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Music 213

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Early Beginnings: Black Swan Records
Black Swan Records was a small, black-owned record company created in the early 1900s under the direction and leadership of Harry H. Pace. Although Black Swan’s lifespan was brief, an examination of its history and activities provides a glimpse into the complex, racialized music and recording industry in the early twentieth century. Discrimination in the world of music was just as prevalent as discrimination in other spheres of society, making it difficult for African American musicians to earn a stable, living wage. Moreover, white ownership of clubs, hotels, concert halls, and record companies created a power differential. In contrast, blacks were given less prestigious performance sites and regularly received inadequate pay for their artistic contributions and musical performances. Given these conditions, Pace and his colleagues decided to create a black-owned record company that would promote and support African American musicians, treating them with respect and paying them equal to their talents. In addition, Black Swan Records had a lofty mission that included a desire to reshape negative racial conceptions of black music, as well as to develop strategies for greater access to, and gain material resources that would support and encourage African American business.

Early on when record companies finally agreed to allow African American artists to record their music, the industry only permitted styles that conformed to white stereotypes and negative valuations of black music. Thus, so-called comic “coon songs” and minstrelsy the only styles endorsed by the industry for recording purposes. In other words, the industry’s own racially biased judgments of African American music, combined with its selective, gatekeeping practices played a key role in constructing and perpetuating racial conceptions and evaluations of black music as non-serious and subpar in comparison with European high art music. Pace, an entrepreneur eager to enact his own variation of racial uplift and socio-economic equality, established the first black-owned record company, “Black Swan Records”1. Well aware of the racial prejudice, stereotypes, and negative estimations of African Americans and the alleged limits of their musical contributions, Pace devised a plan to record a variety of music performed by black artists. Among the wide spectrum of styles to be recorded were the following: blues, spirituals, opera, and concert music. Racial uplift, economic independence, proper artistic esteem of African American music were all key components of Pace’s visionary project.

Although African American music quickly became a major force in American popular music, black artists and performers exercised little control over the terms of their employment or the kinds of music they could produce professionally. By the late 1910s they were even being displaced as the primary interpreters of the musical styles they had originated. Finally after constant pressure from the African American community as well as key court decisions, African American singer, Mamie Smith, was allowed to record with “Okeh Records” . Smith’s two records were released in February and August of 1920 and were instant hits, selling extremely well among African Americans. Even though Smith’s success opened up possibilities to record for other African American artists, the industry continued its race-based discriminatory practices. Central to the realization of this vision was the promotion of African American musical talent. On the one hand, gifted black artists producing excellent music encouraged and strengthened the black community, fostering pride in African American artistic achievements. On the other hand, black musical achievement challenged American society’s negative valuations and racially biased stereotypes regarding African Americans and the range of their musical abilities. Thus, Pace’s plan was to record talented black musicians in order to actively shape and re-shape public opinion regarding African Americans.
Although Black Swan Records issued a wide range of music performed by black artists everything from the music of concert vocalists Revella Hughes and Carroll Clark to the more popular styles of blues, ragtime, and jazz, the company’s financial stability depended largely upon its production of popular music. In fact, the enormous success of blues singer Ethel Waters, not only kept the company afloat but also enabled it to turn a small profit. Waters’ musical ability and her wide-reaching success helped to reshape and to challenge the notion of blues as a lower and disreputable form of music. Even so and in spite of the commercial success of its increasingly popular blues records, Black Swan “remained committed to middle-class ideas of refinement and self-control.”
In short, tensions between Pace’s musical mission to foster “a taste for high musical culture,”2 and his strategic use of popular music to further his lofty musical mission ultimately proved unresolvable. Other factors likewise contributed to the company’s downfall. The rising popularity of blues and jazz, Pace highlights a certain irony in that the success of Black Swan’s recordings of blues artists encouraged other white-owned record companies to sign and promote African American blues artists. In other words, because of the company’s selectivity regarding signing contracts with certain blues musicians, it became more difficult for Black Swan to promote its program of musical uplift and increased the economic power of Black Swan’s rivals. Moreover, Black Swan simply could not compete with the larger budgets of white-owned record companies; consequently, many of their singers choose to sign contracts elsewhere.

The emergence of radio in the music industry also negatively impacted Black Swan’s momentous yet brief existence. As millions of dollars were invested to fund radio broadcasting, the entire phonograph industry witnessed a sharp decline in sales. Under economic duress and facing the possibility of losing his company, Pace made a decision that contradicted his musical and social mission to promote exclusively black artists and their musical endeavors. Although it was originally conceived as a desperate, temporary measure, Pace began issuing records of white artists. Undoubtedly, Pace’s decision-involved deception and was less than optimal. This issue presents us with an interesting historical case that challenges the cogency of racial musical categories or labels, a key aspect of Pace’s project in confronting and critically questioning various racial views of music. In addition, as musical styles such as blues and jazz became increasingly popular with both black and white audiences, these styles became associated with African American artists. Ironically, Pace observed the deception demonstrated that of racial categories in music, which had been one of Black Swan’s basic goals.
Despite its short career, Black Swan Records under Pace’s leadership accomplished much for African American artists and the black community as a whole, especially when one takes into account the structural injustices and discriminatory practices firmly entrenched in American society during that period. By promoting black musicians and showcasing the wide range of styles and musical capabilities of African American artists, Pace challenged many common racial stereotypes and negative appraisals of blacks’ abilities to make significant aesthetic and cultural contributions. However, one could argue that Pace himself employed and furthered a racially biased aesthetic standard. That is, through his adoption of musical categories and descriptors such as “high” and “low” musical art and his urging of potential African American customers to purchase “higher class” concert and other “serious” music performed by blacks, Pace casts a shadow on the artistry and cultural contributions of blues and jazz. In short, his statements imply that European, classical traditions are the standards by which one must judge musical excellence.

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