Motown and Me
Someone called me today to discuss the magic of Motown, wanting to extrapolate the business of music to the business of incubating start-ups.
In talking with him, I realized that I’ve been using the secret sauce of an international legacy my whole life. The lessons were developed and passed down person to person through my family and led up to Motown.
Motown is a result of the lessons rather than the lesson itself.
I have a love/hate relationship with Motown given that it was co-founded by my Aunt Raynoma Gordy Singleton and she didn’t receive the accolades she deserved in her lifetime. You can read about her legacy in the New York Times, unfortunately, in her obituary. Some might say she was ahead of her time, but she was right on time, a powerful, strategic professional with organizational and structural skills that led to the creation of the production company that was eventually sold to Universal. (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/04/arts/music/raynoma-gordy-singleton-motown.html)
There are 7 key insights,
a word I’ve selected with purpose as it references both discernment and intuition, a key feature of developing music and lyrics, that my family, Motown and otherwise, adhere to:
1. Excellence is Non-Negotiable.
We do not need to be experts to know excellence when we see or hear it. Different than expertise, excellence is a way of being, a stature that doesn’t require money. Mostly it requires confidence backed by knowledge and/or experience. Excellence in my family and in the Motown organization was undeniable. With a verve for and philosophy of greatness, excellence is always attainable, and nothing is impossible.
2. Follow Through is Required.
When an individual makes a commitment to call, show up, perform, whatever it may be, that represents an indelible promise. In 2021, commitment is, unfortunately, optional. “Yes” has been reduced to “maybe.” “I will” has been reduced to “I might.” That is not a functional world and certainly does not set the platform for a successful business or a fruitful life. The key to making commitments you can keep is knowing your capabilities and your limits. When you break them, you destroy your reputation and may be perceived as having character flaws. In this wishy-washy environment, keeping your word is an effortless way to emerge as a leader. Hitmaker Smokey Robinson was late to a studio session one time. The door was locked tight. Smokey told me he was never late again.
3. A Thing isn’t Done Until it’s Right.
When you start something, you finish it, and it isn’t complete until it’s perfect. That’s a hard row to hoe, but essential to success. That means there’s no room for error. When my mother’s dreaded red pen hit my schoolwork, a sea of red didn’t mean fix the errors. It meant you are way off base, throw it out like a scratched record and start over. In the world of Motown, anything less than perfection was discarded. Many songs were trashed to make space for hits. Every hitmaker has a cutting room floor filled with debris. Don’t be afraid to strive for perfection. On the other side, you’ll earn respect.
4. Time is Always of the Essence.
In the world of Motown, the world of business and the world of life, time is always of the essence. We see, now more than ever, given the pandemic circumstances, that time waits for no one. Of course, this doesn’t mean to dart off without acuity and perspicacity, but an innovative idea disregarded and/or untried is a gift wasted.
5. Conventions of Decorum are Essential.
Those of us who are old enough remember when we dressed to travel. Booty shorts and flip flops were unthinkable, ghastly, in fact. Workplace dress cycles between professional and casual, always reverting to professional when profits go down. There’s something about being well dressed that makes us see ourselves, and be seen by others, as successful. That sense of style and decorum extends to how we communicate with and address each other. My grandmother, Roslyn Murray, founded the Michigan Institute for Child Development. On each of her six campuses every human was referred to as Ms., Mrs. or Mr. Pronouns were fitting for pigs and dogs and as crass, cheap, and tacky, as not knowing how to set or use a proper place setting. Motown artists were known internationally for their sense of etiquette. It was taught in-house, finishing school style, to every Motown colleague in order that the company maintain an elevated level of respect at home and around the world.
6. Cooperation is More Important than Competition.
In the world of art, of music, there are numerous opinions. The question is, how do you decide which opinions matter. At Motown, everyone had a say. Like an internal focus group, the majority decided if a song was a hit. Competition was on the outside, not the inside. Often a song on the A side of a record (look it up young ins) might also show up on the B side of another record by another singer or group. In that case, the market decided who earned the hit. “Get Ready,” written by Smokey Robinson, was launched on The Temptations’ B side and became a major hit moving it right to the A spot. Businesses run like monarchies miss the talent, expertise, and intuition of their employees. Knowing that your voice matters provides an unparalleled sense of pride and belonging.
7. Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way.
Motown started in a tiny little house in Detroit, close to where I was born. My Aunt Raynoma and her, soon to be husband, Berry Gordy, scraped together what they could to fulfill a dream and create the legacy they imagined. They did what they had to do, and it wasn’t pretty, to make it work. They used their skills, some organic, my aunt had perfect pitch, and some learned through hard knocks. No one in my family thinks small and no one in my family fears greatness. The legendary success of Motown was not a surprise. It was expected given the work and sacrifice.