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Motown’s abuse of its artists

The famous Detroit record label went down in history not only for its wonderful sounds but also for mistreating its musicians and employees

Berry Gordy in his Motown office in Detroit, 1966
Berry Gordy in his Motown office in Detroit, 1966.Gilles Petard (Redferns)
Diego A. Manrique

It is impossible to understand the evolution of pop without taking into account the environment and the players, including, of course, the bad guys — often the record labels and their executives. Scratch the surface and a myriad deplorable practices come to light.

This is the case with Motown, surely one of pop’s most legendary record companies: it remains a reference regarding rhythms and production techniques — and also contractual abuse.

Many of Motown’s dodgy practices were, in fact, common to both large and small labels, such as deducting a high percentage of copies from sales that were supposedly damaged during distribution: breakage made sense in the era of fragile slate records, but became rare with the advent of vinyl and subsequently CDs. But one might have expected Motown to be different. After all, unlike many companies that released African-American music, the owner, Berry Gordy, was African-American too. As a songwriter himself, he was no stranger to abuses. But Gordy became even more ruthless than the white-owned record labels.

Few complained, given that Motown produced hits almost from the start, despite the fact this forced its artists to record and perform relentlessly. They lived on gigs and extensive touring and earned minimal royalties. If they needed to buy music gear or cars, they could borrow money from Motown, which operated like a bank, and charged interest.

Royalties on record sales amounted to 2.7%, which was little more than small change once it was divided up between the group members. Motown preferred to keep it as a deposit, to cover tax and other contingencies. In the case of minors, like Stevie Wonder or the Jackson 5, Motown would keep the money and arrange for a small weekly salary, which for much of the 1960s was between $10 and $20.

Berry Gordy with singer Diana Ross, circa 1975.
Berry Gordy with singer Diana Ross, circa 1975. Michael Ochs Archives

What the artists did not know was that they could fall into the red during their time with Motown. The contracts sounded impressive and, excited to sign, many artists failed to read the clauses specifying that they were responsible for all the expenses incurred during their career, from the obligatory dance or protocol classes to the cost of their recordings.

All of them? Now that was Gordy’s genius. Whenever his songwriters generated a potential hit, he would order it to be performed by different artists. Then, at the so-called Quality Control meetings, they would decide which version would be released. Those groups performing the discarded versions would still be charged for the renting of the studio, musicians and technicians. During the Jackson 5′s six years at Motown, only 174 of the 469 songs they recorded were released. When they wanted to sign with Epic, they were presented with a bill for the entire 469.

Annoyed at paying top producers large sums, at one point Gordy made it mandatory for them to pay 25% for each production. Motown also owned their artists’ professional names — the Jackson 5 had to rebrand themselves at Epic as The Jacksons. And the artists who composed were obliged to become part of Gordy’s publishing house, Jobete.

Motown’s decline is often attributed to its move from Detroit to Los Angeles. That may have had something to do with it, but far more damaging, after 1968, was the flight of talent to more rewarding environments. In short, Berry Gordy singlehandedly built and sunk one of the world’s most famous music factories.

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