When you think of the assembly line in the car business, you think of the Ford Motor Company. When you think of the assembly line in the music business you think of Motown Records. There’s a reason for that. Motown’s founder, Berry Gordy, who was born this week (Nov. 28) in 1929, built the Motown Record Company based on the business principles he learned while working at a Ford assembly plant in Detroit in the early 1950s.
Ford’s chief business principle was, of course, the moving assembly line in which identical parts traveled down a conveyor belt, passing by workstations where additional parts were added, until the finished product emerged at the end of the line. Gordy believed this concept could be adapted to the music business, so when he started Motown Records in 1959, he quickly established a team of “musical assembly workers.” They included a “house band” with a distinct musical sound, a standardized song-writing team, an in-house marketing group, and even staff choreographers who could take raw talent off the streets of Detroit and — in an assembly-like succession of training sessions — teach it to sing, talk, dress and dance in a way that could be acceptable to crossover white audiences as well as African-Americans.
It was mass-produced music, much of it based on songs Gordy himself composed while working at Ford. The tedium of the job, combined with the rhythmic pounding of the machinery, allowed Gordy to compose songs in his head, which he then frantically wrote down during coffee breaks.
Those musical musings, plus Gordy’s Ford-based business model, produced such hit makers as Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations, The Four Tops and the biggest hit maker of them all — the musical equivalent of the Ford Mustang — The Supremes.
By the mid-1960s Gordy’s Motown empire — labeled “Hitsville U.S.A.” — included 8 record labels, a publishing company, a managing service and a record for musical chart busting unrivaled at the time. In 1966, 75 percent of Motown’s releases made the musical charts.
But from 1970, on Motown went into decline. Many artists left for other record labels, convinced that Gordy was cheating them out of royalties, or ignoring them to focus on a favored few such as The Supremes’ lead singer, Diana Ross. As a result, Motown was never the same, and in 1988 Gordy sold it to a business conglomerate.
Still, any man ultimately responsible for “Dancing in the Streets” (Martha and the Vandellas), “My Girl” (The Temptations), “I’ll Be Doggone” (Marvin Gaye), and “Tracks of My Tears” (the great Smokey Robinson) deserves immortality, which Gordy received in 1990 when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.