I have a short story to tell about Motown and the label's early entry into the CD market. It's a small part of record industry history and I was there. (Not that I'm claiming the credit - I was one of a team).
In March 1983 I joined the newly formed European office at RCA Records based in London. It was my job to coordinate the production of CDs for the label and convert the existing catalogue to issue CD equivalents.
At that time Motown was being distributed in the US by MCA and licensed to EMI everywhere else in the world. The EMI licences were about to expire. Our Vice President wanted to sign Motown as a licensed product for at least the european companies and so quickly set about opening negotiations. He quickly found out that Motown had missed the boat by not securing any CD manufacturing capacity and that MCA couldn't help them as they had a shortage themselves. At this time CDs had been launched in Japan (October 1982) and Europe (March 1983) and the USA was due to follow in October 1983. He quickly realised that any help RCA could offer to this problem would get him a long way in securing a wider deal for a licence. An offer of product was made along with terms for the licence and it was this that secured the deal.
At the time Motown were riding high with Lionel Richie's first album and his second ("Can't Slow Down") was breaking out on the back of the huge success of "All Night Long". The release of a new Stevie Wonder album was also scheduled (although no-one was holding their breath). Eventually the deal was signed and late in September I received six U-matic digital masters of the proposed first releases. These had to be available in the shops for the Christmas market.
Any reader of this blog will know that I am a Motown fan (big time). Imagine what a joy it was to take those masters to Tape One Studios behind Tottenham Court Road and sit whilst my good friend and brilliant mastering engineer Ben T produced the manufacturing masters for me. These were digital copies of the original Motown masters rather than the second , third or worse generation analogues we were used to hearing for vinyl and cassette production. I would have paid RCA to do this job.
The first releases were all compilations of the favoured 60's/70's stars. Greatest hits collections under a series banner "Compact Command Performances"
At the first production meeting I was shocked to find that RCA was insisting that the UK Tamla Motown numbering system (STML etc) would be dropped in favour of an RCA one for the new and re issues of vinyl and that there would be no derivative of the original system for CD - and so ended a numbering system that had stood for over 20 years and is still used today by collectors worldwide to establish which release is which. This change marked the era of regionalisation (pre globalisation) of products and the introduction of bar codes - whilst the UK Tamla Motown Office fought against it there was too much pitched against them to keep the status quo.
MCD06068 The Commodores - 14 Greatest Hits (later ZD 72421)
MCD06059 - Lionel Richie - Can't Slow Down (ZD 72020)
MCD Denotes the Motown Label and TCD denotes Tamla (Both US Imprints)
Further shock was received by the Tamla Motown faithful as the CD releases would be all be issued on the US Motown, Tamla and Gordy imprints rather than the usual international Tamla Motown label (see my post about Tamla Motown). This was to allow the production of one product which would be available for shipment and sale anywhere in the world but most importantly the home US market. The International office - which controlled everything for Motown outside the US argued hard with their own HQ in LA and I'm sad to say lost that fight as well.
For my part I quickly set about sorting out the labels. The manufacturing plant that we used was PolyGram's in Hannover (in 1983 it was the ONLY one outside Japan), a massive factory with the required clean rooms and everything on site to produce the finished product, but as they invented the format the processes was closely controlled and nothing was allowed to be left to chance - they insisted on testing everything to the minutest detail. I had the films made up for the labels and selected the colours closest to the US originals and sent them to LA for approval. We then set about getting them made up on some CDs. PolyGrams' favoured machine for this was basically an automated john bull printing set where a big rubber tit (believe me there's no better description) would pick up the image in paint and press it onto the blank silver disc. The day they ran these tests they were producing the first Dire Straits album so I have that the first ever CD with a US Motown label on it - albeit with it playing Dire Straits.
We had sent details of what Motown needed to create for artwork (templates so that the booklet and inlays would fit into the jewel boxes properly). The designs finally arrived and frankly the fan in me was disappointed. The art was a generic series of sketches of the artists and the booklets had little detail on the track listings or any notes about the artists. For no extra unit cost we could have provided 8 page booklets but Motown wanted only 4 including the front /back covers. This amounted to a basic tracklisting with only the track, writer, publisher and producer credits. RCA later used the spare four pages to advertise the other CD releases from the label.
Whilst the parts were being assembled I was sorting out what capacity we had for the manufacturing and sourcing orders from the RCA offices around Europe. This must have been difficult as all this catalogue had been with EMI since the early 60's - we also had to contend with Motown constantly changing what quantities they wanted shipped to the USA. This was a problem for them as the CD format wasn't launched in the US until October 1983 so they had no sales history or existing market on which to make a judgement.
There was a shortage of manufacturing capacity around the world with only the majors being able to afford the required massive investment in the hi-tech plant needed to make CDs at a viable volume. We were short too but during the summer our VP, Alan Cornish had come up with another great idea. RCA Europe had orders and a fast growing market and but had totally exhausted the manufacturing capacity it had under it's contract with PolyGram. RCA US however had capacity (via a production facility deal in Japan) but only the promise of a market yet to materialise (and they weren't ready product-wise). The right thing to do commercially was to switch the US capacity to Europe. Sounds straightforward but the internal politics was phenomenal - letting the Europeans take the lead in a new lucrative market? - RCA was a very large american corporate and the US was then the largest market for recorded music in the world. Subsidiaries don't tell the parent what to do let alone take their resources. It wasn't going to be easy. The argument raged on for a couple of weeks until someone very senior indeed agreed that temporary use of the US facility would handed over to Europe in the wider interests of the Group.
Politics done with, it was all the better for me as, in October 1983 I went to Tokyo to organise the production of my (yes by now they were my babies) treasured Motown CD titles. We had stepped into the US RCA contract with the Nipppon Columbia (Part of Denon). My idea of a business trip prior to this was two days in sunny Hannover. I was met at the airport by Tatsunori Konno - someone who I became firm friends with. He was to be my shadow for the seven day trip. I went to the offices the next morning to find that rather than the hi-tech office I was expecting it was very labour and paper intensive. The plant, HQ,recording studios etc were all in the same building. On my tour of the facility we literally walked around the musicians recording a jazz album in the main studio.
They (like my friends at PolyGram) wanted to check everything and on playing the masters (sent earlier) they had found some drop outs and clitches. Whilst I was aware of these (it was engineers practice to mark them on the tape box) I knew we couldn't allow the Japanese to mess with a Motown master - it was a hard conversation, as quality was everything and they felt that these "faults" would refelect on them. I convinced them that the opposite was true that these were true classics and any noticeable alteration would be frowned upon in the marketplace. Truth is you had to have an engineers ear to notice these minute points - Also I really couldn't afford the time any editing would take as it would all be done in real time. They took my argument and conceded. We then went to the local printer where I was horrified by the lack of safety measures around the huge printing presses preferring to observe from a distance as the operatives took their lives into their own hands working in close proximity to the moving parts. The plant manager was a character who kept telling me how "..bootifarl Diana Woss was" I think he thought I must be personally close to all the artists concerned.
The guys at Nippon Columbia put their all into their work but played even harder. It was amazing what whisky fans these guys were of an evening - they went through personality changes as they left the building and whilst they worked incredibly hard, boy they knew how to play! I was jet lagged virtually throughout the trip so by the Wednesday I had to ask for an evening off!
Being October and due to the Nippon Columbia/Denon connection, one day they took me to the Tokyo Audio Fair, at the time the most important event in the consumer electronics business calendar. The equipment I saw there was amazing but the emphasis was on two systems both with very different futures ahead of them in Europe. Video Laser Discs were all the rage and I was told constantly that VHS was about to die. Of course this never happened - well not due to Laser Discs anyway - they doomed as carriers of media but no facility to record on them.
We later went to a stand and one of my guides stepped up, took a mic from an assistant and launched into some disco song japanese style - Yes Karaoke had arrived in my life. I told them that reserved British men would never embrace this oddity - maybe they knew it would be the domain of pissed up girls/guys on a Friday night out in cities all over the UK. I still fail to see the attraction.
I returned to London at the end of the week and Tats and co. were good to their word and proved NCC to be a reliable, flexible supplier who was a pleasure to work with over the next 12 months. Whilst waiting for the first shipments to arrive we started working on the second batch of releases and yes the Stevie Wonder album did arrive, together with more Compact Command Performances; Lady Sings the Blues; The infamous twofers; The Wonder catalogue; The Motown Story and all - Nice work eh?
As it turns out we manufactured the two Lionels in Germany at PolyGram and these Compact Command Performances in Japan at Nippon Columbia. Owners of these early copies will know that they have these as they will have the MCD or TCD numbers and the Japanese copies will have Biem/Jasrac and "Made in Japan" on them (JASRAC is the mechanical rights society for Japan). If you have these you have one of the first CDs of Motown music ever produced anywhere. I would estimate that we made no more than about 5,000 of each of these titles in Japan in this way. The production would move to the Matsushita factory in the US in 1984/5 for the US market and we would bring the top sellers back to Germany via Polygram and Sonopress (Bertelsmann).
The First Tamla Label....Ever
So not quite a short story but very important to me; possibly in the success of Motown at that time and definitely for RCA. Through this RCA won the worldwide licensing rights for all Motown product and Motown got a foothold in the CD market way in advance of their competitors.