In March, Doreen Ringer-Ross, then vice president of creative relations at the music company BMI, posted a picture of a pool gathering in China on Facebook. At the time, Covid-19, which was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan, was beginning to spread around the world, and some Chinese Americans were facing a xenophobic backlash via harassment and even physical violence. The photo showed a pool packed with people. “Couldn’t deal with it then,” Ringer-Ross wrote in the caption. “Now just makes me scream and recoil.” Several other Facebook users commented on the since-deleted post, slinging insults at the Asian revelers.
That’s when Gingger Shankar, a composer who had previously worked with Ringer-Ross for more than a decade while represented by BMI, spoke up. “There is so much violence happening against Asian Americans right now,” Shankar replied to the senior executive and other commenters on Facebook. “Please don’t post things like this.”
Conversations with more than 15 current and former BMI employees or BMI-affiliated musicians over the past three months indicate that Ringer-Ross’ post was part of a larger pattern of racist statements and alleged racist behavior by multiple BMI executives — often centered around the company’s Los Angeles office — in recent years. While BMI’s “Team Member Handbook” says it “strictly prohibits verbal or physical conduct that demonstrates or shows hostility or aversion towards an individual because of race,” those who spoke for this story never received any official, companywide communication from BMI disavowing any of the offensive comments outlined in this article. (A BMI representative said any “personnel matters” are treated as confidential and “it would have been inappropriate to make a companywide statement.”)
“There were way, way too many instances of this,” says Shankar. “It was ugly. It was a constant feeling of not being welcome if you were a certain color.” Shankar recently cut ties with BMI and switched over to one of the company’s chief rivals, ASCAP. “I had it,” she says.
Casual music fans may not be familiar with the performing-rights organization BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.), but it plays a crucial role in the music industry. The company helps songwriters get paid when their tracks are played on the radio, used in TV shows and films, and performed live. BMI represents more than 1 million songwriters and distributed more than $1 billion in royalties last year.
When BMI opened its New York office in 1940, its main competitor, the older American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), refused to acknowledge a wide swath of American popular music. “ASCAP … thought the world centered around show writers,” Johnny Mandel, the Grammy-winning composer who has also served on ASCAP’s board, said in Ben Yagoda’s The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song. “They wouldn’t let the hillbillies in, and they didn’t let the jazz guys in, with very few exceptions.”
That left room for BMI, which took the opportunity to work with writers from other genres, including Latin, country, and R&B. As a result of the company’s stance, “music performed by black musicians and singers, and intended primarily for black listeners … reached a broader audience via BMI-licensed compositions,” Yagoda wrote. “BMI dramatically broadened the kinds of music Americans were exposed to.”
However, BMI’s current senior-management and creative-management teams are predominantly white, a fact that BMI President Mike O’Neill acknowledged at a companywide town hall event in June. “One only has to look at me and my direct leadership team to see that we are not where we need to be,” he told employees. BMI is “moving in the right direction” when it comes to fostering “diversity in our organization,” O’Neill added. “Is it progress?” he asked. “Yes. Is it slow? Yes. Is it enough? No.”
Despite numbers showing that slow progress is being made, current and former BMI employees tell Rolling Stone about a “toxic” culture characterized by “casual racism,” indicating that the company has a long way to go to achieve a more equitable workplace. “An organization that opened its doors to embrace all has really not done so well,” says one current employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fears of retribution. “How did we end up here?”
“At BMI, we work every day to create a culture that embraces diversity of talent, ideas, and backgrounds, and celebrates a spirit of inclusivity, and we emphatically disagree that the company actively fosters a culture of intolerance,” a company representative said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “That said, no company is perfect, and we recognize there is always more work to be done. It is a key priority for us, and one that we will continue to address now and long into the future.”
When Shankar saw Ringer-Ross’ Facebook post about China, it reminded her of other offensive social media posts from the executive, who had been at BMI since 1985. In February 2016, Ringer-Ross complained on Facebook about “relentless construction noise.” “The construction guys are now playing … what I’ll just call indigenous music,” she wrote. “I vacillate between laughing and whimpering.” Multiple BMI employees and affiliates believed the post was insulting to Latin music; Shankar calls it “really crass.”
Two years later, Ringer-Ross posted a since-deleted picture of her South Asian cab driver’s license and registration information on Facebook, along with the caption “Heading to JFK now …” Some Facebook users commented on the post, making jokes at the driver’s expense — or worrying for Ringer-Ross’ safety.
This spurred Shankar to send an email to O’Neill. “Is this how the head of the composer department is supposed to deal with other ethnicities?” she wrote. “Making fun of a Sikh man who drives a cab? Encouraging her followers to do the same? … This kind of uneducated racism is disgusting to see from the head of the film/TV department at BMI, who represents many composers from many parts of the world.”
“It was ugly. It was a constant feeling of not being welcome if you were a certain color” – former BMI musician Gingger Shankar
O’Neill responded the following day. “Please know that we acted immediately to have the employee remove the offending posts and asked the individual to post a public apology, which she has done,” O’Neill wrote. “We take this situation very seriously.” (BMI employees confirm Ringer-Ross posted an apology, though it is no longer on her Facebook page.)
“This type of behavior goes against our company core values, and we have addressed this situation directly with the employee and taken appropriate action,” O’Neill continued. He stressed that “BMI was founded nearly 80 years ago with an open-door policy to welcome songwriters across all genres, and that same spirit of tolerance, diversity, and inclusiveness continues today.”
Former employees say Ringer-Ross’ offensive comments were not limited to social media. As a senior executive, she was involved with planning an award show in 2014. One of the categories recognized composers who worked on Spanish-language programming; according to two witnesses, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Ringer-Ross asked in a meeting, “Why don’t they just award those at the Latin awards? Can’t they go shake their maracas for them there?”
When presented with Ringer-Ross’ statements, a BMI representative said, “We take allegations of this nature extremely seriously,” and that the company was unaware of one “issue” involving the executive. “After investigating the issue and discussing it with Doreen, she will be leaving the company,” the representative added.
In a brief statement to Rolling Stone, Ringer-Ross said that “there is zero malice in my heart, and if anything I did or said hurt or offended anyone, I am deeply sorry.”
The same year that Shankar complained to O’Neill, two BMI employees, Marlene Meraz and Sasha Pisterman, filed a lawsuit against the company and three BMI executives in the corporate communications and human resources departments.
In court documents obtained by Rolling Stone, the plaintiffs claimed that they were the victims of widespread discrimination. Their suit, which was dismissed after being settled in 2019, alleged that BMI “has produced a culture of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation,” which is “especially intense and harshly directed toward Latinos.”
Meraz and Pisterman’s complaint against BMI alleged that the company’s discrimination took myriad forms, ranging from “lesser pay” and “lesser quality assignments” to “rude, cruel, untrue, harsh, discriminatory, stereotypical, negative, and derogatory comments.” Meraz and Pisterman’s suit also alleged that after they complained about the work environment, the harassment intensified and the company retaliated against them.
Before lodging her suit, Meraz had vented her frustrations to other BMI employees and affiliates. According to Shankar, Meraz told the composer that “she experienced a lot of racism.” “It was really, really awful things that she went through for the last year that she was there,” adds another current BMI employee, who says Meraz spoke with her about this before she sued the company. “Marlene was literally harassed.” While she was still at BMI, Meraz told at least two different colleagues that she believed she was being “monitored” at work after speaking out about her treatment.
In response to the lawsuit, BMI and the company executives named as defendants broadly denied each of Meraz and Pisterman’s allegations.
“BMI determined that the legal claims in the complaint … were completely without basis,” a company representative says in a statement to Rolling Stone. “The allegations against BMI are a 60-page laundry list of virtually every conceivable claim that could be made by an ex-employee against any company. The claims were so overbroad and determined to be without legal basis, that BMI provided 37 separate affirmative defenses in its answer. In our view, the complaint reflected the apparent unhappiness of two former employees.”
Both Meraz and Pisterman declined to comment for this article, and their lawyer, Michael Traylor, also declined to comment on any specifics of the case. Last year, Meraz and Pisterman reached a confidential settlement with BMI. The case was subsequently dismissed as a condition of that settlement.
BMI’s film and TV, corporate communication, and human resources departments are not the only ones accused of allegedly sheltering racist comments. In 2018, Barbara Cane, a BMI veteran who has been at the company for decades and now serves as vice president, worldwide creative, shocked a number of employees by publicly expressing a preference for white doctors.
On April 11th, 2018, employees in BMI’s L.A. office filed into a conference room for a routine meeting about the company’s medical benefits. In front of multiple witnesses — and a representative from BMI’s human resources department, according to two people who attended the meeting — Cane complained about BMI’s health plan. She “made this remark that our benefits didn’t offer enough Caucasian doctors,” one person who was in the room recalls. “They were all Asian or Indian.”
“She said most of the doctors in-network were not Caucasian, and that was not what she was looking for,” says another person who was at the meeting. “If she doesn’t trust a doctor that’s not Caucasian, what does she think about our internal staff or our songwriters?” the employee remembers thinking at the time.
Word of Cane’s comments spread rapidly around the L.A. office. Cane later called everyone who was at the meeting into her office and offered an apology, while, according to a former employee, human resources interviewed everyone in the L.A. office. BMI’s “Team Member Handbook” offers several examples of “inappropriate behavior” that violate its policies, and this list includes “epithets, slurs, quips or negative stereotyping that relate to race.”
But the people who spoke for this story were frustrated that the human resources department’s inquiry didn’t seem to have much impact — BMI never even made a statement condemning Cane’s words.
A BMI representative says Cane’s comments led to an internal investigation of the executive, though the company declined to comment on any specific actions taken. “These are personnel matters, which we treat as confidential,” the representative adds. “The fact that we did not make a public comment does not mean that action was not taken.”
But several employees viewed the company’s silence as effectively sanctioning intolerance. “Nobody seemed too upset,” a former employee says. As far as the former employee could tell, BMI “moved on and swept it under the rug.”
Cane’s remark about doctors was not an isolated incident. Current and former employees say the executive also made an offensive comment about the abilities of nonwhite TV broadcasters.
“I made a very unfortunate statement several years ago that I have regretted deeply ever since,” Cane tells Rolling Stone via a company representative. “While it was not intended to offend, it rightfully did. With BMI’s direction and guidance, I have become more self-aware, continually striving to be sensitive and supportive of the many people with whom I work and the many songwriters and industry professionals I have championed over the past 40 years.”
Last year, Cane was honored by the National Music Publishers’ Association with a Lifetime Service Award.
“[She] made this remark that our benefits didn’t offer enough Caucasian doctors,” a BMI employee said of one senior exec
On May 30th, five days after George Floyd was killed at the hands of police in Minneapolis, BMI posted a message on its Instagram account. “BMI was founded with an open-door policy, embracing all genres of music so all voices could be heard,” the company wrote, echoing O’Neill’s email to Shankar. “That same spirit of diversity, tolerance, and inclusiveness remains our foundation today.”
The next week, the music industry announced it would halt work to reflect on its role in perpetuating and profiting from racism, in a day known as Blackout Tuesday. A number of music companies moved quickly to broadcast their commitment to inclusivity by announcing an assortment of task forces and charitable initiatives.
BMI established a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force and promised to donate $275,000 to a variety of organizations committed to racial justice. It is currently in the process of hiring a diversity, equity, inclusion, and social responsibility officer. One of the goals of company president O’Neill’s town hall meeting in June was “to address how we can improve and ensure a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace at BMI,” according to a representative.
Around the same time, the company unveiled a new class of interns — a group that appeared to be nearly entirely white, according to multiple employees. In a statement, a BMI rep acknowledged that “this year’s class [of interns] was not as diverse as previous years.” BMI claimed that, on average, 47 percent of interns were “diverse” from 2015 to 2019. “This year was impacted by the Covid pandemic, which saw a number of candidates pull out of the program,” the representative adds.
Moving forward, BMI says it has committed to ensuring that half of its interns come from “diverse backgrounds.” (When asked to clarify, a company representative says that “‘diverse backgrounds’ would be defined as ethnically diverse, as well as from groups including HBCUs and the Emma Bowen Foundation [for Minority Interest in Media], among others.”)
But this summer, several current employees found the dissonance between the company’s lofty language about inclusion and the composition of its intern class jarring. “I had people texting me,” one employee says. “How do we have an intern program that looks like this given everything going on in America right now?”