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The Motown Process, could it work today?
Old 17th February 2005
  #1
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The Motown Process, could it work today?

I've just been surfing and came across some info to do with Motown's quality control in terms of songs.
This is a section that sums it up;
Quote:
1._ Each writing/producing team was required to come up with 5 new songs per day. To accomplish this, there was a large area with a lot of little rooms, each with a piano and tape recorder.

2._ Each team submitted their "5 best" at the weekly production meeting.

3._ Each team got their approval for recording the best submission of the week (as judged at the meeting).

4._ About 1 out of two tunes that was recorded with a basic session was actually finished with all of the overdubs.

5._ Each tune that was finished was mixed quite a few times (on the average of about 15 mixes).

6._ Each mix that was done was "mastered" (put into final disc format).

7._ The Quality Control Department listened to all of these discs and picked out the "A" side that was released and promoted.
I'd imagine Bob Ohlson may be able to shed some light on the specifics of the above (...and I'd really like you to Bob ), but whatever way you look at it, that's SERIOUS quality control, maybe even waste(?)...

It got me thinking, was this way of working special to the era or could it work today?

I've spent many days working on production for tracks that never really had 'legs', and I believe the time may have been better served by sending the artist away to come up with something better, rather than doing the proverbial turd polishing.

I've always believed that the song is king, and great songs always seem to be easier and more spontaneous to record and produce than average ones that come my way.

I'd be interested in hearing other peoples' take on this, because I'm sure I'm not alone...
Old 17th February 2005
  #2
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Drumsound's Avatar
I will eagerly await Bob Ohlson's take on this. In the meantime here's mine:

I'd love to see a record company do this. I don't think they ever will again.

The Motown system was like "commerce by quality." The theory seeming to be "if it's great people will buy it," and it worked for many years. Today record labels are not concerned with great, or long term. They are concerned with sales NOW! If they sell 2,000,000 copies of record one by an artist they think it's good. If the same artist sells 1,000,000 copies of record two, that artist is dumped. Even if record two was great and will be considered in ten years to be brilliant, it doesn't matter to the mooks. To them it just sold half as many as the first record. End of discussion, next artist please.
Old 17th February 2005
  #3
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Could you post where that came from?

It's relatively accurate although the number I remember was doing the best two out of every five.

The gotcha is that this IS a very expensive process. The idea was to have more flops within the company and fewer on the streets. Always having another hit was critical because most retail stores ran at a loss and only paid the bills from the labels they needed to get more records from.

Motown was principally a management and publishing company. Breaking even or even losing money on singles was worth it if you could create careers for artists. By 1970 we were working very hard to move over to making albums. Holland-Dozier-Holland leaving in 1968 probably did Motown a huge favor because those of us left behind had to reinvent the company.
Old 17th February 2005
  #4
JB3
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An absolutely brilliant, albeit expensive, methodology...Was this a developed method? That is to say that the methodology evolved over time? Or was this a Gordy original? How did this differ from the Sun/Stax methodologies?

I, too, would be interested as to where the quote came from???

And for all of us, thank you Bob for continuing to be such a contribution to GS and sharing your history with us.

...J heh
Old 17th February 2005
  #5
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Berry Gordy is by far the smartest person I've ever even heard of going into the record business! He is the kind of person who tries to never make the same mistake twice. He'd also had a brief boxing career and totally understood the relationships between competition, performance and excessive egos.
Old 17th February 2005
  #6
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Messiah's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally posted by Bob Olhsson

The gotcha is that this IS a very expensive process. The idea was to have more flops within the company and fewer on the streets.
I know exactly what you mean, Bob, but compare this method to the amount spent on studio hours nowadays on songs that don't justify 3 weeks on a tascam 4 track, nevermind a $1k/day facility... I think it was a better way of working, personally.

The problem now, IMO, is that you have all these 'A&R' guys, or 'mooks' to quote Drumsound, who think they can market any piece of trash to be a hit, regardless of quality, given the right ferocity and this is what they see their roles as being. I'm sure most of us have come across the types, taking credit for a band they've broke, etc... I'll resist the urge to quote Bill Hicks at this point...

As you said, Bob, the beauty of Motown seems to have been the internal QC, but it also seems to have been run from an artistic/creative viewpoint, not a predominantly business/marketing one.

Anyway, the quote came from
here.
Old 17th February 2005
  #7
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As far as I can see....

The concept hasn't really changed that much in Pop music.

You still have many writers competing to get on pop records. Maybe only sending 2 of the 6 songs that they demoed up.

You still have an A&R guy picking the best ones to completely record with that artist.

They whittle that number down to 10-12 songs.

They ask the radio dept to do some radio research as to what song is the hit.

They have one of the usual suspects mix that one song for the radio version.

The big things missing today from then.....

The osmosis from all of the writers working in the same building on the same projects.

The learning process that the new writers get from the veterans about what is needed to make a hit.

And an amazing backup band.
Old 17th February 2005
  #8
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As far as a way to create a viable new indie label, I don't see any other model working. Motown had a look, a sound and a style that found purchase with almost every demographic you could think of. Radio was still new and hip enough to be the way to break the new music, although now I think having a video budget would almost be mandatory.

Motown became synonymous with happy, fun, emotionally engaging, danceable music. It still has a huge fan base who love to come out and hear those songs again, and when they're well performed; EVERYBODY is grooving. My housemate is the keyboard player for a Motown cover band that does several shows a year at the venue where I do FOH, and while we get a broad variety of styles and genres from the artists we employ, I can run that room at about 93dB when the band is doing Motown and everybody, I mean everybody, just listens or dances. Nobody starts ****. Nobody pisses and moans that it isn't loud enough. Nobody has an attitude.

From 21 to 61, they all get into that music. I think that speaks volumes for not only the brilliant songs that that label released, but the artists who performed them and the entire approach that the label took.

Sub-Pop took the label-as-artist approach, and turned out a recognisable sound.

I think that it's exactly the model that indie labels should look at. We are going to offer this type of music. Our artists will have this sort of image and style and we will deliver this sort of product consistently.

I think the days of anger and camp with a dose of venom have pretty much gotten us to where we are and that - as the target demographics for these styles starts to lose the need for something hot and angry to rub up against - that there's nothing to "graduate" to, so to speak. They lose their niche and the kids have less and less music that they want to drag out from their youth and share with friends who grew up with it, too.

Motown's catalogue is STILL selling.

I think an indie label with a cohesive style, artist roster and image with a staff writing and recording facility could make a huge mark on the business and, more importantly, on the music.

Thoughts?
Old 17th February 2005
  #9
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I for one would buy a CD with Motown's REJECTS on it (-:

I wonder what ever happened to the tunes that didn't make the cut that particular week ?

jls
Old 18th February 2005
  #10
js1
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Well, jlsgear, pick up the 2 CD set "A Cellarful of Motown", cause that's exactly what it is. Buy it.

I could see why some of the tracks didn't make the cut, but some of the songs are now my favorites.

And someone tell me on what planet does the Gladys Knight track on the CD called "If You Ever Get Your Hands on Love" isn't a hit?

js
Old 18th February 2005
  #11
Gear Addict
How many people are we talking about? And how much would you need to pull this off today? Sounds like you you can't just hit the lottery but need to hit the 'Super Lotto' to pay for this. Be a heck of a lot of fun though. I wonder if there's a way to write a grant/start an Arts foundation to do this.
Old 18th February 2005
  #12
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Isn't the "Motown Process" a hairstyle-like Don King's?

The wonderful recordings from Motown have a special significance for me. The first dance with my (eventual) wife was on "Can't Help Myself".

How many people have similar associations with
"today's" dance music?

IMHO a label that has the courage to follow this path would do very well in both musical quality and sales.

If it worked before...

Chris
Old 18th February 2005
  #13
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I don't think the Motown process could work today. An artist like James Jamerson wouldn't sell himself so cheap these days, engineers and producers wouldn't stay so anonymous, the artist wouldn't just go along with the 'rules'. Didn't Motown's golden age end when exactly this started happening?
The very thing that made it great also contributed to its demise, I think. But it also gave us 'What's going on' so there are the two sides of the coin again

Andi

www.doorknocker.ch
Old 18th February 2005
  #14
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Maybe they wouldn't but I bet a lot of cats would like to play along for a bit as opposed to sitting about with their thumbs up their asses saying "there's no work.. my recordings suck, there's nobody I want to do a gig with..." And people who think they're James Jamerson are the people I would never hire. James Jamerson didn't KNOW he was James Jamerson. He was busy just working and living his life. Give me people who do the gig and then punch out.

All music is best produced under pressure and under a structure.

Left to their devices, most players will sort of drift in and out of trying their own ideas and not get off the ground with it because that structure isn't there.

Face it.. most creative people do their best work with a sword over their head. I think a lot of players and engineers and writers would go for the chance to make a new scene work. It's a lot easier to give somebody something when they know what they want and you're all trying to reach a common purpose. Anybody who has attended a symphony concert knows. And hey.. they turned "Minuet in G Minor' by Bach into a hit song. Ok, it was on Dynavoice, but.. same basic approach.
Old 18th February 2005
  #15
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I think the Mowtown system could work and like Kenny said, it is still active, but a slightly different permutation of it.

I think there could be another step that could help with the strength and sales of the album and quality control.

If one has 25-50+ songs for an album then I would go take those songs out to the targeted demographic and survey/poll what THEY like best and put only those tracks on the album. After all, it is that demographic that is going to buy the final product. It would take most of the guess work out of what should be on the album and what will sell to the targeted audience.

Survey your targeted audience with the tracks and tabulate the results putting the top 10-15 on the album. If your trying to target a teenage public then survey the teenage public with the tracks, not a 30-40 year old public etc. You will also find that tastes very quite radically between demographics and even regions and countries. You will also find the strongest 'Hits' and singles this way.

If one had the budget you could ideally do a nation wide(or international) survey and find your top songs.

I remember when Jon Bon Jovi did this with the 'Slippery' album.They took about 25 tracks to the local pizza joint where all the kids were hangin' out.(the targeted demographic) Played them the tracks and asked 'what are YOUR favorites?' The rest is history thanks to the Pizza Parlour Jurry.

Shane
Old 18th February 2005
  #16
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Quote:
If one has 25-50+ songs for an album then I would go take those songs out to the targeted demographic and survey/poll what THEY like best and put only those tracks on the album. After all, it is that demographic that is going to buy the final product. It would take most of the guess work out of what should be on the album and what will sell to the targeted audience.

The pizza parlour I could dig, but the mooks are already pre-testing songs with people like they were a brand of gum and it's gotten us where we are.

I think you'd have to just go out a limb a little bit or do it in pizza joints all the time to actually get a clue.
Old 18th February 2005
  #17
I thing overiding greed & not wanting to get 'ripped off' would prevent that formula happening again...

I dont know but I suspect, that the Mowtown system was run as a dictatorship...

Folks might not go for it... nope, I dont think so...

But, I DO belive some jingle companies run little 'hot houses' like the idea put forward...But I've seen folks 'writing' 4 & 14 second pieces of music... for ads... it makes you want to get a gun and put them out of their misery... IMHO...

Did all the writers get rich at Mowtown?

Did the musicians?

Did it end on an up note?

Or was it just Bery Gordy that made out of the deal?
Old 18th February 2005
  #18
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I think the Motown approach was remarkable. I learned a lot about Motown during my college years through a friend who grew up with Barney Ales' family. Barney was brought in very early on to help run the Motown label with Barry, and soon took on a very large role in the organization. Barney was the business guy and Barry was the creative guy. It was a unique partnership at a unique time in the history of the music business. The division of labor betwen the two promoted an environment for artists that will probably never be seen again in my lifetime anyway. I'm not sure how "nurturing" it actually was for the artists... but it certainly was a hit factory.........
Old 18th February 2005
  #19
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The business model would fly, I think. Not the business tactics.
Old 18th February 2005
  #20
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I wonder if we left the biz and economics out of the equation ...

Would this model ever work today strictly from an artistic point of view ? In other words, if they could collect a group of talented producers, writers, and musicians together ... could they as least theoretically succeed ? (money and lawyers aside)

I guess I'm also asking if the talent even exists today ... at the same level ... given the rap/loop/sample/lip-sync'ing landscape which dominates modern pre-packaged "music".

jls
Old 19th February 2005
  #21
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Bob Olhsson's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally posted by doorknocker
... An artist like James Jamerson wouldn't sell himself so cheap these days, engineers and producers wouldn't stay so anonymous, the artist wouldn't just go along with the 'rules'. Didn't Motown's golden age end when exactly this started happening?
FWIW James was one of the highest paid bass players in the world. Nobody else was crediting musicians and engineers at the time either. (I actually got the first engineer's label credit! please don't ask...) The producers of Standing in the Shadows of Motown were applying the industry norms of ten years later. It was not uncommon for 30 to 50 different musicians and engineers to have worked on an album in the 1960s.

Our "golden age" ended with the golden age of singles and some of us got to reinvent the company to produce albums which is what produced Stevie and Marvin.
Old 19th February 2005
  #22
Motown legend
 
Bob Olhsson's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally posted by Jules
I suspect, that the Mowtown system was run as a dictatorship...

Did all the writers get rich at Mowtown?

Did the musicians?

Did it end on an up note?

Or was it just Bery Gordy that made out of the deal?
Brian Holland got the biggest check BMI had ever written up to that time! The musicians got $25,000 to $50,000 a year for not playing record dates for other labels plus union scale for everything they did in addition to substantial royalties for advertising jingle work outside of Motown. In addition some "moonlighted" for other labels at many times union scale.

Berry Gordy was intolerant of ego trips so the "note" was pretty directly related to the ego involved!
Old 19th February 2005
  #23
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25 to 50 grand a year, that was BIG money back then! Had no idea they were makng that much.

Thought the hired gun type studio cats, like the "Wrecking Crew" made the big bucks instead.

Relatively, I think Motown was better to its artists overall than Chess ever was.

Learnng from these mistakes of labels past would make the Motown style process more viable.

Chris
Old 19th February 2005
  #24
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Quote:
Originally posted by Bob Olhsson
FWIW James was one of the highest paid bass players in the world.
I stand corrected!

Andi

www.doorknocker.ch
Old 19th February 2005
  #25
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Great thread...long overdue.
Old 20th October 2008
  #26
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Creed Taylor had a similar approach for Contemporary jazz in the 70's creating CTI Records for A&M in 1967.

CTI RECORDS: A DISCOGRAPHY (PAGE TWO)
Old 20th October 2008
  #27
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I think what's interesting is that time has made that process more palatable.

No one would argue with the magic of Motown, or the influence they had, and all the great classic songs...

but I think most would piss on that process as being crass, commercial, and not what "real artists" would or should do.
Old 20th October 2008
  #28
TYY
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bob Olhsson View Post
Holland-Dozier-Holland leaving in 1968 probably did Motown a huge favor
I know I'm naive on this issue, but how could this be? Were there any other motown writers as consistently successful? When I think "motown", I think "H-D-H". Those tunes are hardwired into my temporal lobes at this point.
Old 21st October 2008
  #29
I would imagine it's a lot easier to make such a thing work when the label can say, 'Go with our method and you will have lots of hits', and can back it up by existing long track record. In that kind of situation, the artist may be more willing to put himself in your hands, because the odds of it paying off are high. That was kind of the case at Motown at the time. They had the track record and could prove that their method was working well.

And of course there's the obvious question of why would someone invest the money to create such a system just to feed a culture of theft?
Old 21st October 2008
  #30
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Great Thread! thumbsupthumbsup
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