The End of an Era : Expected Sale of the Legendary Motown Label Stirs Some Bittersweet Emotions


The report that Motown Records is in the process of being sold hasn’t really surprised many in the music business--the company hasn’t been hot in years--but the news does carry an emotional wallop.

Industry insiders have been talking about the sale--which was expected to be announced shortly--in solemn tones, saying things like “It’s the end of an era” and “It’s a sad day.”

Motown, founded 30 years ago in the housing projects of Detroit, has become a powerful symbol--of youth, for almost everyone under 40, and of hope, pride and accomplishment, especially for blacks.

“Motown was something that black people could be proud of,” said Step Johnson, vice president and general manager of Capitol Records’ black music division. “It said if you go out and work hard and have dreams and ideas, it can happen.”


So the news that the company is being sold by founder Berry Gordy Jr. to MCA Inc. and the investment group Boston Ventures Limited Partnership for a reported $61 million has produced bittersweet feelings.

Tony Anderson, a former Motown executive who is now Arista Records’ vice president of R&B; promotion, said: “From a black perspective, to see the second largest black-owned corporation (after Johnson Publications, which publishes Ebony and Jet) being sold is a pretty painful thing to watch. From a business standpoint it makes perfect sense, but from an emotional standpoint, it’s wrenching.”

Dick Griffey, whose Solar Records was briefly touted as “the Motown of the ‘80s” because of its similar hit-making strategies, was even more emphatic.

“Motown has been more than a company,” he said. “It has been a success story, an institution and a large part of our heritage. So to see Motown sucked up by corporate America is a sad day for most blacks in this country. The Motown tradition lies in the black experience--their music, their ownership, their history--and I think that’s where it should remain.”

But Griffey, who made an unsuccessful bid to buy Motown, added: “Berry has earned the right to do whatever he wants to do with Motown. Berry Gordy is the Jackie Robinson of the black music industry. He was the guy who broke the barrier for all of us.”

The irony in Motown going on the sales block in 1988 is that black music is hotter than ever. But Motown,which virtually defined the genre in the ‘60s and ‘70s, has been beaten at its own game in recent years. The label has been bedeviled by increased competition from other labels, the exodus of some of its biggest acts and an inability to develop new stars.


Russ Regan, an industry veteran who has a production deal with Motown, defended Gordy’s decision to sell the record company.

“It was a wonderful 30-year history, but I think the time had come for him to move on. What has he got left to prove? He’s done it all. And it’s not like he’s going to be out of the entertainment business. He’s keeping the publishing company (Jobete Music) and Motown Productions, the motion picture/television wing. He’s just giving up one area of it.”

Regan suggested that it’s unfair and unrealistic to expect Gordy to keep Motown going--profit or loss--just to satisfy people’s emotional attachment to the company.

“People feel a lot of affection for Motown,” he said. “It’s part of their lives. But let’s face it: It’s still a business.”

Gordy came close to selling Motown to MCA in 1987, but backed out of the deal. Sidney Miller, publisher of the trade magazine Black Radio Exclusive, suggested that he was reacting then to pressures from black music leaders to keep Motown under black ownership.

“I’m sure that’s the reason it wasn’t sold long ago,” Miller said, “because there’s so much sentimental attachment to it. If I was in his place I would have sold it last year. I would have told all those guys, ‘If you want to pay the bills, fine, otherwise get out of my way.’


“None of those people are going to be there when he has to bite the bullet. I guarantee you that none of these people put up one quarter to try to help him save it (last time) after they decided that he shouldn’t sell it.”

Capitol’s Johnson also added a touch of realism to the outpouring of emotion over the expected sale.

“You have to look at it from the standpoint of what would happen if Motown wasn’t bought,” he said. “Would Motown continue to exist or would it fade away? Before it gets to that point, I would rather see another company of the caliber of MCA take Motown and run with it, put more money into it and keep it alive.”

Black music has set the pace in pop through most of the ‘80s.

“The influence of black music has never been stronger than it is now,” said Ahmet Ertegun, chairman of Atlantic Records, perhaps the most important black music label ever apart from Motown. “Black music is becoming more and more a part of general pop music--in large part due to the popularity among white people of the Motown records.”

But if black music is going through the roof, the same cannot be said for black-owned music enterprises.

John McClain, a senior vice president at A&M; Records, pointed to “the diminishing role of the black entrepreneur in the record industry. When you look back and see Stax (declaring bankruptcy in 1975), Philadelphia International (ceasing to be a significant player in the ‘80s) and now Motown being sold, it seems like (black) people are doing great as far as individual achievements, but as far as what we’re doing collectively, we still have a long way to go.”


But Cornelius said he doesn’t begrudge Gordy his right to sell the company.

“It’s the way the business works,” he said, noting that few faulted such Motown alumni as the Jacksons, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross for accepting more attractive deals at other labels.

McClain questioned, for example, why a group of black artists and executives didn’t band together to buy Motown--to preserve black ownership for the company.

“We all should have gotten together and powwowed and stopped this from happening,” he said.

Don Cornelius, executive producer of the TV show “Soul Train,” said, “Motown was the largest, strongest, most important holdout in the process that has taken the black entrepreneur out of influence.”

Insiders blame Motown’s decline on a variety of factors. The one cited most often is that Motown failed to come up with new stars to replace those who moved on to other labels or passed their prime.

“If you’re not breeding and developing new artists, you’re going to have problems,” said Arista’s Anderson. “Berry was the master of that, but it just didn’t seem to occur in the last few years.


“Motown set the standard in the ‘60s in terms of artist development,” he said. “And in the last few years a lot of other companies have taken that formula and run with it. But Motown hasn’t kept up.”

A&M;’s McClain added that Motown’s success in the ‘60s--together with that of Atlantic and Stax--alerted the industry to black music’s potential. As a result, virtually all major labels today are active in black music, giving Motown much more competition than it used to have.

“When the major conglomerates started to understand that there was a lot of money in black music, they started to put their hat into it,” he said. “And it’s tougher (for black-owned labels) to compete with major conglomerates with bigger budgets and more dollars.”

Another reason behind Motown’s decline, McClain suggested, was the 1971 move from Detroit to Los Angeles.

“Something happened when it left Detroit and came here,” he said. “They quit being innovators and started following trends. Before, Berry had a much more hands-on approach. And maybe you lose some of your desire after you get to a certain level financially.”

(Through a publicist, Gordy declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Cornelius noted that neither Motown’s decline in recent years nor its pending sale can take away from its place in music history.


Said the “Soul Train” creator: “You can buy the name and the artist roster and the master tapes, but you can’t buy the contribution that Motown has made to black music.”

Atlantic’s Ertegun, a top music executive for more than four decades, noted: “Berry Gordy has had an incredibly brilliant career as a record man and I hope that he will remain involved. Motown has stood for something very important in American music. It has redefined American popular music.

“It’s a sad moment for me to see that label change hands.”

“It marks the end of an era,” he said.