Fitz And The Tantrums singer Noelle Scaggs, for much of her 20-year career, was already painfully aware of the many times she’d performed and been the only woman, and often the only Black person, on or behind the stage. By the time the nation was convulsed in May after the police killing of George Floyd, it was even more acute.
As the COVID pandemic virtually stopped touring, she was able to devote time to doing something about it. Scaggs developed the concept for Diversify The Stage, a broad-based initiative to facilitate hiring of underrepresented touring professionals as well as to provide education, mentoring and internships for young people to enter the live business.
“I’d been kind of thinking about my career for a few months, looking at myself in a room and recognizing that I was one person of color out of the many human beings in a space,” Scaggs says. “I started to really question if this was the norm for my alternative space; if it had anything to do with the demographics of listeners and my music, because it wasn’t just my inner circle, it was also the audience at times. It felt like we weren’t really touching young people of color unless we were in, say, Riverside or Chicago.”
Scaggs says those questions came to the fore with the police killings of Floyd and Breona Taylor.
“It just seemed like one attack after another on people of color and people who shared my melanin tone,” Scaggs explains. “I was really having a rough go of it for three or four weeks and I finally just got fed up with feeling powerless and like I couldn’t do more than talk on my social media and provide resources and things like that.”
She started reaching out to friends and associates and, in her conversations with them, realized that while diversity was being discussed in the “executive corners” of the industry, she wasn’t hearing much coming from the touring side.
“It made me wonder if this was something that was just being looked over by label heads, A&R, people like that,” Scaggs says, “or if I was just missing out on something, like maybe this has been going on for a while and I just haven’t tapped into that.”
So she began tapping into her vast network of industry associates developed over more than 10 years of touring with Fitz And The Tantrums. Among those Scaggs contacted was Malcolm Weldon, Pink’s production manager, who in turn introduced her to Jerome Crooks, the longtime tour manager for Nine Inch Nails. He created Never Famous, an online resource for hiring seasoned touring pros including sound, lighting and tech crews and particularly for people of color. The two quickly established a partnership.
“With Never Famous, we wanted to give everyone – all the managers, tour managers and production managers – an opportunity to find a larger spectrum of people under that umbrella,” Crooks tells Pollstar. “It’s extremely tough to hear, ‘Well, we would hire a person of color or hire a female, or whatever it may be, but we just don’t know where to find them.’ I know that Roadies of Color United started this a long time ago and have done really great work. We decided that we wanted to do something a little different, and we’re looking at opportunities to grow in this particular stage right now. I believe that with the help of Noelle, that we’re actually getting there.”
Inspired, Scaggs set about developing the idea for Diversify The Stages to include not only hiring opportunities but an educational component as well, to bring in young people and get them trained and mentored by industry pros and provide internships so they can learn on the job.
Her idea was enthusiastically received by her team, including manager Adam “Ash” Harrison of Full Stop Management. Newly minted UTA Co-Head of Music Samantha Kirby Yoh, who also serves on the board of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative of USC’s school for communications and journalism, was an early adopter. She in turn brought WME Partner and agent Kevin Shivers into the fold. The ball was rolling.
In many corners of the live entertainment industry, initiatives to increase diversity and inclusion had already begun to roll out, but as the press releases touting donations to civil rights organizations and the darkened Instagram and Facebook pages ostensibly in support of diversity and Black Live Matter movements began to fade from memory, some wondered if the industry was indeed ready to meet the moment with action rather than just words.Shivers was one of them, and in an open letter published by Pollstar in June, called out the industry for its shortcomings in the area of diversity and inclusion. His involvement with Diversify The Stage is a natural next step in the progression of holding the industry to account.
“This is a good time for people to look at their own houses and ask, ‘How can I make things be more diverse?’” Shivers says, adding that his involvement in Diversify The Stage started with Kirby Yoh and Scaggs. “I try to make key introductions but this was all the brainchild of Noelle. She’s giving an extra layer and something that will have an everlasting effect.”
Scaggs’ effort is already paying off. A silver lining of the pandemic has proven to be giving the industry a pause for reflection, and time to reset in terms of diversity and establish hiring goals for when tours are able to relaunch.
“It is getting materially better quickly,” Scaggs says. “What I’ve been noticing the most are the number of individuals that are actually working towards actionable goals. They’re putting their best foot forward with creating quantifiable evidence going forward. They’re trying to establish the data of the makeup of their internal teams at their companies and working towards trying to bring in more diversity in those roles.
“I also see a lot of companies that are or have been teaming up with grassroots organizations like She Is The Music and SoundGirls and others that try to implement some infrastructure into getting more diversity into their spaces. I’m seeing the support is absolutely there. Every single phone call that I’ve had from the time that I’ve started this with Sam Kirby Yoh, to Kevin Shivers to now Tom Windish at Paradigm and Rob Light at CAA, these are all individuals who really want to create change in our industry and not just on the live aspect, but also within their companies.
“I think right now there may be an understanding that there is a magnifying glass on our industry,” Scaggs continues. “You don’t have the opportunity to no longer evolve or to not work towards this. It’s an important time because of the fact that we have so much time on our hands. We’re not able to run away and say that we’re too busy for it. I’m having incredible conversations with people that want to know how they can help, how they can be of service, how they can use their networks to spread the word about Never Famous, how they can use their networks to create internship partnerships for Diversify The Stage programs for young people that I’m beginning with HOB Music Forward Foundation.”
Kirby Yoh, who is also a force behind She Is The Music, concurs. “It was 100 percent Noelle’s idea. It’s a really good thing she’s doing and it’s really needed. And it’s an experience she’s lived.
“You wake up and see this is not right, and it’s got to change,” Kirby Yoh adds. “You go to your network to see who can help you change it. Noelle is amazing, and has put so much energy and vision into this. She said, ‘OK, I’m going to put many hours a week into making this and finding a way to change the future.’”
As a manager, Harrison credits Scaggs with building that network over years. “It really all comes from Noelle,” he says. “She’s so unique and she’s been around a long time so that she’s built up a nice network of contacts and relationships between indies and majors touring everywhere. When she’s asking people to get involved, it’s a little easier.”
Kirby Yoh also went to the network built up around She Is The Music, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to increase the number of women working in music – songwriters, engineers, producers, artists and industry professionals.
Like Never Famous, She Is The Music maintains a database of qualified women capable of working across all sectors of the music industry. So it made sense that Kirby Yoh and Crooks put their resources together.
“Jerome knew Noelle by then and he came to me and said, “Hey, we’ve got this idea,” Kirby Yoh says. “Can you jump on a call with the two of us? Because we really want to take it to another level. It’s across all kinds of areas of representation, not just gender and race. It’s got to include LGBTQ, people with disabilities, and so on.”
Kirby Yoh had known Crooks for many years and asked him to advise She Is The Music thanks to his expertise working on the live side.
“He’s committed to really making sure that representation is truly diverse behind the scenes with the Never Famous database. It is not ‘friends of friends.’ There is a real representation of females as well as people of color,” Kirby Yoh says.
SoundGirls, an organization co-founded by Karrie Keyes, is part of the She Is The Music coalition and facilitates employment and networking opportunities for women audio engineers and others working in sound. Scaggs reached out to Keyes as well and found a receptive ally.
Keyes, a veteran of some 30 years including as monitor engineer for Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder, had her fill of being asked to be on “women’s panels” at industry events over the years and helped start SoundGirls about seven years ago.
“When Noelle contacted me, I thought, ‘This is great; to have an artist’s voice and pull to bring attention to this is so critical,’” Keyes says. “I personally am done having these conversations. I want to see the industry do something about it. We have a directory of 2,000-plus women in all aspects of live entertainment and audio.
“If you can’t find any, you aren’t looking - they are everywhere. Or you didn’t give her a chance. The directory is full of talented amazing women. I’ve been working sound since 1986. I see women, and Pearl Jam does hire and we have them on our crew, but it’s not every band that does that.”
Another component of SoundGirls that is complementary to Diversify The Stage is providing mentorship.
“What sparked SoundGirls was when co-founder Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato (Spin Doctors) and I were invited to be on a panel at the AES convention and the panel was billed as “The Women of Live Sound.” It’s 2012 and there’s only five of us? Why can’t we just be on a panel about live sound? I reluctantly agreed to do it.
“But it was refreshing. After all of us working 25-plus years, none of us had met. I never saw another woman doing this and we were kind of over it.
“There’s got to be more than five of us, this is ridiculous. If we’d known each other it would have been easier to navigate this industry, whether it’s to call and vent, ‘Oh, they don’t want a woman on the tour bus.’ That’s what sparked SoundGirls. Since then, it’s grown into an international organization in all aspects of sound, and advocating to make it easier to get a foot in the door for women, people of color and non-binary people.”
Another key to getting a foot in the door is mentorship and education, particularly hands-on opportunities for young people who might not otherwise have access to music business programs at colleges and universities.
“SoundGirls is working with a group of industry vendors and the goal is real hands-on mentoring because audio is a craft,” Keyes says. “I had mentors. I think audio used to be a little more open because you had to be taught. You couldn’t graduate from a school and be thousands of dollars in debt.
“The schools are valuable but there’s a crucial aspect of having a mentor passing along the craft. I have been doing sound for more than 30 years but I still have people on speed dial to help me because everything changes so fast,” Keyes says, laughing.
“Noelle hooked me on that idea because our philosophy is the same. Being able to attend one of the leading trade schools still eliminates almost everyone unless they are silly enough to take on that debt or have parents who will pay for it.”
Keyes notes that when state or federal governments cut education funding, it’s arts and music education that get cut first.
“You are telling 25 percent of the students that they don’t matter,” she adds. “Unless you have access to that top tier, it’s super important to have the mentors and the organizations that have the resources to point you in the right direction. A lot of great audio and stagecraft resources are still at the community college level.”
Being able to educate and provide internships for young people becomes even more critical when one considers the production side of the concert equation has been decimated by the COVID pandemic. Many highly experienced workers have already left the profession, found other jobs and aren’t coming back, Keyes emphasizes. Developing a young talent pool, now, is more necessary than ever.
Scaggs has spent recent weeks identifying partners specifically for internship and programming opportunities, including a partnership with Music Forward Foundation.
Scaggs notes a conversation she had with Nazanin Fatemian, Music Forward Foundation’s director of partnerships, to utilize their program.
“If the pool is shallow, let’s begin working on the next generation so that it’s no longer an excuse to say, five years from now, that there aren’t enough individuals that are people of color, LGBTQ community members or things like that,” Scaggs says.
“We’re actually giving young people advancement into our industry. We talked about creating a program for young women of color, because there were not a lot of women in hiring positions for management and production management. Although there is growth in our female leadership, there just aren’t a lot of women of color. [Fatemian] brought it to the executives at Music Forward, and they decided that they wanted to move on with doing something with me as Diversify The Stage.”
The result is a decision to create a model that Scaggs can take to other nonprofit organizations with the same goal, starting with the introduction to careers in the touring industry across the board, from tour management positions to guitar techs to ticketing, talent buying or “anything under the sun that covers the live spectrum of concert business and to mentoring,” Scaggs says.
“There is now a mentorship element that would gain you eligibility to get a placement with my internship partners come 2021, with the end game being an equitable position at an entry level, either on a tour with someone like Jerome bringing in an apprentice or within an agency, record label, touring department.”
So with allies like Music Forward Foundation, Never Famous and SoundGirls, as well as Roadies Of Color United and others, Diversify The Stage has access to broad databases of underrepresented people that agents, managers and production managers can tap into to fully diversify their tour staffing, as well as providing a pipeline for young people to enter the business.
“I can talk to a client and say, ‘Hey, when you or any of your managers are considering hiring, this is a list of resources that you should see and use as many of them as you can.’” Kirby Yoh says. “There is no excuse not to with all of these tools available.”
“The idea of Diversify The Stage can be applied across agents and managers, who can all try to implement it and talk to the artists in thinking about how their crews can be more diverse,” Shivers adds.
“If everyone is aware of Diversify The Stage, it can be used as a reference point across the industry. Every artist gets to pick who they want on their crews.”
Diversity in touring isn’t even just about the crews; Diversify The Stage and its allies are also advocates of diversity in vendors being hired and can make recommendations regarding caterers, trucking companies, sound and lighting companies and stage production vendors as well so that when touring returns, elements can be in place to ensure diversity in all facets of concert touring and production.
“I think it’s so important that when touring comes to fruition in nine months or a year or whenever that these policies, programs and initiatives that we’re talking about now begin to implement, that there’s enough time to kind of figure it out,” Harrison says. “Instead of being on stage with five white dudes, we want to make sure everyone from the support act to the crews and the promoters read their diversity riders.”
The concept of diversity riders, while gaining acceptance in other industries, isn’t widely used in the concert business but is something that’s being considered. Organizations like Diversify The Stage would obviously help tours fulfill diversity riders should artists choose them.
“The diversity rider is an inspirational idea that could help everyone from the big companies to the concessionaires across
the live music industry,” Harrison says, adding,“I don’t think they are common but it could be the start of something. It’s something we aspire to in order to start the process.”
That process appears to be moving full steam ahead, with Diversify The Stage selecting its first “class” of young women of color to enter a series of panels and masterclasses that will take place Oct. 27-30.
Scaggs says she is working with CAA Head of Music Rob Light and the CAA Foundation to help facilitate an application process for a Friday series from Oct. 30 through Dec. 18. “Those will be special courses that are specific for 25 young women of color that we’re choosing that will go on to our mentor and internship programming,” she explains.
“Getting them the ability to either be there for the virtual fall series actually begins with the curation of Diversify The Stage stage panels and masterclasses,” Scaggs said. “We wanted to kind of start small. This is a beta program. We’re going to see how these young women fare; get an idea of what they’re looking for, what they want to go after and doing it that way. I have a long list that I can actually sense.”
To that end, Diversify The Stage seeks sponsors and industry leaders to serve as lecturers, as well as potential employers. Crooks says he’s also seeking opportunities to enlist vendors in the effort.
“If we find X number of students, what we’d like to do is send them out for two weeks to learn about the sound industry, with another vendor doing video or lighting and then bring them out on the road,” Crooks says. “For one or two weeks, they can be learning about the backstage experience and load-ins and load-outs, the tour management side, the production side. That part of it is really important to see every aspect of what we do with touring.
“But the hard part that we have to figure out is the funding so that we can open up one or two available spots on a bus so that people can go around and see exactly what they would like to do in the future,” Crooks adds. “If I had only had this when I was a kid. It’s amazing to see the resources that are here now versus when I was in high school.”
Or even resources that didn’t exist six months ago. Diversify The Stage still has work to do to get from idea to infrastructure.
“That’s a big part of the work,” Scaggs says. “As far as supporting the youth initiatives, we’re definitely looking for partners for internship placements and we’re creating a database for that infrastructure, so we can make sure that our young people coming out of Diversify The Stage’s associated programs can get placed into those slots or gain access to those internship slots.
“I’m going to be looking into making Diversify the Stage a nonprofit organization; we’re having conversations about that right now because there will be a time where I will have a set number that I need to make per year to even sponsor young people if we’re looking at trying to give them opportunities in real time.
We want to establish a stipend so they can go on the road and be part of any apprenticeship a tour manager is willing to bring or an artist is willing to provide for a young person.
So we have a few ideas that I’m creating for that.”
Shivers, four months after his open letter, is also able to see a future that is more diverse.
“I don’t want to look back, but forward, and everyone is more conscious of who’s on their crew,” he says.
“Now, how do we get more people who look like us? [Historically,] most of the crews were white and people of color can do those jobs, too. We should be looking at women, LGBTQ people, too. Life is fuller when you have diverse people in your life.”