How the Music Industry Can Keep Its Promises From Blackout Tuesday - Rolling Stone
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How the Music Industry Can Keep Its Promises From Blackout Tuesday

“People don’t know how many black executives are at a label versus how many black artists,” one label executive says. “The reality is we’ve all been desensitized to a degree”

Halsey BLM protest

Halsey attends a Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles, California

Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock

It’s been a whole week since the music business held a “blackout” to discuss measures against racism, in response to the killing of George Floyd and other black victims of police brutality. So where are those measures?

“I thought it was a good symbolic gesture, a show of silence,” Chuck Wilson, CEO of indie label Babygrande, tells Rolling Stone — echoing a sentiment held by many in the industry. “Almost like a moment of silence before a big event to recognize this is a big problem.”

By and large, the industry has held town halls, established donation funds, and created different internal committees to address deficiencies in its attitude toward race — which, as many have noted, go back decades — but the majority of the moves have been one-offs. On the day of its initial public offering, Warner Music Group’s billionaire owner Len Blavatnik established a $100 million fund to support music charities focused on social justice; by Friday, Sony Music Group matched the fund with a $100 million pledge of its own, and Universal Music Group also established a $25 million fund. Streaming services Apple, YouTube and Spotify also said they would donate to causes; Spotify, after being publicly scolded by employees for its lack of contributions, announced it would match $10 million in employee contributions. 

But outside of the low-hanging fruit of donations, task force announcements, and mass meetings, the industry has announced scant tangible changes. And many music employees are expressing worry that the one-time donations are performative rather than substantive. No labels have pledged long-term financial adjustments for artist royalties or conversations around employee pay disparity, for example.

Markell Casey, senior director of creative at Pulse Music Group, says the industry needs much more than a day of statements to break out of its longtime status quo. One route forward: making sure hiring practices and promotions are racially fair.

“Black people contribute immensely to the music business, and that has to be reflected in terms of representation & equity in the companies that benefit from black music and culture,” Casey says.

Other industry leaders are calling for a better executive pipeline for black workers, more transparency in racial demographics at labels, and more mentorship and education for black artists and black label employees alike. Def Jam’s senior vice president of urban promotion Natina Nimene is another black executive who believes the business has to graduate from acts of giving.

“Those should be a given,” she says. Nimene suggests music companies focus on outward-facing projects like voter registration initiatives in minority communities and music education programs in underfunded schools.And we need to listen to the young people in our industry,” she says. “It’s their legacy to inherit and they are determined to change it for better and forever.”

“It has to start with how we train, mentor and empower young black executives. You must fill the funnel.”

As EVP of programming for leading radio conglomerate iHeartMedia — where she is the highest-ranking woman of color — Thea Mitchem knows all too well what it’s like to be the only black person in the room. “The lack of diversity at the top executive levels and board rooms is the biggest challenge,” says Mitchem, who also works as one of the country’s rare female program directors, at WWPR-FM, also known as Power 105.1. “And it’s one that can only be solved with a robust strategic plan of action that has to start with how we train, mentor and empower young black executives. You must fill the funnel.”

One exception to the inaction last week was the Friday announcement from Universal-owned Republic Records — home to superstars like Drake, Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift — that the record label would stop using the euphemistic word “urban” in employee and department titles.

But Mitchem cautions that striking down the word in and of itself won’t do much without follow-through, and could cause black workers to be further ignored. “Some, including the younger executives, see the term ‘urban’ as a ceiling for growth beyond the format, marginalizing black executives within the hierarchy of the business,” she says. “However — if you eliminate the word, does that stop the marginalization of black executives or does it exacerbate the situation?”

Julian Petty, EVP and head of business and legal affairs at Warner Records, spoke about the importance of strong lines of support during the label’s town hall on Thursday. “Mentorship from within, mentorship outside the company, I think is one of the most important things,” he said. “You’re not going to become an executive unless there’s a pipeline for you to become one.”

Warner Records rapper IDK, who also spoke during the Thursday town hall, said labels need to better educate their artists, who often sign record deals without understanding specifics or how the business works. “Music managers — a lot of the time they’ll be somebody’s homeboy, and this kid puts out a song and it blew up, they have no idea what’s going on,” he said. “They don’t know anything about split sheets. They’re learning about these things now. That’s why a lot of these artists get mad at the label, they think what’s going wrong is because of the label but they don’t understand the protocol. We need to put a lot more energy and emphasis into that, especially in the black community. If you’re talking about rap, the Number One genre, that’s where a lot of the people are coming from.”

Warner’s SVP and head of urban marketing Chris Atlas believes the industry should create more youth mentorship programs. Others add that internships shouldn’t have education requirements — so that talented kids who can’t afford college can also have a shot.

Wilson from Babygrande calls for labels to adopt publicly accessible diversity report cards that would help keep the companies accountable to increasing their diversity numbers. “People don’t know how many black executives are at a label versus how many black artists,” he says. “The reality is we’ve all been desensitized to a degree. It almost becomes a way of life. It feels different this time. We see this isn’t a way of life. Everything should stop when you see a black man get killed like that,” Wilson says.

But he’s optimistic about the conversations out of Tuesday as a starting point. As is marketing and promotion exec Tony Bracy, who tells Rolling Stone that Scooter Braun’s SB Projects — home to Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and more — hosted a virtual meeting with Janaya (Future) Khan of Black Lives Matter, which inspired employees. “It was positive, engaging, and created a safe space for our co-workers to ask questions and be educated,” Bracy says.

Are these open discussions an end-all-be-all? “Of course not,” says Wilson. “There’s enormous sums of money being made, it’s better than it was 10 or 15 years ago, but there’s still a lot of confusion, problematic protocols with the Grammys, in terms of the ways people are recognized, the number of ways to acknowledge performers… We’re front and center for the music, but when it comes to labels, joint ventures — we’re pushed over to the side.”

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