Last summer, as protests roiled over the death of George Floyd, the music industry began to take a hard look at itself with regard to race — how it treats Black artists, how Black employees fare at music companies, how equitably money flows throughout the business.
Major record labels, streaming services and broadcasters pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in donations, convened task forces and promised to take concrete steps to diversify their ranks and correct inequities. Artists like the Weeknd and BTS donated money to support social justice, and Erykah Badu and Kelis signaled their support for economic reforms in the music industry.
Everything seemed on the table. Even the term “urban,” in radio formats and marketing — to some a racist euphemism, to others a signifier of pride and sophistication — came under scrutiny. But there was still wide skepticism about whether the business was truly committed to making substantial changes or whether its donations and lofty statements were more a matter of crisis P.R.
The Black Music Action Coalition, a group of artist managers, lawyers and others, was created last summer with a mission to hold the industry to account. In June, it intends to release a “report card” on how well the various music companies have made good on their promises and commitments to progress.
The report will lay out what steps the companies have taken toward racial parity, and track whether and where promised donations have been made. It will also examine the number of Black executives at the leading music companies and the power they hold, and how many Black people sit on their boards. Future reports will take deeper looks at questions like how equitably the industry itself operates, Binta Niambi Brown and Willie Stiggers, a.k.a. Prophet, the coalition’s co-chairmen, said in an interview this week.
“Our fight is much bigger than just whether or not you wrote a check,” said Prophet, an artist manager who works with Asian Doll, Layton Greene and other acts. “But the fact that you said you were going to write a check, we want to make sure that money was actually given and that it went to a place that actually hit the veins of the Black community.”
The report, to be written by Naima Cochrane, a journalist and former label executive, will be modeled on the annual media studies by the advocacy group GLAAD, which track the representation of L.G.B.T.Q. characters in film and television and assign ratings to the various companies behind them. It is expected to be issued by June 19 — Juneteenth, the annual holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.
The coalition’s public statements have made it clear that it sees itself as a strict and unflinching judge of the music industry, which has a dark history of exploitation of Black artists even as Black music has long been — and remains — its most essential product. Last summer, an online campaign called #BlackoutTuesday brought out painful commentary that, even today, many Black executives feel marginalized, subject to white supervisors who hold greater powers and earn more money.
Brown, a label executive and artist manager, said the goal of the report is not punishment but encouragement.
“We want to do it in a way that is more carrots than stick, so we can continue to incentivize good behavior” she said. “We want to hold folks accountable, not cancel them.”
Most of the major music companies have hired diversity officers and promoted some top Black executives to positions equal to those of their white colleagues, though there are still only a handful of Black people at the uppermost levels of leadership. One company, the Universal Music Group, keeps a public website detailing the progress of its Task Force for Meaningful Change, listing dozens of recipients of the $25 million it pledged last year.
A number of outside studies have also been commissioned to examine diversity within the industry, including one by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California and another by the Recording Academy, the Berklee College of Music and Arizona State University about women in music.
Yet there has been relatively little public discussion about looking at artist contracts, including ones from decades past, and curing any unfair terms.
One company, BMG, examined thousands of contracts and found that, of 15 catalogs it owns that have rosters with both Black and non-Black artists, 11 showed no evidence of racial disadvantage. Among the four that did, the company found “a statistically significant negative correlation between being Black and receiving lower recorded royalty rates” of 1.1 to 3.4 percentage points. BMG has pledged to take action to correct that disparity.
Those deeper issues about fairness in the music industry may well be covered in future reports by the coalition. For now, they are limiting their scope to whether promises have been kept.
“Racism is 400-year-old problem,” Prophet said. “We didn’t think it would be solved in 12 months.”