The following is based mainly on Nelson George’s “The Death of Rhythm & Blues” (1988):
In the late 1970s disco was driving out soul music on black radio stations across America. Empty dance music about sex and good times was pushing aside funk and driving out soul music that took life more seriously. Black radio was now “urban” radio. Cameo was “too black” but the Bee Gees were not “too white”!
As Nelson George put it, black music became beige. What was going on?
Black music had been built by a black music industry: not just black record companies, like Motown, but black radio stations, black music shops, black concert promoters, black concert halls, all of it. But by the late 1970s much of it was going broke.
After the success of black music in the 1960s and early 1970s the big white-owned record companies bought up much of the top talent by offering more money. The Jackson 5, for example, got 2.7% on record sales from Motown – while white-owned Epic was offering them 28%! You read that right.
But it was a deal with the devil: all those sweet deals had to be paid for somehow and that somehow was to cross over to white audiences. It was no longer “black music for black people” but “black music for white people”.
The music was made more acceptable to the tastes and concerns of young, white middle-class Americans – they had the big money. Copying Eurodisco, the white record companies took out much of the funk and soul and made the dance beats simpler. The lyrics avoided anything heavy, like love gone bad, race or politics. Thus disco.
Meanwhile soul acts were disappearing. Why?
Take Tyrone Davis. His soul music sold well among blacks in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But then in 1977 he signed with white-owned Columbia to make more money and have a chance at crossing over to white audiences. He spent years trying to come up with a crossover disco hit. No luck. Meanwhile Columbia had little interest in selling his soul music: Davis appealed to older, working-class blacks, which Columbia did not regard as an important market.
The big white record companies did have some blacks in important decision-making positions, but there were only so many of them and they had to pick their battles.
All this had knock-on effects on black concert halls, like the Apollo in Harlem, black concert promoters, even black music shops. Because the white record companies were used to dealing with white concert halls, white concert promoters and white shops – a different business network.
Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, for example, had 20 music shops in 1968 selling mostly Black American music. Ten years later there were fewer than 4. White record companies would not give them the credit and deals they gave to white shops. So they went broke one by one. Likewise with the other black-owned bits of the music industry.
– Abagond, 2010.