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Breaking Down ‘Those Color Lines’ in a Music Industry That Drew Them

This week, a large portion of the music business shut down for Blackout Tuesday, a day meant to disrupt business as usual and take a stand against racial injustice.

The initiative, which played out mostly on social media with black squares and hashtags, was met with mixed responses: support from those who said they’d use the day constructively; and criticism from those who saw the pausing of mostly white-owned companies for one day as tone deaf, or worse — an attempt to appear supportive to the black artists from whom they profit. (After many companies failed to make clear if or how they’d be donating money, Warner Music Group announced the creation of a $100 million fund on Wednesday.)

I’m the U.S. general manager of the British independent record label 4AD, and on Monday, I thought about my position as a music executive with a black father and a white mother. Devastated by the recent police killings of black people, I wanted to react appropriately. My company decided to close on Tuesday and encourage our staff to use the day productively. I made plans to write, listen to music by the black artists I love and reconnect with a black music executive whom I admire.

When I was 23 years old in 1995, my Seattle rock band the Lemons signed to Mercury Records. As my bandmates and I sat in a palatial midtown Manhattan office, we faced the label’s president, Ed Eckstine, the first black person appointed president of a major American record label. (Motown retained its black leadership after it was bought by MCA.) I felt drawn to Eckstine’s confident, booming voice and his larger-than-life presence. This is what a record label president is like, I thought. I was in awe of him.

Eckstine, now 66, grew up in the music business, the son of the big band singer Billy Eckstine. He spent summers in the 1960s on tour with his father: a few weeks with an orchestra at a Jewish resort in the Catskills; a few weeks at a mostly Italian resort in the Poconos; and a few weeks on the Chitlin’ Circuit — the Apollo and other black theaters.

When Ed Eckstine was 18, he took a job at Quincy Jones’s Qwest Productions, a joint venture with Warner Bros., where he worked with Michael Jackson, Rufus & Chaka Khan and New Order. After 11 years at Qwest and a short period with Clive Davis at Arista, Eckstine settled at Polygram Records, where he found great success with his first two signings to its Wing Records imprint: the former Miss America Vanessa Williams and the Oakland R&B group Tony! Toni! Toné!

Eckstine was hardly the first prominent black record executive. Al Bell ran and co-owned Stax; Sylvia Robinson co-founded Sugar Hill; Berry Gordy’s Motown was one of the most successful black-owned businesses during its heyday. But Eckstine’s story is unique because he was the first black person to be let in — to be allowed by the predominantly white music industry to helm one of its largest entities.

Eckstine is currently working on a 10-hour documentary on the history of R&B and soul music called “The Soul of America,” and a film on his father. I spoke with him by phone from his Los Angeles home on Blackout Tuesday about race in the music business over the five decades that span our combined careers, and why New Order signed to a United States record label run by black people. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

You grew up in a very white part of Encino in Los Angeles. How did that inform your relationship with race and music?

Seeing the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964 flipped the switch for me. When Jimi [Hendrix] came on the scene it was kind of like God had come down from the sky. A black dude who was a rock dude. I’m a guitar player, too, so I was like, “Wow, there’s another me walking around out here somewhere.”

You came up in the R&B world working predominantly with black artists, but then Qwest signed New Order. How did that come about?

When Quincy started his label at Warner Bros. he didn’t want to be branded as an R&B-only label. And the initial projects we had were Patti Austin, James Ingram, Reggie Griffin — all R&B artists. In trying to defy the stereotypes of black folks, black label, black only, Quincy really wanted to sign something that would make a big flash on the rock side.

The British indie scene was going crazy at the time and there were a number of bands that the U.S. labels were trying to sign. The sort of running gag was New Order fashioned themselves to be socialists and commies of a certain order and they were amused by the notion of — and we played this card — You’ll rub up against the big corporate behemoth but you don’t have to sign to it. And you’ll be signed to a boutique label run by black people. And there was a big check involved.

What led to your appointment as president of Mercury?

I had an interview with Dick Asher, the chairman of Polygram. Dick and I sat and talked for the better portion of an hour and it was a great conversation. Then he leans into me and says, “You know I was thinking,” in a very gruff New York voice. “I think you could be Jackie Robinson. I think you could be the first black president of a major label one day.”

Was there any resistance to you overseeing a roster that included Bon Jovi, Def Leppard and Kiss?

There was some. Nothing overt but … We understand the code, you know? Little things like, “What does he know about rock ’n’ roll?” And I’d always say, “A whole lot more than you know about R&B!”

The major labels that deal in many genres of music employ mostly white people on the rock side and mostly black people on the hip-hop and R&B side. I agree that it’s important to have different people working on different projects, but how do we advance beyond such a divided system?

It’s kind of always been that way unfortunately, and it’s apparently getting more pronounced in that regard. That was one of the things that [happened with] the advent of the “black music” departments back in the day. The distinction that I always longed for when those areas were created was not so much color lines inasmuch as ability lines: The person who does classical does classical. The person who does country does country because they have a particular affinity and skill in that area. I was all about the breakdown of those color lines but the industry and society wants those lines distinct, I guess.

How have issues of race changed for better or worse in the music industry since you started?

I suppose the combo platter of both good and bad is that terrestrial radio — with the advent of more urban-driven and R&B-driven pop stations, there’s wider exposure to black music via mainstream radio. But with that has come the death of independent R&B radio stations. As soon as a lot of the pop stations started playing a lot of black records and a lot of hip-hop, you started to see [the demise of] the little local traditional R&B stations — and the R&B stations were always kind of the beacon and call to the black community for years in a bazillion various markets. And with the corporatization and all that stuff, we’ve seen that voice quelled.

I found some of the messaging around Blackout Tuesday heavy handed. One post referred to the music industry as “gatekeepers of the culture.” What do you see as the role and responsibility of record labels and executives during this time?

I think the whole concept of the gatekeeper thing is just an archaic notion right now — that the big labels are the gatekeepers of the culture.

The role of the executive I think in a lot of ways has gone back to how it was back in the day back in the day. The role is to identify, facilitate, and help guide in some way shape or form, hopefully with a more gentle hand than what it used to be: What can I do to help move you forward, move your career forward, move your music forward and help you present it to a greater whole?

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