Chris Rizik: What R&B can learn from Country Music

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    Here's a trick question: Who was the only R&B artist to end up in the top ten albums of 2012 by sales? The surprise answer is Lionel Richie, who sold more than a million copies of his first non-R&B album, the countryfied smash, Tuskegee. While Richie's comeback is a novel, interesting story in itself, it is also a metaphor for the diverging fortunes of country music and R&B in 2012.

    Here's a trick question: Who was the only R&B artist to end up in the top ten albums of 2012 by sales? The surprise answer is Lionel Richie, who sold more than a million copies of his first non-R&B album, the countryfied smash, Tuskegee. While Richie's comeback is a novel, interesting story in itself, it is also a metaphor for the diverging fortunes of country music and R&B in 2012.

    Nielsen and Billboard magazine just released a detailed summary of 2012 in music, and behind all of the numbers was a story that most adult soul music fans could probably have identified: R&B and its related formats have a problem. Both R&B and rap music suffered sales declines, with each down 5-6% in 2012 despite overall growth in mp3 downloads. It was further evidence that a genre that helped drive the music industry for five decades has an identity crisis. And we can just look at the success of our Country cousins to see what's wrong here at home.  Country music grew nearly 13% in 2012 and its digital album growth was an astonishing 37%, allowing it to blow by rap sales in that category. Why this divergence? Is Country music inherently superior? Of course not. But one thing is clear: Country music is beating R&B at its own game, and increasingly making itself relevant to broad groups with quality product and long term thinking, even as commercial R&B and rap ignore history and large swaths of America with approaches that alternate between insulting and insular.

    While its influence had been silently profound during most of the 20th century, in the 1960s black music firmly established itself as the music of a nation. Motown called itself "The Sound of Young America," and popular secular music derived from Gospel and Blues roots became the dominant creative and cultural driver -- a role it would maintain for the next several decades. Motown also created a template for commercial success in Detroit that was subsequently followed by musical forces in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and elsewhere. It is a template that brings together entrepreneurship with true music people, and it has been a casualty of the consolidation of music power into conglomerates that appear to have forgotten their musical least as far as black music is concerned. Somehow though, those lessons have not been lost on the Country music sides of the house, where the rules of the Golden Age of R&B are being successfully followed in a very 21st Century manner, even as the genre that delivered Motown, TSOP, et al, fades in popularity. What is country music doing right and what is missing from modern R&B?

    Long-Term Artist Development

    Central to the success of Motown and its progeny was the patient development of artists, with an emphasis on both patience and development. Young Motown artists were trained to be versatile entertainers who could excel in any environment.  They learned skills ranging from harmonizing to choreography to media relations. And even though it took artists such as the Supremes several albums to have any level of success, Motown patiently trained the trio and worked to create opportunities (including broad media exposure) over a half decade. The patience and work paid off as the Supremes became the most popular female group of all time, selling millions of albums and singles and establishing real careers that resonate even today. Nowadays, Country music, while not perfect, has been the most impressive genre in training artists, preparing them them for long-term careers with a patience that rivals Motown and TSOP back in the day. And the Country genre's strong network, including media and terrific venues, hones artist careers even further. Meanwhile, over the past decade, major label R&B and hip-hop artists have been justifiably criticized as never before about their tepid, sometimes undisciplined shows, which demonstrate not a lack of talent, but rather a lack of training as stage performers. And increasingly, major labels are completely abandoning artist development in R&B, instead signing artists only after those artists are established and as organically "developed" as they're going to be.  As a result, the trend is a generation of less distinguishable R&B and hip-hop artists who appear to have correspondingly shorter careers ahead of them.


    Every great era of music has been led by songwriting, and R&B's greatest times boasted not only fine tunes but also insightful lyrics that reached their listeners. For Motown, the basis was clever wordplay about love, for Philly the messages mixed romance with social and political statements. Similarly, Country music has a long legacy of being "storytelling music," and strong, established songwriting teams still drive the genre. Country lyrics may vary from spiritual to R-rated, but they continue to set the bar for the entire industry and make an firm, emotional connection with audiences. Unfortunately, R&B can't make that same claim. With some notable exceptions -- mostly on the indie circuit -- R&B is now dominated by rhythms, with song structure being secondary and lyrics an embarrassing afterthought. R&B/Hip-Hop's biggest artist of 2012 was likely Drake. And his biggest song was "The Motto." So, where does Drake place on the lyrics bar?  Here is the first verse of "The Motto" (and it just gets worse from there): 

    I'm the f---in' man, y'all don't get it, do ya?
    Type of money, everybody acting like they knew ya
    Go Uptown, New York City, bitch
    Them Spanish girls love me like I'm Aventura
    Tell Uncle Luke I'm out in Miami, too
    Clubbing hard, f---ing women, there ain't much to do

    How do you make an emotional connection with that? Can that message really speak to large groups of diverse audiences or have long-term impact? And yet, that is considered by some as the high end of popular R&B/hip-hop.

    Broad Age Appeal

    The songs of Motown, Philly, SOLAR and Minneapolis appealed to broad age groups. Even as they aimed at the young, the strong melodies, lyrics and production approach also attracted adults. Country music now follows this same template. The genre's major artists like Jason Aldean, the Zac Brown Band, Darius Rucker and Lady Antebellum all attract fans from 15 to 60 and even the genre's youngest-skewing star, Taylor Swift, has a large number of older fans. Compare that to R&B/hiphop's biggest acts: How many 50 year olds are listening to Wiz Khalifa or even Usher now? As we've written about before, adult fans have simply been ignored by the modern R&B establishment, including broadcast radio. Some adult listeners use internet radio and websites like SoulTracks to search out for new artists who feed their love; but a preponderence of those fans have simply shut off new music, instead buying older, "catalog" albums from the 70-90s, to the point where catalog sales have now surpassed sales of new music for the first time ever.

    So What Does It Mean?

    There's always the temptation for adult Soul music fans to complain that "they don't make music like they used to," but the problem with R&B music is not that simple. The fact is, 2012 was a fantastic year for Soul, R&B and Jazz music (and hybrids), but much of the greatness was hidden from the mainstream and from casual music fans.  And as the music landscape has changed, the biggest players, from major labels to oligopoly-controlled radio, have continued to think more narrowly and short term when it comes to R&B and related genres of music, even while their Country counterparts have taken the traditional strengths of R&B -- songwriting, artist development and broad appeal -- and used them not only to stabilize but also grow Country music in a strategic fashion. What is at stake is R&B's longstanding role as the cultural driving force in American music.  Berry Gordy, Jr.'s "Sound of Young America" tagline was prophetic about R&B's role over the second half of the 20th century.  But, even as America is more diverse than ever, the modern R&B being pushed by major labels and by urban radio fails to take advantage of what should be a welcoming audience. It has instead lowered its game and has paid the price with a smaller, niche-ier audience and far less loyalty from the genre's longtime fans. Country, on the other hand, has played its hand with greater sense of the past and a clearer vision for the future.  Unless commercial R&B gets back to the fundamentals of its greatest years -- and increases both the quality of the product and its connection with the broader population -- it may continue on a road to irrelevance. And the future Sound of Young America may, surprisingly, be led by a steel pedal guitar.

    By Chris Rizik