In the months since George Floyd was killed at the hands of police in Minneapolis, protests over systemic racism and police brutality have continued unabated in cities around America.
Initially, a protest movement unfolded in parallel in the music industry, starting on June 2nd, when the major labels decided to halt work and reflect on their role in perpetuating and profiting from racism. But two months after what came to be known as Blackout Tuesday, the music business protests have mostly flared out or gone underground, smothered by a deluge of newly created task forces and a torrent of press releases.
Serious change rarely happens overnight, and creating change during an unprecedented global epidemic is surely no easy task. Maybe evaluating the music industry’s progress after just two months is too harsh — how could massive, billion-dollar companies move that quickly? Then again, maybe not — these companies routinely pivot with remarkable speed when they need to, for example, sign a fast-moving TikTok hit. If labels believe market share is at stake, they’re capable of cutting through acres of red tape in less than a week.
What’s more, the way in which change is supposedly unfolding in the music industry — behind closed doors, out of the public eye, with little to no accountability — will most likely only serve the status quo. The music industry is evolving on the music industry’s terms, which is to say, in the last two months, hardly at all.
“There isn’t any substantive change happening,” says Eddie Blackmon, vp of A&R at AWAL, who is on two recently established committees concerning music industry diversity. “There are a lot of good intentions, and a lot of things internally happening at various companies — creating governance boards, task forces. But for all the black executives that I’ve spoken to in buildings or out of buildings, all this is just window dressing.”
Blackmon’s language was echoed by Ron Sweeney, a longtime music attorney and former evp at Sony Music who provided major labels with a helpful 12-point reform plan in the initial days after Blackout Tuesday and then joined the advisory board for the newly created Black Music Action Coalition. “You’re seeing black folks within companies getting titles they probably should have gotten five years ago,” Sweeney says. “I see a lot of task forces talking to each other. I see a lot of window dressing. I haven’t heard anything of substance.”
“We want to see something tangible,” adds Chris Anokute, a manager and longtime major-label A&R whose Instagram account was an important source of industry criticism in the weeks after Blackout Tuesday. “Make someone black a chairman, a chairwoman. Give somebody black a venture. We want to see proof that the change is happening.”
That is hard to find. Take the treatment of black musicians: None of the labels have said publicly that they will rethink the types of record deals they offer young black men and women. None of the labels have come forward to say they will write off the unrecouped balances of older black artists that are no longer signed to them. (As long as those acts remain unrecouped, they cannot make royalty money off their recordings.)
BMG, a music publisher and label services company, came the closest to taking any sort of action, claiming that it would look back at “historic record contracts,” hunt for “inequities or anomalies,” and “create a plan to address them.” The company gave itself a 30 day deadline to complete the review, but it has not shared any results yet. In addition, the vagueness of its mandate — What sort of inequities and anomalies? Why only historic contracts? — and the fact that BMG is conducting an internal review without any independent oversight makes it hard to know what to make of the results, whenever they arrive.
So it’s difficult to believe that black artists signed in 2021 will be entering a changed business. What about the next generation of black executives?
None of the labels have shared statistics about diversity — or lack thereof — in their workforces. Warner Records, Interscope Records, and Capitol Records hired or promoted black executives. Those executives still ultimately answer to white heads of companies.
In addition, Warner announced this week that it hired Dr. Maurice Stinnett for a new position: Head of Global Equity, Diversity & Inclusion. But Sweeney is wary of the idea that diversity officers can magically fix what ails the major labels. “Diversity officers come in and get to tell you what’s wrong but have no power to implement anything,” the lawyer notes.
Insiders say that the music industry’s various task forces are well staffed with smart executives, they have been churning away, and that they will likely start to roll out recommendations in August. Anokute adds that the Black Music Action Coalition, which includes representatives from multiple labels and several high-powered managers, “has some of the brightest and most influential leaders, so if anyone is going to hold the labels accountable, my money is on them.”
But the nature of task forces is that they are often established to tell a company what is already painfully obvious. As Blackmon put it, “we need black executives in positions of power that can make unilateral decisions on signings, on spending money, on doing what’s right for our black artists.” “When I see the deals, they have to change,” Anokute adds, “and when I look inside the companies, the people I see have to reflect a new normal of diversity.”
The task forces will presumably come forward with recommendations to this effect, confirming what everyone knew already on June 2nd. The question then is whether those recommendations will be taken into account, or if, with Blackout Tuesday now well in the rearview mirror, they will be quietly buried.
While Sweeney remains “hopeful” that the music industry will change its ways, he worries that executives on both sides of the aisle may be making too much money to really rock the boat. Even in the midst of a pandemic, the music industry continues to rake in streaming royalties. “Their business models are working,” Sweeney says. “Nobody’s gonna fix what’s not broken.”
And Blackmon feels that the music industry is already quietly reverting to the way it was before Blackout Tuesday, when most black executives were unable to speak about racial inequality without fear of being penalized or shunned. “I joke with black colleagues all the time — our window of being able to say how we actually feel without the fear of retaliation, that window is closing,” Blackmon says. “Unfortunately, it feels like that moment has flatlined.”