Many people think Motown and Stax are the same thing.
Both were very popular during the Civil Rights Movement and shaped the flavor of American R&B music.
Sure, Motown is more well-known, but there are still those who prefer Stax.
Only avid fans of R&B (Rhythm & Blues) music would really know and appreciate what distinguishes these two styles.
We’ll go through the differences between Motown and Stax so you can get a better understanding of what makes each one unique, and how they compare to one another.
Motown Vs. Stax (What’s The Difference?)
The difference between Motown and Stax can be simply defined as Motown being more professional and traditional, and Stax assuming a more creative, less mainstream style.
Another difference between Motown and Stax is that they’re different record labels.
One can hardly be thought of as better than the other because it all comes down to preference.
Motown was certainly more successful in terms of widespread recognition and sales.
However, Stax had—and has to this day—a loyal, dedicated following.
While there were other labels in the same genre of soul, blues, and pop, Motown and Stax were the ones that dominated the music scene and shaped the future of R&B.
Both Motown and Stax are, to this day, very popular genres of music.
At the end of the day, Motown and Stax are quite similar, sharing many of the same musical qualities.
Then there are those who enjoy both and make little or no distinction between the two.
A Brief History Of Motown
In early 1959, songwriter and producer Berry Gordy Jr. founded what would, the following year, be named Motown Records.
Stemming from a combination of the words Motor and Town, Motown was born in Gordy’s hometown of Detroit, Michigan, also known as the Motor City because of its popularity among auto manufacturers.
Motown grew considerably in the 1960s and 1970s.
Both groups and solo artists produced music under the Motown Records label.
Motown attracted a diverse group of singers from a variety of backgrounds.
Each artist incorporated his or her unique elements into the music.
The end result was a fine-tuned, rhythmically appealing song.
Motown was known for a very “polished” style of music.
People loved their catchy, harmonic songs with elements of rhythm and blues, pop, jazz, and more.
With memorable melodies and hooks, Motown pulled in listeners from all over the world.
Motown quickly rose to the top of the charts in both the United States and the United Kingdom.
It wasn’t long before people from all over the world were coming to Detroit in pursuit of Motown Records.
Particularly during a time when race relations were extremely tense, Motown was a beacon of hope.
Rather than dividing people of different races, ethnicities, and religions, Motown brought people together.
Gordy, Motown’s founder, said he wanted everyone to enjoy his music.
Motown was designed to be ubiquitous and easily accessed by all.
Just a decade or two after its founding, it had garnered the universal support that it sought.
While the world around them was, in many ways, decaying, Motown was building.
Hate and divisiveness were rampant in much of the United States, but Motown did just the opposite and brought people together.
Making music that everyone could enjoy was part of Berry Gordon’s vision for Motown Records.
Besides bringing people together, Motown Records also represented a huge step forward for black-owned businesses.
With the racial divide pervading practically every facet of American life, Motown Records took a different approach.
The music label employed people of many different races, boldly defying norms and racial barriers across America.
Motown steered clear of these tensions, embracing its philosophy, KISS, an acronym that stood for “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”
Motown also took a bit of a different approach in its production process.
Unlike some other record labels, Motown kept practically its entire production process in-house.
From songwriters and producers to recording studios and backup musicians, Motown was fully equipped to produce songs and records independently.
A former employee of Lincoln-Mercury, Berry Gordy adopted the car manufacturer’s assembly line style of production.
Gordy’s liked the idea of a car starting as nothing more than a frame and leaving the assembly line shining and ready to roll.
Bring in a raw musician with potential.
Groom them to be great and provide the supporting cast and family to make them into stars.
Open the door at the end of the assembly line and let them shine.
That was Berry Gordy’s approach and one that worked fabulously well for Motown for more than a decade.
A Brief History Of Stax
Like Motown, Stax is the name of a record label.
Founded in 1957, Stax Records was originally called Satellite Records.
In 1961, the record company changed its name to Stax Records.
The name Stax comes from the combination of the prefixes of the founders’ last names, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton.
Stewart and Axton were also siblings.
While Motown originated in Detroit, Stax’s roots can be found in Memphis, Tennessee.
Given the location of its founding, it’s no surprise that Stax is considered the home of Southern soul music.
Like Motown, Stax rapidly rose to fame in the 1960s.
Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton were very involved in the Stax label from day one.
The brother–sister pair occupied the Capitol Theatre, transforming it into a combination recording studio and record shop.
Ironically, Stewart had more of a country and pop music background and didn’t plan on Stax producing soul music.
Jim had attempted to go into business with several other partners, but each effort flopped.
That’s when he joined forces with his sister, Estelle.
Jim and Estelle turned out to be the perfect pair.
At their new label, Estelle ran the record store (previously a popcorn stand in the movie theater).
In the back, Jim headed up the studio.
Stax welcomed people of all backgrounds in their store, which was far from the norm at the time.
Later, many of the record store’s customers became its biggest stars.
In addition to her work selling records and managing the store, Estelle worked closely alongside the artists.
She had her finger on the pulse of the music industry, motivating and inspiring the artists by surrounding them with the newest music and trends in the industry.
After Jim’s earlier failures producing music, things were looking up with his older sister as his partner.
Estelle didn’t just run a successful record store.
She pushed everyone to do more, coaching them toward success.
She created a community and a supportive environment that bred creativity and new ideas.
In the record store, musicians could brainstorm, share ideas, and inspire each other.
As a fiddle player and violinist, Jim was personally involved in the production of the music from start to finish.
Jim was known to have extremely high standards, pushing the Stax musicians to their limits.
Many musicians were overwhelmed by Jim’s fierce oversight and constructive criticism.
Fortunately, the end result made everything worthwhile, and Stax was tremendously successful during its peak in the 1960s.
Jim worked with the artists every step of the way, both as a supervisor and producer.
The success of Stax under Stewart and Axton was irrefutable.
Next to Motown Records, Stax Records was the second most successful record label in the country.
Products of the Stax label include Booker T. and the MG’s, Otis Redding, Albert King, the Mad Lads, Carla Thomas (also known as the Queen of Memphis Soul), and others.
Unfortunately, in the 1970s, Stax was forced to close.
Several factors contributed to the powerhouse label’s decline.
Ultimately, distribution problems stemming from a botched deal with CBS records sent Stax to its grave.
Fortunately for us today, we can still enjoy most of the hits produced by the Memphis-based label.
Similarities Between Motown And Stax
In many ways, Motown and Stax were cut from the same cloth.
Rising to fame in the early 1960s, Motown and Stax Records dominated the music scene.
For years, the two were dominant on the charts, frequently occupying the number one and number two spots.
Despite being hundreds of miles away from each other, even their nicknames were similar.
Motown headquarters was known as Hitsville, USA, while Memphis is deemed Soulsville.
Both Motown and Stax fought against racial stereotypes and made music that was enjoyed by people of all backgrounds.
Furthermore, Motown and Stax embraced and employed people from all races.
Both of these record houses were havens for people to escape the racial tensions that were ubiquitous at that time.
Motown and Stax sought to produce music to be enjoyed by all.
They wanted to cross the racial divide and bring people together during a time of bitter separatism.
While Motown and Stax were welcoming to people of all races, they pushed their artists hard.
Neither Motown nor Stax was a place for those who didn’t want to succeed.
The success of both of these record labels rested on commitment, dedication, and a tough working environment.
Another interesting similarity to note is that both Motown and Stax were relatively small in size.
Though they produced a disproportionate number of hits, these were not large organizations.
Despite their shared success and many similarities, there are actually a few notable differences between these two hit labels.
Differences Between Motown And Stax
Unlike Motown, Stax didn’t start as a soul or R&B label.
In fact, Stax’s founders were white and didn’t have much experience with soul music.
Motown, on the other hand, was founded by a songwriter, though he was unable to read music.
For a short time, Gordy was the proprietor of a small jazz music record store.
Having spent several years exposing himself to the music industry, Gordy founded Motown Records.
Gordy had observed the success of other R&B record companies before deciding to open his own shop.
Motown quickly found success, attracting some of the best talent in the world.
The name was—and remains—synonymous with R&B, gospel, and pop.
Stax, on the other hand, sort of wandered into R&B and soul territory.
Jim Stewart, one of Stax’s founders, was a violinist with a background that couldn’t be more different from the music he later helped produce under the Stax label.
Though they produced the same genre, generally, Motown and Stax each had their own distinguishing flavor.
Motown was known for its smooth, polished sounds.
Everything worked perfectly, and it was like a well-oiled machine.
For these reasons, it’s no surprise Motown was the most popular record label in the country.
Motown produced slick songs with universal, mass appeal.
Stax, though extremely successful in its own right, tended to be a bit grittier than Motown.
The incorporation of horns and bass in Stax songs gave it its own unique style.
While this drew many people to adore Stax, some people preferred Motown’s smooth consistency.
Stax was also unique in being a family operation.
Despite growing in both reputation and size, Stax remained a family business under the leadership of Stewart and Axton.
An important difference to note between Motown and Stax is the way they were run.
Gordy’s experience working on an assembly line led him to run Motown in the same way.
He would bring the musicians in, coach them, record, release, and watch songs climb the charts.
That was the Motown way.
Gordy and Motown were adept at consistently cranking out hit songs, and the world knew it.
Meanwhile, at Stax, the artistic process remained creative and loose.
Stewart and Axton worked with their artists to produce music of different varieties with nearly as much success as Motown.
Though Stax was certainly a force to be reckoned with during its heyday in the 1960s, the Memphis-based record label never garnered quite as much fame as Motown.
Sadly, Stax also became little more than memory after its failed deal in the 1970s.
Motown Records, on the other hand, continued to thrive and expand.
Today, Motown is still in operation under the umbrella of the Universal Music Group.
One of the best-known artists of all time, Michael Jackson, got his start as a musician at Motown Records.
Much like the day it started under Gordy, Motown continues to produce R&B and soul music.
While the structure of the organization has changed, Motown is still a well-known label.
Motown And Stax For The People
In the 1960s, the significance of Motown and Stax went beyond music.
These labels were about escaping reality, promoting humanity, and unification through music.
Being color blind was virtually unheard of during that time in the U.S.
Motown and Stax were just that, and they were successful despite doing what others were unwilling to do.
Motown and Stax used hit music to break the traditional racial boundaries.
People like Gordy showed that black-owned businesses could be successful.
People like Stewart and Axton had a color-blind house band at a time when that was simply unheard of.
Despite being white, Stewart and Axton produced music that was often associated with black culture.
Both Motown and Stax brought people together through their music, transcending racial boundaries while building successful music empires under completely different leadership.NEXT: How To Tell If Deer Meat Is Spoiled (4 Ways To Know)