8% of the corporate music C-suite is Black

I normally open up these articles with a standard “Happy [day of the week]!” greeting, but that feels inappropriate today. So, to start off, hope you are all doing OK, staying safe and doing whatever you can to help the movement for Black lives and particularly protesters on the ground — whether through donating to local bail funds, sending messages to your local reps calling for specific policy reforms (e.g. repealing 50-a in New York State), marching in the streets yourself or supporting Black business owners and artists (here are 1,000+ Black artists you can support on Bandcamp today, as the platform waives its transaction fees for a third time).

I wanted to share some thoughts on the conversations and realizations I’ve had with people in music this week about the responsibilities that we have, both as individuals and as a collective industry, to do better.

I respect everyone who took time off on Blackout Tuesday. I don’t intend on publishing my own opinion on how the day went, because I don’t see that as my role and frankly have a lot more researching, reading and listening to do to better understand all the issues at hand.

I personally decided to continue working on Tuesday, but with a focus on gathering data and evidence that could point to concrete areas where the music industry could improve with respect to Black equality. I shared some of my initial findings on Twitter, and elaborate on them below with some additional context.

The issues that are top of mind for me right now focus on two actions that all of us can start doing right now in service of Black equality, both in and out of music: Following the money (economics), and tracking what you see (visibility). 

1. 8% of the corporate music C-suite is Black.

Lack of racial diversity in the music industry’s corporate and executive ranks is something that many of us feel intuitively. But we actually know surprisingly little, in terms of being able to point to concrete numbers. 

So, on Tuesday, I got to work. I wrote down the names of all the board members and C-Suite executives across the top three record labels (Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment) and their biggest imprints, as well as the top two concert promoters (Live Nation and AEG).

There are 61 board members and C-Suite executives on my list. 53 of them are white, and only five of them — or 8% of the total — are Black:

  • Jon Platt (Chairman/CEO, Sony/ATV Music Publishing)
  • Nadia Rawlinson (Chief Human Resources Officer, Live Nation)
  • Maverick Carter (Board Member, Live Nation)
  • Jeffrey Harleston (General Counsel and EVP of Business & Legal Affairs, Universal Music Group)
  • Kevin McDowell (EVP & Chief Administrative Officer, AEG).

If we expand our scope to include President and Executive Vice President (EVP) roles and label imprints as well, the percentage does improve slightly. My research here is spottier, though, because I know my list of executives isn’t comprehensive, but I’ll share my initial findings: The total number of executives on my expanded list with President/EVP roles increases to 121 people. 92 of them are white, while 22 (around 18% of the total) are Black. All the additional Black execs on this list work at label imprints, specifically RCA Records, Epic Records, Motown Records, Island Records and Atlantic Records.

Contrast this to what we see in the public-facing artist landscape: The USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found earlier this year that underrepresented races and ethnicities actually over-index on the list of top-charting performers compared to the general U.S. population (56.1% versus 39.6%, respectively).

The relative absence of Black leadership in the upper echelons of an industry like mainstream music that profits off of developing Black culture and talent is clearly a problem.

Solving this problem is a complex issue that I don’t yet have the expertise to speak on. Corporate board and C-suite diversity is especially stubborn to change. And it doesn’t speak to the insufficiency of hiring more Black people merely for the sake of optics, if those people aren’t empowered to lead meaningful work beyond what Reggie James, co-founder/CEO of avatar social network Eternal, described with air quotes as “Black things”:

“There is a belief — whether intentional or unconsciously held — that (beyond tokenism) the best that Black people can bring to technology, is to point out the bias that Black people face in technology. There is a need to paint an ideal image of a Black person within firms. Oftentimes it being someone who’s [sic] primary contribution is being vocal about diversity. But change comes when Black people that are doing the work to build and craft views on technology/design — are being held equal in thought by our white peers.” [emphasis in original]

A similar problem pervades the music industry: We can’t just put Black executives into “urban” roles (and we probably need to get rid of the term “urban” altogether).

As in politics or any other part of business, it’s difficult to effect change around these problems without measurable benchmarks. So consider this a call for music-industry companies to start seriously measuring, and openly sharing, the state of their own racial equity.

Trade body UK Music published a diversity report in 2018 covering both ethnicity and sex, which I remember sparked a lot of helpful conversations on a global level. The RIAA has yet to publish any aggregate diversity statistics about its own constituents in the U.S. This needs to change as soon as possible — which requires collective acknowledgement from major music companies that their internal whiteness is a serious issue that needs to be publicly addressed and resolved.

Music companies should also take a tip from Google’s Diversity Report and measure not just the absolute number of Black employees, but also hiring and attrition rates across demographic groups.

Just yesterday, Uoma Beauty founder/CEO Sharon Chuter launched the #PullUpOrShutUp campaign, which calls for beauty brands who have donated to Black Lives Matter causes to publicly release the number of Black executives they have working at the corporate level. I look forward to seeing the same level of acknowledgement, and plan of action for internal measurement, from corporate music executives — especially those who are not Black.

2. The flow of money is moral, not just financial.

It’s often said in politics, and must also be said in business: Budgets are moral documents.

As I wrote on Twitter, you can’t talk about anti-racism and Black inequality in music without talking about how the money flows. But don’t listen to me. Listen to the conversations that Black artists and music-industry professionals are having about what steps need to be taken after Blackout Tuesday — almost all of which involve improving economic equity and opportunity.

Every Black person you meet in the industry, and probably many non-Black people as well, will likely have a story about an emerging Black artist they know who got thrown into disproportionately unfavorable contracts, and who had limited access to resources like lawyers, business managers and general industry education that could help them better evaluate deals.

Going beyond anecdotes and actually gathering evidence of this rampant phenomenon is difficult, because it requires navigating a complicated web of NDAs and political relationships. But it’s also the first place people are turning in their demands for change.

The likes of Erykah Badu and Kelis reposted music scholar Josh Kun’s vision of “The Big Payback” — in Kun’s words, “a digital ecosystem of musical reparations that would allow/force companies to redistribute profits to the Black musicians they should have gone to in the first place.” Others pointed to more specific contractual changes, including reverting publishing rights back to Black artists and empowering said artists with proper financial and legal advisors and mental health support from day one — not only once it’s too late.

Naji Grampus, Director of Urban Strategy, North America at The Orchard, argued that change needs to start from the earliest stages of the hiring pipeline, with the removal of college-credit requirements for music-industry internships.

Nothing brings the issue of economic equity to light more than the surreal timing of Warner Music Group’s IPO, which launched the day after Blackout Tuesday.

I’m not calling out Warner Music specifically as the biggest culprit in the industry, nor am I saying that an IPO is inherently racist. IPO dates are planned ahead of time, so it’s not like the company could make special accommodations for an initiative like Blackout Tuesday that was planned on rather short notice. Also, Warner Music and the family foundation of Len Blavatnik (who owns Access Industries, the label’s parent company) announced a $100 million fund to support as-yet unnamed charitable causes. That’s a nontrivial number.

I’m thinking about more systemic issues in how this money will flow. All of the major label’s $1.9 billion IPO money will go to Blavatnik, an older white man who donated $1 million to President Trump’s inauguration campaign, and to a handful of individual, mostly white Warner Music executives who already had shares in the company. None of it will go to Warner Music on the organizational level, and so none of it will go to the artists whose back catalogs make the label such an attractive investment to Wall Street in the first place.

For this reason, Birdman Zoe, who manages the likes of Taz Taylor and Nick Mira, recommended that WMG shares be included in artist deals, not just a cash advance (many others have recommended this in private conversations with me).

In general, Black people's call for a serious, internal reflection on how much revenue from Black artists’ catalogs the labels are keeping for themselves should not be ignored. Also, as Sabri Ben-Achour puts it in a recent episode of Marketplace: “The stock market reflects the corporate economy of the future, not the real economy of today.” Hence why a billion-dollar IPO launching the day after a series of discussions about improving representational and economic equity for Black artists feels so strange. It’s all connected.

3. We need to take equity in online events more seriously.

Livestreaming as a format and paradigm is now top-of-mind for the music industry as the live-events sector continues to face an uncertain future. In general, video, not lean-back audio, is now the leading indicator of music culture. So we need to take the equity of what we see in these videos seriously.

One area where I know many of you reading this can have an immediate impact is working to make virtual festival lineups more diverse.

Several of the highest-profile virtual EDM festival lineups from the past few months — including Room Service Festival, SiriusXM’s Virtual DisDance and the first edition of Digital Mirage — were only 5% to 8% Black, and around 70% to 80% white. (The gender split for these three festivals also skewed 84% to 95% male.)

It hasn’t all been doom and gloom though, as there have been many examples of diverse lineups as well — from Bandsintown’s net.werk festival, which was curated by Dani Deahl and featured primarily women and people of color, to Global Citizen’s televised One World: Together At Home event, whose lineup was 35% celebrities of color and roughly split down the middle on gender.

Overall, you would expect virtual festival and showcase lineups to be more equitable than IRL events, given that promoters have access to a much wider pool of talent without the logistical burden of having to fly everyone to the same physical location. But recent events have shown that this increased equity is not and will not be guaranteed, unless everyone involved draws a line and pledges to do better.

Artists with enough leverage need to be selective and turn down opportunities on lineups that are not diverse — perhaps through an inclusion rider like what USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative has suggested for the film industry. And of course, promoters need to put in the work to diversify their curation and talent search in the first place.

There also needs to be more collective action and accountability. The PRS Foundation’s Keychange initiative successfully brought together over 250 international music companies — including labels, festivals, conferences, symphony orchestras and more — to pledge towards achieving or maintaining a 50/50 gender balance in their programming, staff and/or artist rosters by 2022. A similar rally needs to happen for racial equality as well, especially for Black people in a time where so many Black artists are shaping popular culture.

I don't have an answer for what the benchmark should be, but that fact that one doesn't exist or is not being measured is in itself an issue. Again, improving surface-level visibility certainly isn’t the only thing necessary for systemic change. But anything less feels insufficient.  🌊

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