How racism shapes the music industry


In September 1978, extraordinary soul producer Kenneth Gamble helped start the Black Music Association, an advocacy group aimed at pushing the music industry to “recognize and celebrate the economic and cultural power of black music. as well as those who created and promoted it ”. “It was time for something new and more inclusive of all professionals in the black music industry ”, Gamble said in 2015. The BMA catered to both artists and executives, connecting two groups who both faced racism in the music industry but were often on either side of the negotiating tables.. The slogan of the BMA? “Black music is green.”

The BMA has finally faded from importance, “[un]able to withstand split agendas within management. ButSeveral executives have referred to the organization’s advocacy history this week in the wake of Blackout Tuesday, which saw work stoppages at major record labels. “I have the impression that we need this [to come back]Explains an official who participated in Blackout Tuesday events.

Amid nationwide protests over George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, record companies decided to use Tuesday for a rare industry-wide calculation. Two related conversations took place in parallel. First, can the music industry use its vast resources and influence to help reduce police brutality and combat systemic racism? Second, can the music industry finally face its own history of racism and build a more equitable future?

Some saw the navel-gazing of the industry as a distraction from the fierce urgency of the protests surrounding Floyd’s death. “If I don’t want to be exploited by the music business, I know how not to be exploited by the music business – I don’t sign a contract,” said another manager who attended Blackout Tuesday events. “I still don’t know how not to be killed by a policeman.

But this week’s conversation about how “the recording industry does a very good job of keeping black people out of the room,” as one A&R puts it, accelerates discussions that have been going on for decades and were already becoming. more public lately. years.

These relate to the extremely unequal contracts that continue to bring in millions of dollars to the music industry while passing only a small portion of that wealth to artists, the myriad of techniques that a music industry run mostly by the wealthy. white frames used to take advantage of black art, bringing transparency. to a labeling system that thrives on opacity, and the capacity for collective action in a ruthless, sometimes vindictive music business (almost everyone who has spoken about this story has done so anonymously to avoid ‘be penalized) which promotes inter and intra-incessant competition from labels on all forms of solidarity.

“None of [major labels] would even be standing if business was fair.

“We are not trying to get these companies to change everything overnight,” explains the chief executive. “We are waiting for them to say, ‘We are wrong, we don’t make money without the black community, here is a fund that we have set aside to use however you see fit. ”

But really tackling these issues also calls into question the very heart of the majors’ music business, which has been built through relentless and often racist and sexist exploitation. “The labels are only used to make money”, explains rapper Royce da 5’9 “, who has worked with the majors but now operates independently. A second A&R goes further: “None of the [major labels] would even be standing if business was fair.

A typical recording contract, for example, involves an artist giving up rights to their music, often in perpetuity, in exchange for an initial check and, possibly, perhaps, the right to pocket 18 cents on every dollar. won. from those recordings – once the label recovers the advance, marketing budget, touring support, and other expenses.

“The music business has one of the most predatory loans in lending history,” says the second official. “Even with a bank, your interest rate can be high, but if you pay off your loan, at least you own your home. [In the music industry], you give something to someone for eternity and you never get it back.

The contemporary popular music industry is also steeped in racism. The term R&B was invented, after all, to replace “racing music”. The charts have always been mostly separate, with white musicians responsible for the majority of rock, country and pop, and black musicians making their way into R&B and hip hop. Black acts are still penalized for trying to settle in white spaces – just last year, Lil Nas X got started Billboardthe map of the countries of – while white artists who get into hip-hop (Post Malone, G-Eazy) and R&B (Adele) benefit from a significant commercial windfall.

“They need to have more initiatives to hire black people at all levels.”

The makeup of the music industry largely reflects the makeup of these charts today. Black executives remain concentrated in what are called “urban” departments, which focus on hip-hop and R&B, while white executives are free to roam as they please. This is true even though hip-hop and R&B dominate listening in the age of streaming.

“Pop music is black music; that’s exactly what it is, ”explains the first A&R, who works primarily with rappers and R&B singers. “We need the desks to reflect the graphics. It is very simple.

Achieving this “simple” goal will be a challenge for a music industry with little recent history of effective collective action. The original BMA managed to cut through the various factions of the industry, making room for artists, executives, distributors and broadcasters, bBut factionalism ultimately contributed to the organization’s dissolution. “In the music business, people who know things don’t pass them on – everyone competes with each other,” Royce da 5’9 ″ says.

While there is music unions built for collective action, none are designed to address the racial inequalities inherent in the business. And most record label managers cannot join unions because they are managers.

“It would be nice to have our masters. These are the repairs we need as black artists.

The people who have the most power to influence change within labels are probably the artists themselves, so their involvement in any effort is crucial. In the past, leveraged acts have not always wanted to use it to dismantle a system that offered them a check. “When a black artist in high demand walks into a record company and sees that the whole conference room is white, why doesn’t he say something then?” Asks the A&R. “Say, ‘This is weird. I don’t make music for people like you. They will never do that. Sign a check, take a picture with anyone, keep moving.

But a black artist signed to a major record company says artists face exactly the same racist constraints as executives. “Anyone who works in the industry as an executive or A&R and who is black knows how fucked up, but don’t want to jeopardize their work or reputation for fighting really hard for a black artist because they know that their work is also at stake, ”he explains. “There is not much they can do, because [the major labels are] still run by the same whites.

To change the balance of power in the local offices, eleaders and managers already have several proposals in mind. “They need to have more initiatives to hire black people at all levels,” says Kayode Badmus-Wellington, founder and CEO of drtymnd, an artist development collective, and former head of Epic Records and Pulse Music Group.

Equally important, “there has to be some type of career development system for everyone who comes into the organization,” says Craig Baylis, a veteran of big labels (Sony Music, Warner Music Group), talent manager and brand strategist. “Without a professional background, how are they going to identify and undo systemic racism and exalt black people?

“Make sure the pay of black executives is aligned with that of the rest of their white peers. “

“In a company like Toyota, when you work for a while, you know you’re going to get certain raises, get into certain positions,” Baylis continues. “In a record company you can come in as an assistant, get 10,000 Instagram followers, throw a party, invite someone with the right job in the company and end up as a vice president.”

The first A&R also calls for more transparency on pay rates. Unless everyone knows who does what, it’s hard to “pay black executives online with the rest of their white peers,” he says.

Perhaps most important of all, a system must be in place to ensure that labels take action to reduce racial inequalities. Labels rarely, if ever, police themselves, often taking steps to oust executives accused of sexual assault or curtail payola practices only when forced to do so by outside entities. With this in mind, Baylis proposes the creation of an independent body responsible for monitoring the efforts of labels to diversify. “This governing body should not be in the pockets of record companies and not have the mission to promote artists,” he says.

If properly implemented, all of these measures would at least help increase the number of black cadres in positions of power. But is it enough? This doesn’t necessarily change the underlying business model of the big-label music industry, which remains focused on offering these “predatory loans” to young artists and then sorting them into race-defined genres.

“It would be wonderful to have our masters,” says the artist from the great record company. “These are the repairs we need as black artists: the music we make, we own it. Or we get label shares when we sign… It shouldn’t be crazy for us to want to own our own masters.

Royce da 5’9 ″ calls this week “just a start”. “We cannot just launch initiatives in the wake of chaos and then stop,” he continues. “We must continue. “

Additional reports by Brendan Klinkenberg

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