12 May 2014

Mass Media and the Emergence of Salsa

The music which came to be called salsa developed out of Cuban dance genres--especially the son, 'guaracha' and 'rumba'--which had evolved into a cohesive set of commercial popular styles by the 1920s. By the 1940ss, these genres, as promoted by RCA Victor (which monopolized the record industry in Cuba) enjoyed considerable international appeal, and Latino communities in New York had come to play an important role in the evolution of Cuban music. Puerto Ricans had so eagerly adopted Cuban music for decades (especially since the introduction of radio in 1922) that they had come to regard such genres as the 'son' and 'guaracha' more or less as their own (generally at the expense of indigenous genres like 'plena' and 'bomba'). Meanwhile, since the 1920s, New York City had become the scene of a lively dialectic blending and competition of diverse grassroots Latin American musics and commercialized version thereof. Many Cuban musicians had come to base themselves in New York City, where, together with Puerto Rican bandleaders like Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez, they established New York as a center for the music that would eventually come to be labelled 'salsa' by the record industry.

The Latin music record scene in New York had been monopolized, or more properly, oligopolized, by RCA Victor, Columbia and Decca until the early 1940s. As was the case with 'race records' of black American music, the domination of these three Anglo corporations had tended to limit the diversity and quantity of Latin records. However, during World War II a variety of factors led to a decline of the near-total hegemony enjoyed by these so-called 'majors' in the field of ethnic and minority musics, such that smaller independent record companies ('indies') were able to enter the market and service the demand for specialized markets in a more creative, responsive and energetic way. These factors included: the majors' abandonment of minority music as a response to wartime shellac shortages; the advent of magnetic tape and 45 RPM records, which lowered record production costs sufficiently for smaller firms to enter the market; the increasing purchasing power of minorities, including work-class Puerto Ricans; the AFM (American Federation of Musicians) boycott of the majors in 1942 and 1947; and the rise of BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) which relied considerably on non-traditional (especially black and Latin) popular musics in the wake of the ASCAP ban on radio broadcasts of their own mainstream popular music in the early 1940s. Within the realm of black American music, these factors led to the emergence of indie labels like Sun, Phillips, Chess and Atlantic, the growth of which contributed significantly to the rise of R&B and, later, rock 'n' roll. In the Latin music scene, such record industry developments, together with the dramatic increase in migration from Puerto Rico during the 1940s and the big-band 'mambo craze' of the 1950s, facilitated the emergence of independents like SMC (1945), Tico (1948), Alegre (1960), and others. These labels, as suggested by John Storm Roberts in The Latin Tinge (1999), specialized in Cuban-style dance music and the syncretic mambo which Perez Prado, Tito Puente, Machito and others had fashioned, primarily in New York City, a point further developed by Salazar in 'The Pioneers of Salsa' (Mambo Express 2/15, 8/89). The competition between the majors and the indies formalized the dialectic opposition between corporate hegemony and grassroots 'authenticity' within the record industry.


In the latter 1960s, Cuban dance music in New York City underwent a transitional period of reorientation and redefinition. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 had ruptured commercial and touristic ties with the USA and to some extent spoilt the glamorous and idyllic image of Cuban music that the major record companies and the tourist industry had sought to promote. After such a harsh reminder of socio-political realities in the Caribbean, the multinational corporations that had been involved in Cuban-style music largely withdrew. More significantly, a distinct social identity began to coalesce on New York's Hispanic barrios, as Puerto Ricans and other Latinos came to perceive themselves as confronting a shared urban experience of social, political and economic alienation and marginalization, a point developed by Cesar Rondon in El libro de la salsa: Cronica de la musica del Caribe urbano (Caracas: Editorial Arte, 1980, p. 20). Cuban dance music, both as performed live and on record, began to play an increasingly important role in expressing, mediating and shaping the emergent barrio identity; thus, the advent of the new label 'salsa,' however commercial in inspiration, can be seen to some extent as legitimate insofar as the music it denoted acquired a new social significance and operated in a milieu substantially distinct from that of its Caribbean parent. To the extent that its texts mirrored their social context, salsa could be seen as continuing the tradition of its predecessors, the Cuban son and rumba, whose lyrics frequently dealt with local neighborhood event. The lyrics of the pre-salsa Cuban son remained rooted in local experience even in the genre's commercial, mass-mediated stage. Most of Arsenio Rodriguez's sones, for example, refer to specific individuals or local events familiar to the composer and his contemporary local peers. What distinguished salsa was that the neighborhood has now East Harlem rather than, for example, Havana's Guanabacoa suburb.

The growth of salsa as a vehicle of social identity was inseparable from its development as a commercial entity. Indeed, the more salsa flourished, the more it was subject to the pressures of the corporate music industry. Some of these pressures--toward standardization, stylistic conservatism, and absence of socio-political content--operated in direct opposition to the grassroots attempt to use the genre as an expression of barrio identity. (A similar tendency in the recording companies developed with regard to rock music, as noted by Simon Frith in Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure and the Politics of Rock 'n' Roll [New York: Pantheon, 1981, p 153].) Thus, the development of salsa can be seen as an ongoing dialectic between, on the one hand, the Latino community's attempt to shape salsa as its own subcultural expression, and, on the other hand, the tendency of the commercial music industry to glamorize, decontextualize, and depoliticize the music as a bland and innocuous dance music--as ketchup rather than salsa.

The latter tendency, in salsa as well as as other musics, is particularly marked in the case of large, corporate record companies, as opposed to smaller, independent firms, which are generally more reflective of grassroots aesthetics. It may be appropriate at this point to clarify further the distinction between the so-called majors, who control their own distribution and marketing as well as production, and the independents, who produce records but generally market them via separate distribution companies or, very often, arrangements with the majors. The indies suffer several disadvantages in their competition with the majors. Distribution is by far the biggest problem, but in addition to this, indies have such limited capital resources that they are easily ruined by a few failed records. Paradoxically, due to cash flow problems, a blockbuster hit can also bankrupt an indie if it is unable to meet sudden demand for a particular record. Disc jockeys are often reluctant to play indie records, especially since the independents cannot afford the same sorts of promotion, miscellaneous perks, and, in many case, payola offered by the majors. Hence, the indies tend to be small companies which cater to specialized markets, with whom they are more in touch on the grassroots level than are the majors. The majors can afford to take risks, but they generally avoid doing so; rather, they prefer to wait until a group or artist has made a name on an independent label, and then they buy that act from the indie, thus letting the indies bear the cost of research and development. (While complexity of industry accounting renders calculations of profit margins difficult, if no meaningless, it may be roughly estimated that a typical record produced by a major currently costs about half a million dollars, including promotion, and has to sell around 70,000 copies to break even, while an indie can produce a record for $10,000 and make a profit by selling only 2000 copies). The indies tend to be owned not by large corporations, but by middle-class or in some cases even lower-middle-class entrepreneurs. The indies, accordingly, are intimately rooted in their local, ethnic markets and can be responsive and faithful to those markets in a way which the majors are either unwilling or unable to be. In Sound Effects, Frith (1981, pp. 138-50) provides further discussion of the differences between indies and majors, and Frederic Dannen, in his Hit Men (New York: Times Books, 1990) discusses payola in the contemporary recording industry.

In the 1960s, recording of Latin dance music in New York was largely in the hands of a few indies, especially Tico-Alegre and Coda Records, as observed by Pablo Guzman in 'Siempre Salsa!,' in The Village Voice (25 June 1979, p. 92). In 1964, Jerry Masucci and Johnny Pacheco, the gifted leader of a thoroughly traditional Cuban-style ensemble, formed another independent label, Fania Records. By 1970, through a combination of creative marketing (including popularizing the term 'salsa'), aggressive signing of local bands, and responsiveness to the growing significance of Latin music, Fania had surpassed its established competitors and had come to dominate Latin music recording in the city. In this initial period, Fania, as an energetic, dynamic indie, remained vitally in touch with 'Nuyoricanbarrio life and did not hesitate to promote 'salsa' as a dynamic expression of that subculture. Song texts by Willie colon, Felipe Lucian and others dramatized barrio alienation and aspirations. Album covers expressed similar themes, as with Ray Barretto's 'Que Viva la Musica,' showing Barretto emerging in chains out of a conga, looming over the Manhattan skyline, and reaching for the sun. Most explicitly, perhaps, Fania produced a 90-minute promotional film, 'Nuestra Cosa' ('Our Thing') contextualizing salsa and its exponents in their Nuyorican milieu of barrio squalor, transplanted traditions, and cultural revival. In El libro de la salsa, Rondon (1980) further discusses the early Fania years.

The period 1971-75 was the creative and financial zenith for salsa and for Fania Records. Despite the appearance of a few more innovative salsa indies, (TR, Montuno, Coco, and Cytronics' Salsoul and Mericana), Fania, with 80 percent of the market, dominated the field, and according to Guzman (as cited above, 1979, p. 92) enjoyed such growth and virtual monopoly that it came to operate more like a major record company than an indie. In fact, Alegre was by this point leased to Fania. Accordingly, as Cesar Rondon has documented, Fania's management chose increasingly to divest salsa of its barrio ethos and to market it as a typical American pop music industry product, i.e. glamorous, decontextualized, depoliticized, standardized, and aimed at the homogeneous mass audience rather than a local, marginalized one.


Hence, Fania promoted several (largely unsuccessful) 'crossover' LPs aimed at reaching Anglo audiences. Much of the remaining Fania output--especially the records of Johnny Pacheco and Celia Cruz--was devoted to reiteration, however tasteful, of the traditional-style Cuban son, in the vein of the Sonora Matancera (a Cuban group) of the 1950s. Aside from crossover ventures, Fania seemed to have forsaken innovation for standardized, reliable formulae, and chose to celebrate a mythically idyllic Cuban past rather than to continue confronting barrio reality in all its complexity. The contrast became most explicit in another Fania promotional film, 'Salsa' (1973), aimed Anglo audiences and ignoring problematic barrio culture and Cuban roots by implying that salsa came directly from African to New York City recording studies. Through such propaganda, salsa and Cuban dance music in general were decontextualized and dehistoricized to the extent that many listeners thought them to be modern New York creations. Rondon (1981) observes, for example, that Pacheco's liner notes (e.g. 'Pacheco y su nueva tumbao') led many listeners to believe that he was the inventor of the charanga ensemble (which had been in vogue in Cuba for 50 years). Meanwhile, innovative, jazz-oriented salsa (like Eddie Palmieri's) and provocative songs which embraced and confronted barrio culture (like those of Ruben Blades and Willie Colon) were largely confined to the margins of the record industry, and came to be avoided by commercial radio stations. Thus did Blades' remarkable 'Juan Pachanga,' with its innovative instrumentation and sensitive text portraying the desperate emptiness of machismo, appear originally only on the failed fusion LP 'Rhythm Machine.' Palmieri, meanwhile, won Grammy Awards five times in spite of his low profile on commercial radio.


Despite such policies, Latin radio had been actively contributing to the popularization of Latin music in New York since the early 1930s. Cuban dance music--including live broadcasts from clubs--had been broadcast on stations like WJZ and WMCA since as early as 1932-34, and continued in subsequent decades to be played in short programs on PIX, WOVZ, WOR, and other stations. In the late 1960s the owners of Tico Records and SMC, in accordance with the customary promotional practices of the times, started buying air time on radio stations to promote their recordings, as noted by Max Salazar in a 1990 interview, a point also noted by Oscar Hijuelo in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (New York: Farrar, Strout, and Giroux, p. 154). From 1947, the 'Tico-Tico Show' hosted by Art 'Pancho' Raymond and, later, Dick 'Ricardo' Sugar, on the English-lannguage station WEVD, attracted audiences from both Latino and Anglo communities, as did the shows by other English speaking disk jockeys (e.g. Bob 'Pedro' Harris on WJZ and 'Symphony Sid' on WEVD). It was not until 1961, however, that WADO was established as the city's first fully Spanish-language radio station (or 'SLR'). While WADO, from its inception, made some efforts to orient music programming toward the city's various ethnic groups, according to WADO's station manager Danny Ortiz (from a May 1990 interview), Cuban style dance music, and what came to be called 'salsa,' never received much iarplay on WADO, due primarily to the personal antipathy for the genre on the part of the stations' owner, Nelson LaVerne. By the late sixties, however, Jerry Masucci was buying air time on stations WBNX in an energetic and remarkably successful promotion campaign to make stars out of Fania's upcoming performers. Purchase of radio air time has since become too expensive for most indies, however, and the majors prefer to promote musics other than salsa.

[This essay is extracted from a longer work by Peter Manuel entitled 'Salsa and the Music Industry: Corporate Control or Grassroots Expression?,' published as Chapter 8 in his edited volume Essays on Cuban Music: North American and Cuban Perspectives (University Press of America, 1991, pp. 159-80).]

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