Stax Legend Al Bell on Black Music’s Living Legacy and Power: ‘My Life’s Mission Is to Make Sure It Doesn’t Die’

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    Orson Weems of Al Bell Presents
    Vernon Reid of Living Colour and Al Bell at The Meteor guitar store in Bentonville, Arkansas on April 20, 2018.

    Black Music Month may be officially over at the end of June each year. But for the last 24 years, the annual celebration has also extended into the first week of July thanks to the Essence Festival in New Orleans (running July 5-8 this year).

    Regardless of any special occasion, former Stax owner/chairman Al Bell has penned a timely editorial concerning the social, economic and cultural impact of black music. A native of North Little Rock, Arkansas, Bell got his start in the music industry as an air personality at Arkansas’ first black radio station KOKY FM. After joining Stax in 1965 as director of promotions, Bell parlayed that post into a multifaceted career at Stax that included stints as a songwriter and producer (Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, Emotions) in addition to his executive roles.

    Five years ago, Bell launched Al Bell Presents, a career development/creation company dedicated to developing up-and-coming unique artists while preserving black music’s art of the past. Bell remains just as dedicated to making sure that black music takes full advantage of its current genre-leading status. “My life’s mission is to make sure that black music doesn’t die,” he says. “Black music has a tremendous opportunity to leverage its own art in order to maximize its economic impact and power.”

    Read Bell’s editorial in its entirety below.

    Black music was born in the African-American culture dating back to slavery. It is the only music art form that is indigenous to America — and it has universal appeal. This sense of identity and empowerment directed my business decisions during my years at Stax Records in Memphis.    

    There is power in our music, power in our artistry and power in our business acumen. Now is the time to turn our business power, creative power and the buying power of music appreciators into a living legacy and generational wealth. The key to becoming a super artist today seems to be notoriety—creating a bridge between personal branding and industry wealth.  

    Stax CEO Jim Stewart asked me to leave my popular morning and afternoon drive time radio shows in 1965 to become Stax’s national radio promotion director and help save the company. Stax was $90,000 in debt and about to go under. The agreement was that if I did so, I would be given equity in the company. I was able to do so in less than a year.  

    Two years later, Warner Bros. purchased Stax distributor Atlantic Records and Stewart discovered he unknowingly had signed away ownership of Stax’s biggest hits. That same year, on December 10, Stax star Otis Redding and several members of his backing band The Bar-Kays were killed in a plane crash. And on April 4, 1968, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the nearby Lorraine Motel in Memphis, home to a host of traveling black musicians. Within a tumultuous six-month period, the company had lost its star, its multimillion-dollar masters and a close friend.

    In the face of despair, I turned to the music for answers and encouragement. We had lost our catalog, but we still had the three best ingredients to create music: artists, writers and producers. Stax returned to the studios and three months later ignited a “Soul Explosion,” simultaneously flooding the market with 27 albums to help rebuild the label’s catalog. Among those releases was Isaac Hayes’ seminal album Hot Buttered Soul.

    Despite possessing master tapes and publishing assets valued at $82 million by 1975, an involuntary — and illegal — Chapter 11 bankruptcy forced Stax to close and disrupt its impressive growth. Following the bankruptcy, the property where Stax was originally located was sold to the Southside Church of God in Christ. I still marvel at the company’s legacy today as the lot where Stax once stood — sold for a $10 bill — now houses the Stax Museum, the Stax Music Academy and the Soulsville Charter School. Having lived through those difficult days, the presence and success of these institutions remind me, almost daily, that all my living has not been in vain.

    As an experienced record executive and former owner of Stax Records, I believed I knew where the music industry was headed with the introduction of Napster and then Spotify in the late ‘90s. The industry always had to contend with some form of bootlegging and piracy, resulting in the push for copyright legislation. In a new era engineered by advanced technology, the industry shifted from manufacturing albums and CDs to fielding music downloads and streaming. Today’s streaming-dominant climate raises two crucial questions. With the constant changes in technology and infrastructure, what happens to the music industry moving forward — and how do artists, engineers, producers and A&R people build and establish wealth? 

    USA Today noted back in 2013 that hip-hop music (alone) generated more than $10 billion annually that year, and that the top 20 rappers earned more than $271 million a year. In 2018, that figure has swollen to more than $2.7 billion for the top five rappers alone, based on Forbes magazine’s May report “The Forbes Five: Hip-Hop’s Wealthiest Artists.” Jay-Z recently topped this year’s list with $900 million as a result of a diversified portfolio that includes Roc Nation, Tidal and a cognac division. Meanwhile, Beyoncé and her husband have done a brilliant job creating intellectual property, developing a brand and building generational wealth. Other artists are following suit.

    The Country Music Association (CMA) has mastered monetizing artists and catalogs by integrating its genre with lucrative product placement deals and sponsorship agreements with companies such as Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive. Published CMA studies indicate that 42% of U.S. consumers listen to country music. In addition, the CMA also knows where these consumers shop, where they live and how much disposable income they have to spend. The Fortune 500 companies do, too.

    Black music is a multibillion-dollar industry that spans many genres, from R&B/soul and gospel to jazz and hip-hop. It has helped shape the careers of music icons such as Elvis Presley, who followed blues guitarist/singer Big Bill Broonzy and rock & roll pioneer Chuck Berry. Mick Jagger, Rolling Stones’ frontman and producer of the 2014 James Brown biopic Get On Up, has noted that he was heavily influenced by Brown’s electrifying stage presence.  

    My life’s mission is to make sure black music doesn’t die. It’s not just music. It should be embraced as an art form regarded with the same value as a priceless painting, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The black music industry has a tremendous opportunity to leverage its own art in order to maximize its economic impact and power in the same way the country music industry has done.  

    It can be done. As I penned these words years ago, and am saying once again: “I’ll take you there.”

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