What began as a call from two Black US music executives — Platoon’s Brianna Agyemang and Atlantic Records’ Jamila Thomas — for a day of solidarity with the protests that sprung up following George Floyd’s murder morphed into a moment of reckoning for the music industry. Over the course of 24 hours on June 2, 2020, major industry players like Warner Music Group, Spotify and Live Nation joined the millions who participated in Blackout Tuesday by halting operations and posting black squares across social media as the hashtag #TheShowMustBePaused trended worldwide.
Nearly three and a half years later, it’s important to take stock of the main issues that drove this moment of collective activism. What steps have been made to address racism in the music industry? How have Black creatives been empowered since June 2020? And what does progress in the industry look like?
‘I think we would have to look at how many executives have moved up in the business and understand the nuances and the culture,’ Jacqueline Pelham-Leigh, Senior Membership & Development Lead (Africa) at PRS Music, tells M. ‘But there are many ways of measuring progress, depending on what we see. Has enough been done? I'm not sure. The next problem is how many real barriers to access still exist. There's no point advertising opportunity for Black creatives when they don’t have access to the opportunity.’
Afryea Henry-Fontaine, a music executive with over 15 years’ experience in the industry and one of the four executive committee members of the Black Music Coalition (a Black-led organisation dedicated to eradicating racial inequality and establishing equality and equity), believes that there needs to be a robust ecosystem of support in place for significant progress to be made.
‘The definition of progress is forward or onward movement towards a destination,' Afryea says. 'It can be measured through the visible measures, funding and creation of systems supporting Black professionals' advancement. Not just in major labels but across all business areas, including the live music industry, royalty collection agencies and adjacent tech companies who profit from Black music. Progress has been made from within the Black community for sure: the emergence of multiple platforms, organisations and bodies that focus on advancing Black creatives and professionals is something we are proud to be a part of.’
From diversity and inclusion programmes to grant funding and mentorship schemes, there has been a noticeable increase since 2020 in initiatives which empower and support Black creatives.
‘Initiatives like POWER UP, which we are a partner of and aims to support the career trajectories of Black music professionals and creatives, continue to have proven success for participants,’ Afryea adds. ‘A measure of success for the industry would be to reach a place where Black music professionals and creatives no longer continually find that their careers are prematurely stunted or stagnate, while their direct non-Black contemporaries can find continued upward progress through channels that are seemingly not open or offered to them.’
'The emergence of multiple platforms, organisations and bodies that focus on advancing Black creatives and professionals is something we are proud to be a part of.’ — BMC's Afryea Henry-Fontaine
While improvements have been made in the UK music industry when it comes to representation, with many organisations investing funds and launching diversity and inclusion programmes to help foster a more welcoming environment for Black creatives to thrive, there is still significant work to be done when it comes to combatting racism. Black Lives in Music’s September 2021 report Being Black in the UK Music Industry found that 63% of Black creatives in the industry had experienced direct or indirect racism, while 71% of participants had experienced racial microaggressions.
‘We consistently receive reports from the broader community of Black executives at all levels of racist encounters, experiences and even abuse in their places of work,’ Afryea tells M. ‘This makes it clear to us that, despite the incremental progress which some may say has been made since 2020, racism and endemic attitudes still exist in the industry.
‘Progress requires organisations to not simply view diversity as a “numbers” issue, but to challenge themselves to create a culture in which executives and creatives are not professionally hindered because of their race, ethnicity, gender, disability or sexual orientation. Until this is the norm, there is still room for progress. The continued need for deep thinking, overt strategies and efforts to create a more equitable industry is something we are continuing to fight for.’
Access to educational initiatives, mentorship schemes and training programmes to help Black music creators and industry professionals advance in their careers is also key to tackling the issue, says Jacqueline. ‘Access to education [about] how this industry works is vitally important. What are we doing to encourage the next generation? How many mentors do we have in the business advising young people to break into the industry? We need to take people under our wing and coach them to ensure they don’t make the mistakes others make.’
Building bridges between the different Black music communities in the UK, as well as engaging at a grassroots level with independent artists and record labels, could be the potential catalyst for positive change, with a more unified industry ultimately playing a significant role in achieving equality.
‘By opening up membership to the BMC [see below], we hope that, as an organisation, we will not only consolidate the views and voices of executives across the industry, but also create a more expansive space for consultation,’ Afryea says. ‘We recognise that there can often be a divergence in views about how to address the longstanding issues of inequality in the music industry, some of its practices and what progress has or is being made. Our ongoing pledge, in line with our manifesto, is to always act for the betterment of Black executives.
'We are committed to speaking to music business organisations and the industry at large and continuing to raise the issues that Black executives bring to our attention that are vital to them professionally and personally.’
The ‘Black Lives Matter’ chant which echoed across the world in June 2020 is still a rallying cry in today's music industry. Not only is it a reminder of the progress that’s been made since then, but it also rings true for the ongoing fight for change.
The BMC has launched its membership scheme today — you can find details about how to apply here.