Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Motown is a record company which is part of the Island Def Jam music group (itself belonging to the group ‘Universal music’). Based in New York, they mainly produce hip hop, soul, blues and r’n’b artists. The company was created in 1959 by Berry Gordy Junior in Detroit. Its name is a blend word of ‘motor’ and ‘town’, referring to the city’s nickname. Detroit is indeed the home city of the headquarters of the industrial group General Motors. By extension, Motown also designates a typical sound: its artists were originally specialised in soul music, that is to say a type of music which uses the singing techniques of gospel music mixing it with elements of pop. The production techniques followed the principle of ‘KISS’ (Keep it simple, stupid). In other words, they tried to make it sound popular by making very simple arrangements using tambourines, electric bass-guitars, horn sections and back vocals. A bit like their neighbours General Motor, the production process was fairly industrial. The studios remained open twenty-two hours a day. Between two tours, the artists used to return to Detroit in order to record their hits. This hard working attitude enabled them to catch many big fishes. Their first top-artists were the Jackson five, Diana Ross and the Supremes. Later, they also worked with Marvin Gaye and even Stevie Wonder. However, they did not forget to promote young unknown artists. The label had a social function: it helped inexperienced and impoverished artists to make a living. As an example, a tour (named ‘the Motown revue’) was organised each year, which was an opportunity for some of them to make a breakthrough.

What made Motown so special in the Anglo-Saxon culture is its role in the history of the United States. In the context of racial segregation, this company mainly promoted black culture through music (blues, soul and jazz…). It was a positive way to bring it from the streets to the upper-class white popular market, creating a blend of cultures. That connected both communities, which probably helped the situation to get better, proving that ‘music heals all wounds’.

Nevertheless, this almost rebel attitude of the beginning contrasts with what the company has now become. A first step into a more commercial direction took place in the 1970’s, when it moved to Los Angeles, in order to become geographically more accessible. At that time, a television subsidiary of Motown was established. Its purpose was to promote their own singers. Later, the social aspect of the company totally disappeared when it moved to the Big Apple and was bought by Universal Music, achieving this process of industrialization.

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