist with a career spanning over 25 years. She is the founder of the African American Public Relations Collective (AAPRC) and the publisher of Global Communicator. Her weekly columns, “Inside Broadway with Gwendolyn Quinn” and “My Person of the Week” are published with EURWEB.com. Quinn is also a contributor to Souls Revealed and Handle Your Entertainment Business. Contact her at [email protected].