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Opening Doors: The fight for a more diverse industry

Three months on from the music industry's Blackout Tuesday campaign, IQ talks to black professionals to gauge the sector's progress and pitfalls

By IQ on 15 Sep 2020

Black Lives Matter Berlin Demonstration

Protesters at the Black Lives Matter demonstration in Berlin

image © Montecuz Foto

On 2 June, many people, organisations and companies paused their normal activities to take part in the Blackout Tuesday campaign – an initiative launched by the collective music industry to protest racial inequality in society.

Three months on, IQ talks to some black professionals working in the live music sector to gauge where the industry is doing well, and where there is room for improvement…

Prompted by the 23 February racist shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Georgia; the 13 March police shooting of Breonna Taylor in her own home in Louisville, Kentucky; and the 25 May murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Blackout Tuesday was organised by the music industry to protest racism and police brutality.

The movement sprung from #TheShowMustBePaused initiative, set up by record label executives Jamila Thomas (Atlantic Records) and Brianna Agyemang (Platoon), but evolved into Blackout Tuesday as momentum grew.

While numerous media organisations marked the occasion by placing black tiles on website home pages and across social media, displaying the #blackouttuesday hashtag, many also opted to give staff the day off to allow them to reflect on racism in society by reading relevant literature; discussing issues with friends and colleagues; and watching documentaries, films and other educational material.

For their part, Agyemang and Thomas noted, “This is not just a 24-hour initiative. We are and will be in this fight for the long haul.”

Thankfully, that sentiment appears widespread. In the quarter year since, countless companies throughout live entertainment have made pledges in an effort to drive change, but as the industry endures the quietest period in its history, redundancies and lay-offs are more likely than people of colour being welcomed as new employees.

“Would you be proud to money from the talents of black people but also choose not to include them in your workplace?”

That’s no excuse not to try to address the issues, according to Echo Location boss Obi Asika. “It’s not racist if you don’t have a diverse workplace.

“However, in a sector that takes so much from black culture, would you be proud to tell your loved ones you make money from the talents of black people but also choose not to include them in your workplace?” he asks.

“There’s next to no data or statistics about diversity and employment in our industry, and as a result there’s not much transparency. So, we’re pushing for the data to be published annually.”

One person familiar with collating such data is Natalie Williams, former head of research for UK Music. She observes that unless requirements are brought in to make participation mandatory, companies have a habit of being wary about divulging stats.

“When racial pay gap reporting is implemented by the government, that could be a big catalyst for change,” says Williams. “But I know from experience that certain companies simply would not fill in the data for gender pay gap research because they knew it would not look very good, so we need some kind of mandate.”

Nonetheless, Blackout Tuesday has acted as a catalyst for change, with operations, small and monolithic, eager to make their voices heard among the calls for greater diversity.

David Carrigan, Live Nation’s London-based head of diversity says, “Blackout Tuesday was incredibly symbolic, as it showed that people feel something needs to change. We’re very keen that this should develop as a movement, rather than just being a moment, and I think that people are now really expecting some progress.”

“It takes a long time to change culture, but that can be accelerated if the desire for change also comes from the top”

Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino recently set aside a US$10million war chest to spend over the next two years to increase the diversity of the company’s workforce, while by 2025, 30% of Live Nation’s directors will represent underserved groups.

“Live Nation has made some very public commitments about what it wants to achieve. How we best accomplish that is what the conversations are now about, but we are absolutely determined to achieve them,” says Carrigan.

Williams contends that such pronouncements, although welcome, are only part of the solution.

“Unless people are constantly questioning company policy, across the board, then it’s not going to change,” she says.

“We have to hold companies and senior management accountable. It takes a long time to change culture, but that can be accelerated if the desire for change also comes from the top.”

New York-based ICM Partners agent Yves C Pierre goes further. “It’s great that funds have been pledged toward diversity, but there needs to be a high degree of transparency so that we can see exactly where that funding money goes. The importance of the dollar amount is not as important as where each dollar is put to work,” she says.

“Blackout Tuesday was a moment that said, ‘the buck stops here,’ and people realised that they have to do better. If people can bring about change in their individual spaces, that can give power to overall systematic change.”

Taking record labels as a case in point, Pierre observes, “People in individual buildings are pushing to change the agenda. If their label says they are committing to a five-step programme, then those individuals are going to make sure they stick to that commitment.

“But we also need to encourage people at labels to talk to each other, so that there can be a united front. The same is true with the live sector and everywhere else across music and society.”

“The importance of the dollar amount is not as important as where each dollar is put to work”

On the west coast, CAA’s Joe Hadley is confident the building blocks are being put in place to allow such inter-corporate communication.

“Post Blackout Tuesday, we’ve seen a number of cross-industry think tanks emerging, where people can talk openly about how to make our industry better. From my point of view, it’s great to see people using their competitive spirit for good and collectively pushing for change,” says Hadley.

“The Black Music Action Coalition, in particular, is doing some great work to identify ways in which the entertainment industry can be more inclusive.”

Assessing the impact of Blackout Tuesday, Raye Cosbert, managing director of London-based Metropolis Music, says, “I’m not young, so I’ve seen similar movements in other guises over the years. But the power of social media and the connectivity that has with people makes this feel different.

“Blackout Tuesday has allowed people as individuals to reflect on how we all can move forward from this point. This time, it hasn’t been an exercise in finger-pointing, but more about highlighting what is wrong in society.

“This has given us a place where we stand back and look at things and create the space where people can talk about a difficult and challenging subject. It’s got to be an ongoing process, however. We have a long way to go yet.”

Williams contends that music industry data does not make for great reading and, fundamentally, the problems start at the top of the food chain.

“The live music industry, in particular, is behind the times”

“At grassroots level the numbers were good for female staff and other minority groups. But past the age of 30, that disappears, while in senior management roles, it’s pretty much non-existent. So a lot of talent gets lost and ends up working in different fields.”

She adds, “If you’re a senior executive, then maybe you should look at yourself and the friendship circle that you have – if that’s not diverse, then you could be part of the problem. Ninety per cent of people do not think they are part of the problem, so they end up passing the buck to their HR department.”

While the public perception may be that the music industry’s role in creating campaigns such as Blackout Tuesday places it at the forefront of the struggle, it’s not an accolade that Asika believes has been earned.

“The live music industry, in particular, is behind the times – it’s awful,” he states. “I’ve had really bad experiences over the years and that’s why I’ve chosen the path that I’ve taken. I’ve basically created my own safe space where I can control my own destiny.”

It’s a widely shared viewpoint. “When we look at other industries, we acknowledge there is a need to do better,” says Live Nation’s Carrigan. However, he believes the industry can learn quickly that casting its net wider will facilitate growth.

“Diversity is an opportunity and we literally have the ears of all the communities that we operate in, so we’re working hard to make sure there are no impediments to finding careers in the live entertainment business.

From her Barcelona base, Earth Agency’s Lucy Atkinson agrees. “A lot of white males in the industry who I’ve spoken to simply fell into the job. So we definitely need to let young people from minority backgrounds know about the careers that exist in music, outside of being an artist, as there is a huge pool of talent the industry is missing out on.”

“Making people aware that our industry is accessible should be a major goal”

Marlon Burton, at ATC Live, believes, fundamentally, that there’s a need to educate people about the music industry. “When I was 13 or 14, I didn’t know what an agent was,” he says.

“When I used to buy UK garage records, it would say on the back ‘to book this act call or email this person,’ so I did it and that’s how I got started as a promoter. What the equivalent of that is in 2020, I’m not sure.”

Cosbert agrees. “Making people aware that our industry is accessible should be a major goal. Many people think it’s a closed shop and you only get in through family connections or something, but that’s patently not the case. We need to engage more in community-based projects and neighbourhood initiatives to communicate that message.”

Burton says his employers are speaking to Sound School in Camden – the borough where ATC is headquartered – as part of an eight-point plan to try to foster greater diversity.

“We want to put the opportunities in front of a wider audience so people can see the range of jobs that are available in the music industry. As things stand, telling youngsters that there is such a job as a live sound engineer is a difficult proposal.”

As a result, ATC is one of the growing number of operations promising to instigate mentoring programmes to help with the education process that the live industry currently lacks.

“We want to do work placements with kids from Sound School so we can educate them about the business before they get to an age where we can’t help them,” says Burton.

ATC, he adds, is changing its recruitment strategy by engaging with agencies that have similar goals. “In the future, when hiring, we’d like to [work] with companies such as BAME Recruitment RARE, White Hat and the Prince’s Trust Get Hired scheme, which will allow us to look at a wider pool of people when we’re looking to employ new staff.”

“We work in a business full of black on-stage talent so pleading that you can’t find any black people to employ is rubbish”

Earth Agency, meanwhile, is partnering with a number of organisations to establish mentorship schemes and help with its diversity programme, with Atkinson naming Shadow to Shine, Thirty Pound Gentlemen, and Elevate.

She tells IQ, “When we’re able to hire people again, it’s actively going to be encouraged that people consider a more diverse pool of talent.”

Asika states. “It’s a great way to help take our industry to the next level. We work in a business full of black on-stage talent, so pleading that you can’t find any black people to employ within your organisation is rubbish,” he states.

And Carrigan cites the success of Silicon Valley’s recruitment model as a template. “The tech business has done really well to promote itself in schools and influence what kids want to do.

“Traditional career aspirations like doctors or dentists or lawyers or accountants are now expanding to include tech sector roles. That’s where we’re hoping jobs in the live entertainment sector can be soon, too.”

Rolling programme
Not every aspect of Blackout Tuesday was universally welcomed and many sceptics believe that the current spirit of cooperation might quickly dissolve when shows and concerts start to become the norm once again.

“It seemed to me that companies thought they had to do something, but that amounted to someone in their digital department putting up a black tile on social media and everyone at the company getting a day off work,” says Williams, who left UK Music at the end of 2019 to pursue her dream to represent Great Britain in karate at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

“What’s more important is what happens in-between [campaigns]. Petitions are not enough if they do not come with action”

“If this is something that the industry will continue to do going forward, I wonder whether some people will treat it just like a holiday?!”

Despite such reservations – or perhaps because of those suspicions – an annual repeat of the campaign is gaining support, if it can help ensure that companies are standing by their public proclamations.

“Maybe we do need another similar event as a reminder to people that we need to keep moving,” says Asika. “But what’s more important is what happens in-between. Petitions are not enough if they do not come with action.”

Spreading the word about career opportunities in live music is, indeed, involving a communications revolution, with operators that are more used to dealing with each other as fierce rivals, enjoying unprecedented cooperation as the industry also collectively battles to get back to business.

However, conversations about white privilege, diversity and equality are not proving easy for some.

“People are scared to speak in case they make mistakes – there’s a fear of being destroyed if you say the wrong thing,” notes Asika.

“I’ve lost count of the number of times I get contacted by white friends asking, ‘Can I say this?’” He pauses, then adds, “Even as I say this, I think to myself, don’t forget my Asian friends. The whole thing is a depressing minefield.”

“Language changes and evolves constantly so there is definitely a fear of saying the wrong thing”

For his part, diversity professional Carrigan says, “Language changes and evolves constantly so there is definitely a fear of saying the wrong thing and using the wrong terminology.”

But Atkinson believes communication, no matter how uncomfortable, is critical if equality is to become the norm. “We need white people to be involved in these conversations if we seriously want things to change.

“Some of those conversations might be awkward, but it’s ok to ask what might be sensitive questions if it helps the dialogue and moves the conversation in the right direction.”

ICM’s Pierre echoes that sentiment. “Ultimately, we’re doing this for the people that come up behind us. If we want to achieve growth in the business, then we need to spend time preparing the next wave of folk to take the business forward.

“Just because we got treated shitty is no reason for us to treat the next generation shitty, too – that benefits nobody.”

However, Asika wants communication to be at all levels, rather than trying to zero in on specific targets. “The perception of black people is wrong – many programmes seem determined to concentrate on the ‘hard to reach,’ but not everyone in the black community is hard to reach – with many, it’s pretty easy,” he attests.

Meanwhile, Live Nation’s Carrigan points to the company’s Embrace Nation programme, launched more than a year ago in an effort to address diversity issues.

“Things are positive, but there is still a lot of change to be done before we can feel good about things”

“We’re not just focussing in one direction – we’re looking across gender, race, LGBTQ+ and other minority communities,” says Carrigan.

“Live Nation is also looking at the likes of artists and tours and the impact our spend can have on vendors. We can leverage that influence so we’re not just changing our own business practices but also those on a wider spectrum.”

Cosbert also lauds Embrace Nation as a forum where issues can be discussed, while CAA’s Hadley talks up a number of that organisation’s programmes, citing its Amplify platform, the CAA Foundation Community Fund, The Hubb, and the recently launched CAA Scholars scheme.

Hadley is genuinely excited about the gathering demand for greater diversity. “Change is happening from the top down at CAA and we are building on the momentum we’ve had here for the past decade.

“We’re holding our partners accountable, and we’re finding that’s a very honest two-way conversation, but it’s affirming to know that we’re all moving in the same direction.”

He adds, “Things are positive, but there is still a lot of change to be done before we can feel good about things.”

Evolving line-ups
Another facet of the live music industry’s inequality issue is with the talent that gives the business its beating heart.

“Looking at festival line-ups in the UK, there needs to be more opportunities for black artists to perform, especially UK acts,” observes Asika.

“I’ve had to call promoters to tell them that my artists need the line-up to be more diverse before they agree to an offer”

“If you compare the festival line-ups to the music that is in the official singles charts, there’s a big difference. It’s better than it was but I still think black artists don’t get enough slots across the board. Looking at the two major festival promoters, one in particular has made major advances in giving black artists more opportunities and one sadly hasn’t.”

Pierre opines that outdated systems may be partially to blame for the disparity in the biggest selling acts not being offered what they consider to be fair deals for touring and festival appearances.

“Larger festivals want a piece of the hip-hop and R&B pie, but it can be a different game when it comes to the artist’s expectations,” she says.

“The way the business has been done, many promoters in the industry rely on Billboard or Pollstar metrics to gauge what the artist fee might be. But often those metrics don’t keep up with the times – lots of promoters don’t report their numbers, for instance. So people need to know how to pivot and evolve with the times.”

Earth Agency’s Atkinson reveals that she and her colleagues have drawn up a diversity and inclusion rider, which is already generating opportunities for minority artists.

“It allows us to have conversations with promoters to make them think more about their line-ups,” she says. “Certainly, I’ve already had to call promoters to tell them that my artists need the line-up to be more diverse before they think about agreeing to an offer.

“That message from the artists will be a great way to help bring about change. And from the artist point of view, I’ve spoken to everyone on my roster about diversity and I know that a lot of acts are now looking to do collaborations with black and other minority artists.”

“The visa system for African and Caribbean artists is ridiculous and it puts those musicians at a huge disadvantage”

Earth Agency, she adds, has a longstanding commitment to non-mainstream artists, but there is now an active drive to welcome more people of colour into genres such as house, techno, punk, folk, hyper pop and indie.

One early corporate adopter is Live Nation, which has already made commitments to work with more black and Latino artists and other under-served groups.

“Live Nation is examining its tours and festival line-ups, and Melvin Benn at Festival Republic is massively committed to the Rebalance campaign,” says Carrigan.

Next steps
Asika tells IQ that a collective of companies in the live sector is working on documents to “identify pragmatic solutions for key areas where BAME are underrepresented” and they plan to share that information with the wider industry in September.

But while he understands that true diversity in the workplace will require long- term strategies, other aspects of cultural racism could – and should – be easier to tackle.

“The visa system for African and Caribbean artists is ridiculous and it puts those musicians at a huge disadvantage,” he says.

“That’s a small thing that key people in the industry could easily sort out with a little cooperation. There are a number of quick wins that we could definitely make happen in the next 12 months. Don’t forget, many of these countries are supposed to be a part of The Commonwealth so we should make it easier for their musicians.”

“The power brokers need to step out of their comfort zone and confront the task of changing what’s become the norm”

When it comes to tomorrow’s brave new world, Pierre is realistic in her ambitions. “In terms of the hierarchy handing over power to black people, then of course there isn’t going to be an overnight change in ownership.”

Pierre believes it’s time to forget historic business models and start afresh. While the record business has a history of giving young, inexperienced people opportunity through joint ventures or resurrecting defunct labels, that’s often down to nepotism or favouritism, she contends.

“That leads to a system where the majority of people in power/heads of labels are not people of colour. The result of that is those people are given the power to hire or buy their way into a culture that they are not truly vested in, and the cycle continues,” she says.

“The pool of people given those opportunities needs to diversify.”

As far as the live industry is concerned, Pierre adds, “The pool of people put in power need a diversity check from within, because we can see they’re great at buying IP but I think that’s the easy route.

“The power brokers need to step out of their comfort zone and confront the task of changing what’s become the norm internally from the inception of the business model.

“Now that we can see the business changing, we cannot put our heads in the sand and pretend it’s going to be the way it used to be. That’s what the record labels did and it’s taken them decades to recover.”

Ultimately, Atkinson believes it is down to individuals to pressurise for change.

“Accountability will be the most important part of all this,” she says. “I know from experience that many people have told me that things will inevitably change naturally, but we’ve waited too long for things to happen naturally.”


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