Music

A year since Blackout Tuesday, has equality in music improved?


It is a year since two Black female music executives, Jamila Thomas of Atlantic Records and Brianna Agyemang of Platoon, called for the music industry to shut down for the day in protest following the killing of George Floyd. “Our mission is to hold the industry at large, including major corporations + their partners who benefit from the efforts, struggles and successes of Black people accountable,” wrote the women under the hashtag #theshowmustbepaused, which was shared more than 700,000 times.

On what became colloquially known as Blackout Tuesday, labels shared messages of support and suspended business, as did artists including the Rolling Stones, Rihanna, and Yoko Ono. The outpouring of support for racial justice was welcomed, but a year on, many in the industry are piling on the pressure to ensure the companies that shared black squares of solidarity fulfil their promises to change. “Were they completely sincere in it? I really can’t tell you,” says music consultant Melanie Rudder of Thirty Three Music, who has worked in the industry for more than 20 years. “I don’t feel like some were, but they had to act on it, because once you put that black square up, people were like: ‘OK, so what are you doing about this, then?’”

Thomas and Agyemang have continued The Show Must Be Paused initiative and launched a set of actionable demands for companies to follow, which include transparency around diversity reporting and creating career development opportunities for Black executives. Over the past year, the three major labels – Sony, Warner and Universal – have responded to the movement by donating millions to racial justice funds, as well as beginning to make changes in-house by creating new roles or establishing task forces to monitor diversity.

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Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas accept the executives of the year award at the Billboard Women In Music 2020 event in December.
Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas accept the executives of the year award at the Billboard Women In Music 2020 event in December. Photograph: 2020 Billboard Women In Music/Getty Images for Billboard

The reasons why this moment has clicked are hard to pinpoint, but for Rudder it was the simple realisation that “enough is enough … we are tired of smiling through.” She says the protests meant “we were forced to talk about things that we’ve probably never really spoken to other people about.”

One of the most significant changes seems to be the fact that the topic of race is now being broached by all sides of the music industry. UK alt-rock band Nova Twins noticed that many companies wanted to start conversations with Black artists after recognising the lack of diversity on their teams. “They were genuinely concerned and [wanted to put] things in place to make that change,” says guitarist Amy Love.

Although it is too early to say which companies are leading the way, for Kanya King, founder of the Mobo awards, that the movement exists at all is a positive. “The good news is that the mass Black Lives Matter movement and the acknowledgement of racism and injustice have been giant steps forward and that is great progress,” she says, “but 2021 now needs to be a year of action, with tangible results.”

Those steps forward come in the form of new initiatives such as the PRS Foundation’s Power Up – in giving grants, mentoring and other forms of support, it aims to support up-and-coming Black artists and executives in reaching the next stage of their careers. Power Up co-founder Ben Wynter says the reaction from companies has been positive so far. “YouTube Music came on board straight away, they were like, ‘we get it, we want to get involved’. The CEO of Beggars Group swam the Channel to raise funds for Power Up.”

Nova Twins are one of 20 bands supported by Power Up this year and feel the initiative is more than deserved for historically marginalised Black artists in the UK. “We’ve been navigating this industry for so long,” says Love. “I don’t want people to feel like, ‘you’re lucky to be here’. We’ve all earned it because we’ve been working at it.”

There is still a long way to go, however, particularly in retaining Black talent both on stage and behind the scenes. UK Music recently released new data about the ethnic backgrounds of people working in the music industry – it shows the number of Black people in the industry falls from 12.6% at entry level, to 6.4% at senior level. For Ammo Talwar, chair of the UK Music diversity taskforce, the statistics are damning. “If you take a UK perspective, it feels quite good, because you can say: well, there’s only 14% BAME [people] across the UK. But actually in London, it’s nearly 40%, and most of the industry works in London. From a national perspective it looks good but from a city perspective, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Reports like UK Music’s recent diversity breakdown will become more commonplace as many in the industry view better, more comprehensive data as the best way to hold companies to account. “When you’re hearing those anecdotal stories [about racism] that’s one thing,” says Wynter, “but what we want to do is get the data that backs up the stories, to be able to use it to create solutions and lobby for change, whether that’s at government level or industry level.”

Black Lives in Music, an organisation set up to address inequality in the jazz and classical spaces for Black musicians, recently undertook a survey documenting the lived experience of Black artists in the UK. Although the data is not yet released, CEO Charisse Beaumont has said that in terms of representation of Black musicians over the last year, “no change has happened. We do expect change soon but we understand that there’s different barriers. Culture and mindsets need to be changed, people need to be taken out of positions – some things take time.”

Talwar agrees: “There are really quick, good wins that have happened in the last 12 months, but if we’re talking about system change, and we’re talking about systemic racism, systems take ages to redevelop or reconfigure.”

Amahla.
Amahla. Photograph: The Ivors Academy with Apple Music/PA

UK soul singer Amahla, who is also a beneficiary of Power Up, doesn’t feel that the music industry’s focus on diversity has affected her much as an artist, either. “For me it’s all about discoverability, and people being able to find my music in different places, because I can’t play live – the only way people can do that right now is online. I don’t feel I’ve received any more attention or been connected to new spaces within the industry to support me in that.”

Ultimately, the movement to diversify the music industry is a long-term project. Many believe it will take five to 10 years to see real progress. For Beaumont, continuing to force the industry to be accountable is essential. “There are those who want this movement to die within 12 months, but we’re making sure that we’re keeping the conversation going,” she says. “We’re not going to stop doing what is necessary to see change.”



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