When I was young, I was a mod.
We had the radio on all the time, small transistor radios.
At home, in the street, in cars, on buses, on trains.
And one sound was different to everything else.
When one of their tracks came on, you had to get up and move.
Motown came on like an air raid.
It cut through everything else on the radio.
Nothing sounded like Motown.
Being young, I just knew it was good, I never questioned why.
But I recently read an extract from a book called ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’
It made me love Motown more than ever.
Because it explained how and why they did what they did:
“So what was the Motown Sound?
Lots of tambourines and hand clapping, blaring brass – horns and saxophones, driving bass lines and foot slapping drum parts.
Motown chief engineer Mike McClain built a miniscule, tinny-sounding radio designed to approximate the sound of a car radio.
The high-end bias of Motown’s recordings can be partially traced to the company’s reliance on this piece of equipment.
They knew people would be listening on their car stereos and on their transistor sets and they were going to do what it took to make their songs sound good and memorable.
Even if you couldn’t put your finger on it, when a Motown song came on, you knew it.”
When I read that it made me appreciate Motown more than ever.
I always knew they made good music.
Now I know they had brains, too.
Motown understood context.
No one else did that.
The clue is in the name, Motown: Motor Town: Detroit.
Everyone was driving a car as soon as they were old enough.
That’s who buys records, and they’ll be listening to them on car radios.
With the street noise, engines, traffic and sirens all around.
So the music has to cut through all that.
All the other record companies were just listening to their recording at the studio, on huge, perfect speakers.
So they could hear all the subtle, delicate mid-tones.
Then they released the record and all that subtlety disappeared on the speakers on the radios it was played on.
Motown’s engineers didn’t do that.
They listened to the mix through a small, tinny speaker that sounded just the way people would actually hear it.
And then they mixed it according to what sounded great over those little speakers.
Not just in a studio.
So when people played their transistor radios, Motown cut through above everything else.
Someone who actually looks at the context they have to work in.
Who looks at what they have to beat.
Berry Gordy started Motown with $800, and that’s why he’s worth $350 million today.
And that’s also why everyone who worked on the Motown label is a star.
Berry Gordy understood what no one else did.
If you understand context, you can dictate the context.
And if you can dictate the context, you can dictate who wins.