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Major Labels Are Ditching the Term ‘Urban’ — Will That Do Anything?

John Lee Hooker in Los Angeles, California, 1949.
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“Black music is the backbone of the music industry in the U.S. today. It seems to be less affected by variables in the economy than any other forms of music… The major problem is the lack of broad, open acceptance by all segments of society based on feelings that are racist in their nature.” 

This statement would not have been out of place on Instagram last week, as conversations about racial inequality swept the music industry. But the quote is from 1982, made by Bill Haywood, senior vice president of black music marketing at Polygram Records, in an issue of Billboard on the fate of black music. 

In another instance of history repeating itself, that package also included an article titled “Radio Downplays Blackness: Urban Image Blends Audiences,” which found program directors debating the merits of the label “urban.” Some saw it as a useful term for marketing music from black artists to white audiences; others saw it as a concession that undercut the communities the stations were supposed to serve. 

Today, the “Urban” category is once again a source of contention. On Friday, Republic Records — the major label home to Drake, the Weeknd, Ariana Grande, and Taylor Swift — announced that it was dispensing with the term because it no longer wanted to “adhere to the outdated structures of the past.” According to one Republic source who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the majority of the staff supported the change, but some black employees were still worried. “Their fear is, does [getting rid of the term] take away our spot?” the source says. For decades, “urban” departments have been the labels’ only safe haven for black executives. If “urban” disappears, what protections remain?

Some members of the music industry were cautiously optimistic. Shawn Barron, vp of A&R at Motown, calls Republic’s move “a step in the right direction.” “The ‘urban’ title can pigeonhole you,” he continues. “We all like all kinds of music — if you want to do something pop, it shouldn’t be, ‘Oh, you do urban music [so you can’t do that].’” 

Others worried that removing “urban” doesn’t actually change anything about how a label operates. It’s a new coat of paint, but the house underneath is unchanged, the foundation still rotten. 

Getting rid of the term “looks good for the time we’re in and the last ten days,” says Daniel “Bird” Desir, who manages a slew of hit producers, including Ricky Racks, Taz Taylor, and Nick Mira. “But what does that really mean?”

“Labels need to take careful considerations beyond just changing verbiage because that could result in simple semantics,” adds David “Swag R’Celious” Harris, a writer-producer who works frequently with H.E.R. “We need structural change whether the title changes or not, or else we’ll end up with another term similar to ‘urban’ in order to replace ‘black.’”

Variations of this back-and-forth have been playing out for decades. Popular music made by black artists has been continuously classified and re-classified — almost always by white-owned organizations, or with the goal of appealing to white listeners. In the 1940s, much of the music made by black musicians was ranked by Billboard on the “Harlem Hit Parade,” which was then re-named “Race Records.” The term “rhythm and blues” was introduced by Jerry Wexler, who worked at Billboard before going on to lead Atlantic Records, in 1949. 

“Our skin color does not dictate our interest, our knowledge, or our expertise.”

Wexler’s term stood until 1969, when Billboard announced that it would change R&B to “soul.” “The editorial department, in making this change, is motivated by the fact that the term ‘soul’ more properly embraces the broad range of song and instrumental material which derives from the musical genius of the black American,” Billboard wrote.

“Urban” became popular the following decade, a new word designed to covertly make radio stations that played black music more appealing to narrow-minded white advertisers. New York’s WBLS, which remains a bastion of R&B radio even today, led the charge. Nelson George, a vital chronicler of R&B and hip-hop for The Village Voice and elsewhere, described the “urban” format as “mellow, seductive… calculatedly ingratiating hipness.”

In 1982, Sunny Joe White, a prominent program director in Boston, explained why he thought the term was necessary, even though he didn’t love it. “It’s a marketing problem, unfortunately,” he said. “Many advertising agencies still seem to… know very little about the buying habits of today’s black consumer. So stations call themselves urban to make themselves more attractive to those agencies… Such stereotypic thinking forces even black stations to downplay their blackness in order to compete for the advertising dollars.” 

The increasing influence of white advertisers was part of the evolution of the music industry into Big Business, dominated by massive companies that absorbed black independent labels — including even Motown, probably the most successful black-owned label of all time — or poached their black talent. White corporate America’s sudden interest in pursuing black artists and labels was inspired in part by a Harvard report in 1971 that estimated that soul music was responsible for around 10% of the total music market.

Corporate America’s new willingness to write big checks had profound and wide-ranging impacts. “Looking back at the 1975-80 period, it is clear that the interconnections between black musicians, independent black (and white) business people, and the black community were being torn by an economic integration built on conglomerate control of black music,” George wrote. CBS Records boasted of picking singles for its black artists that appealed specifically to white listeners, leading The Village Voice to worry that “black radio listeners are reduced to auditioning records geared to white audiences.”

While all this was taking place, the keepers of the charts were also once again reevaluating their terms for music from black acts. Record World changed its chart from “R&B” to “Black-Oriented” in 1978, according to Adam White, a former editor-in-chief of Billboard and a Motown scholar. Cash Box, the other trade paper, did something similar in 1980, going from ‘R&B’ to ‘Black Contemporary,’” White continues. Billboard transitioned to Black Singles and Black Albums in 1982. But in 1990, it switched back to “R&B.”

There are still a variety of terms in use at labels today. “Urban” holds sway at the company Mediabase, which tracks airplay activity, so most radio promotion staffs have “urban” departments focused strictly on pushing rap and R&B singles.

“It’s too bad we have to use any [genre] labels at all.”

Columbia Records also has an “urban” division outside of radio, as does Interscope and the massive events company Live Nation. Atlantic Records has a “President of Black Music.” It doesn’t have a corresponding President of White Music; that guy just runs the whole company.

All those different naming conventions don’t have much effect on the way labels operate. Even companies that refrain from racially linked division titles are still organized around the principle that black executives work mostly with black artists — under the oversight of white executives — and white executives take care of everything else. And as long as those “outdated structures of the past,” to borrow from Republic’s Instagram post, remain the same, dropping the term “urban” won’t do much to overcome the legacies of the music industry’s racist past.

The recent change thrusts forward a slew of institutional questions that the major labels may not want to deal with. When a white singer like Grande, who signed to Republic, borrows liberally from rap and R&B to make her next single, will she work with A&Rs who specialize in those genres, or continue to work with the predominantly white pop staff? Will marketing budgets now be created equally for white acts and acts formerly known as “urban?” Will black artists be able to try their hand at pop radio as often as their white counterparts, and if so, will black promotion executives be able to work pop stations? And will black artists and executives finally be free to work outside of hip-hop and R&B, if that’s what they want to do, with the full support of their companies? 

“Our skin color does not dictate our interest, our knowledge, or our expertise,” says Latoya Lee, vp of A&R at Atlas Music Publishing. “I go to karaoke, and I sing Carrie Underwood, I sing Panic! At the Disco. I grew up playing the saxophone and have been listening to Taylor Swift since ‘Teardrops on My Guitar.’ We should be able to work in any genre regardless of our race.”

Lee’s ideal envisions a completely different music industry. It’s one that Sunny Joe White hinted at back in 1982 when he was asked about the term “urban.” “It’s too bad,” he replied, that “we have to use any labels at all.” 

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