Friday’s Music Ally TV Show focused on the #TheShowMustBePaused campaign, and the next steps that the music industry needs to take as a result. Our panelists were Mulika Sannie, Keith Harris and Estée Blu.
Sannie is VP of business affairs at Kobalt, and also founded the UK Black Music Lawyers Network in 2018.
Harris is the longtime representative for Steve Wonder, with an industry career ranging from EMI and Motown Records to PPL and UK Music’s Diversity Taskforce. Last week, he published an open letter to the music industry calling for last week’s day of action not to be another false dawn.
Estée Blu is an artist and trustee of educational organisation Sound Connections. Last week, she also addressed the topic of how racism, sexism and colourism affects Black women in music, in a post on Instagram.
“This is definitely potentially a moment for real change. The reason I say that: this is the first time I ever remember major companies coming up with real money to try to do something,” said Harris, as the show kicked off.
“Obviously a lot depends on how that money gets spent, and over what period of time, and on attitudes inside the companies.”
“Part of the problem, and it’s a political problem, is if Black people are going to find their rightful place in the business, it may well be at the expense of some existing white executives. Nobody wants to actually give up power,” he added.
“There are some hard decisions that need to be taken. Have you actually got the best people in the posts at the moment? Are some of your best executives being held back because their skin colour, as you see it, is wrong? Very quickly we’ll start to see by the movements that take place in the companies whether this is a real dawn, or whether it’s a false dawn.”
Sannie agreed that this is a potential moment for substantial change – “if it doesn’t happen now, with the amount of exposure that’s happened over the past week, I don’t know when it will happen” – and expressed hopes that after their immediate expressions of support last week, music companies will now take a thoughtful approach.
“What I want to see is: take a step back, go back to your boardrooms, and do an internal audit of your company,” she said. Specifically, an audit not just to understand how many Black employees these companies have, but what roles they’re in, and thus whether those roles are concentrated in particular areas within the companies.
“There is a barrier to entry for Black employees in general, and when we do enter… there tends to be a stereotype that if you’re Black and you work in the music industry, you veer to either the talent side, like A&R, or marketing or management,” she said.
“That’s not to say we shouldn’t go for those roles, but Black people also need to be within the decision-making roles… We need to be part of those discussions which are historically and traditionally very white and male-oriented.”
Sannie wants to see more Black people working within the legal and finance departments, for example. It’s through proper audits that music companies will understand the work that needs to be done.
Blu offered an artist’s perspective, saying that she has hopes for change, and that it will need to overturn some long-established problems.
“I’m interested in how labels source talent. I’m concerned as well in terms of woman artists,” she said, referring back to her Instagram post last week and its additional points about sexism and colourism – the latter being additional discrimination faced by darker-skinned Black women.
“I’m not sure we could name five Black [British] female artists that have achieved the levels of success that Stormzy or Dave have in the past five years,” she said.
“I’m also concerned about the age of artists that are being recruited. These young girls and boys are not being able to finish their education. This is important. Once your time is up, what do you do next?”
Blu also pointed to ageism facing Black women in music. “You will not see a woman artist being promoted after the age of 25. That is a big problem, and a problem men don’t have to experience. Skepta did very well in his 30s. I would love to see a woman artist do very well in her 30s or 40s as well.”
The conversation turned to the funds that have been announced by the three major labels: $25m by UMG (with more to come) and $100m apiece by Sony Music and Warner Music. Sannie and Harris both welcomed the commitments, but also outlined their questions about how the money will be put to best use.
“Whilst money is fantastic, and it’s great to have these funds set up, there are certain things in which money cannot and will never achieve in terms of changing. This is what most companies need to understand,” said Sannie.
“Money does not determine the fact that one person receives a job over another person, despite the fact that the person who received the job is less qualified than the Black candidate. Money cannot change that.”
She also stressed that the financial commitments must go hand-in-hand with education to help people in the music industry understand both conscious and unconscious biases in the workplace, and the barriers preventing Black people from progressing.
Sannie also pointed out that while money can certainly help to provide that education, it’s important that the education is delivered by the right people: “We don’t just need anybody who believes that can do diversity and inclusion training. What we need is people who are embedded in that: it’s what they’ve been doing for years.”
Sannie hopes that the majors will put their funds to work empowering communities including schools and colleges, with scholarships, internships and other schemes that will bring young people into the music industry.
“$100m is no chicken change, thats’ a lot of money with which you can do a hell of a lot of things! What we need to see is that they have a plan as to how to execute these funds. What are you going to use those funds for? How are you going to use them?” she said.
“We need to actually see a plan of action as to what these companies are doing with the money… but before a company can decide what it needs to do with the money, it needs to do an audit of itself.”
“There are a lot of talented people within all of these music companies that are more than happy to give back to the community. They don’t just have knowledge of music, they have knowledge of other areas as well. It’s about tapping into their knowledge,” she added.
“How do you think the community will benefit from this money? It’s very easy to throw these sums about, and not ask those people who are part of those communities what they’d like to see.”
Harris said he’s also keen to see how the big companies’ plans will be monitored, and who by, which brought the conversation back to Black representation at the most senior levels within these firms.
“In two to three years’ time, it should be totally unacceptable for large music industry companies to have no minority board members. Somebody needs to be looking at that and monitoring that,” he said.
In the early 1990s, Harris took part in a documentary made by the British Black Music Association, which he remembered as involving a succession of industry executives “saying the Black community just needs to be a bit more patient… if people are patient then it will correct itself”.
“Well, how patient do you need to be? This was 1990 or 1991! We are now 30 years on from there… We’ve got to open up with that money to make sure the best people get advanced in the industry. The key thing is who’s going to monitor what happens with the money?”
Harris also challenged people within the music industry to speak up. “Being silent when you know something is wrong is tacit complicity. that’s been one of the big problems. Lots of people hear things said which they know are wrong, and they don’t necessarily agree with it, but they won’t challenge it either. they’re concerned about their employment, their prospects,” he said.
“Good people need to speak up, that’s the first step. There’s a lot of things that go unchallenged, and every one is an incremental step to keeping somebody suppressed.”
Sannie took up Harris’ views on representation at board level, and agreed with his challenge to the industry to make improvements within the next three years.
“These people are already working within these companies. They’re already there. It’s not just the barrier to entry to get those jobs, but also the barrier to actually succeed up the ladder,” she said.
“Keith mentioned earlier, there’s this fear that people don’t want to relinquish their seat at the table. You can increase the size of your table! Your table does not just have to seat 12 people, it can grow.”
“When you do your internal audit, look at your skillset. Look at the Black employees within your companies and what their skillsets are. A lot of them could be fast-tracked very quickly… We need to get past that notion that no more than 10 people can be at the table, or at board level,” she added.
“We need not sit here and say it will take five or ten years. If in three years we have not seen change, that’s deliberate, and we have to acknowledge that. If in three years we do not see relevant representation at C-Suite level… you can’t tell me that the talent is not there. You need to dig a little bit deeper as to why you’re not going out and seeking that talent.”
Blu encouraged music companies to work with the existing talent development organisations that exist, like Sound Connections, the MOBOs, Help Musicians and The Roundhouse. “There are organisations that are already doing it. It would be good to see the industry pour more money behind it.”
The conversation also turned to the question of how the money from their music flows to (or more pertinently, too often doesn’t flow to) Black artists. BMG has just announced a review of the contracts for musicians whose catalogues it owns, and there are calls for other large music companies to follow suit – with many cans of worms to be opened relating to Black artists’ contracts in the 1960s and 1970s for starters.
“Some of them have been unconscionable beyond belief. When you look at the pennies that have been paid to people, it’s ridiculous,” said Sannie, who said this is part of the inspiration behind her work to ensure more Black people are working in legal and financial roles within the industry.
“When you think about those artists who signed contracts 50, 60, 70 years ago, I can guarantee you they were probably repped by white lawyers, white accountants,” she said, before stressing that she was not accusing all of those lawyers and accountants of working to their clients’ disadvantage.
“But if you have people who can understand where you’re coming from, who can understand your background, understand your community, understand your needs and wants, they themselves can help you strike a better deal.”
“This is my callout to the Black community. We need more lawyers, we need more accountants… more people who understand royalties. The more Black representation that we have in all facets of the music industry, it becomes a little bit more difficult to have these unconscionable contracts that are flying around,” she continued.
While Harris also supports fixing some of those historical inequities in contracts, he noted that it will be time-consuming and difficult, and said his priority is to make sure the system now is working fairly for Black artists. And, indeed, for artists full stop.
“This isn’t even a Black thing. In general, there needs to be a reassessment of how much artists get paid from the current environment. Tech is doing very nicely, record companies are doing probably better than they ever did, but artists seem to be forgotten,” he said.
“But actually, if there are no artists, there is no business. Let’s look at that right from the start, across the board, at how artists are being remunerated. There’s definitely an issue with the way things have gone in the digital environment.”
Blu is an independent artist, and resolutely so: she has turned down deals that she felt were not beneficial for her career, and she is currently doing a masters degree in music business management at the University of Westminster, supported by the Richard Antwi Scholarship, to ensure she has the knowledge to assess deals and contracts in the future.
“For me that has been an extremely empowering process. I can tell you about copyright and live music management. I don’t know as much as Mulika and Keith! But I know what’s going on. Artists need to be concerned about their art, about how they’re compensated for it,” she said.
“You can’t really sit there in five to ten years time and say ‘someone took advantage of me’. The information is out there. I’m not saying I would never sign a deal. I will sign a deal when the time is right, and also if the terms are good for me.”
Harris hailed the progress that has been made in launching those kinds of music business degrees and courses, and opening them up to artists from a range of backgrounds.
The panel finished by coming back to the idea of goals and deadlines for companies and the wider music industry. Sannie suggested that the end of 2020 will be one key milestone: for example, for companies to have created mission statements, and to be able to show progress whether that’s with funds, internal task forces, or diversity and inclusion work.
“By the end of this year they should be able to show the steps they have taken to make sure their companies are more diverse – whether it be more Black employees at senior level or just more than in the industry. Because you can do that in six months,” she said.
“Yes, there will be some things that take a longer time to actually see change. Whether people think differently about recruitment? That might take a little bit more time, but at least within the next six months there should be some change within their recruitment policies.”
Sannie also suggested that with schools and universities hopefully going back in September post Covid-19 lockdown, there are opportunities now for music companies to be talking to them about work experience, internships, scholarships and sponsored courses.
“It may take a bit longer to get C-Suite staff. I agree with Keith: within three years’ time we should be able to see that. But look at your recruitment policies, look at where you’re advertising your jobs. That’s stuff that could even be done within the next month.”
Harris encouraged companies to get to work with mentorships and other internal support networks for Black employees “to make sure they get the information, help and advice to elevate themselves”.
“The mentoring extends to bringing people into your social network, because as we’ve said, it’s a networking business. It’s not good enough for the people to be in the company and never get invited to the dinners or the various networking events that are going on,” he said.
“People get in the company and often feel excluded. so we ought to have somebody that is keeping an eye on that in every single company, and making sure those people are encouraged and helped to go further.”
Blu offered an artist’s perspective. “It’s just a case of respecting Black artists, respecting what we bring to the industry, how much money is being made from the art that we produce, and making sure that we are represented in all our shades, all our genders, all our intersections,” she said.
“I don’t want for us in three years time to be always looking to Ray BLK to talk about her experiences as a Black woman artist who is dark-skinned. There are more Ray BLKs!”
“I always think, if you can find a Black female hairstylist and a choreographer and you can find a choir to join your white artist on stage, then you could definitely find a Black female singer. I would love to see a Black female singer have the same successes as Adele, as Jessie J, as Jess Glynne and all the rest.”
Harris had the last word. “What I’d like to see is when I go to the big industry events – the Ivors, the Brits or the Music Producers Guild awards or whatever – I want a situation where I don’t know the other Black people in the room,” he said, to enthusiastic agreement from Sannie: “100 per cent!”
“To be fair, it’s gone from a situation when I started where you could count the Black people in the room on one finger, to where you can count them on one hand,” added Harris. “I would like to have to take my socks and shoes off!”