2016 In Review: White privilege in music - will diversity finally become a reality in 2017?
It is no revelation that the fabric of the music industry is one which is tightly stitched together by the threads of patriarchy and white privilege. Arguably, the digital age is dealing with this problem – the vast amounts of digital tools and tech resources available has allowed entrepreneurialism to thrive. The DIY generation are developing their own platforms and paving their own paths to tap into the music industry, in turn also breaking down power constructs. However, when looking at the Brits, Billboards Power 100 (featuring only 11 Black individuals and 15 women out of 127), Music Week’s ‘30 Under 30 list’ or just by walking past the senior offices of a major label in the UK, it becomes evident that a lack of BAME representation remains pervasive. Though we have seen a broadening of the ‘mainstream’ with so-called ‘underground’ acts achieving commercial success, thus more diverse visibility on a creative level, the higher echelon remains stale.
2016 has been a year of reflection and heightened consciousness for the industry on the subject of diversity. One may ask what has taken so long and why now?
Social media has played a huge part in forcing dialogue, applying pressure and exposing the race issues which tend to get surpressed, pushed to the bottom of the agenda or addressed with pseudo strategies. Year after year we see reports concluding the same thing; that there is "under representation", "blocked access for BAME individuals" or slim chances of career progression. Having only launched the ‘Equality and Diversity Charter’ in 2012 the music industry is one of the last industries in the UK to make sincere efforts towards changing the status quo and four years later progress remains slow. We understand that Rome wasn’t built overnight, but one questions whether the old boys network is genuinely interested in transformative action or whether they are wanting to create a perception of change while still exercising undue influence in the recruitment process.
"why it's like that has to do with the fact that historically it grew out of the organised rime rip off of black artists who didn't understand the value of their publishing and had their copyrights taken off them for very little. This ended up enriching all these white guys and it's become a haunted graveyard that the whole industry is built on" - John Seabrook (Noisey)
Where are we now?
2016 has been a notable year for diversity, this year we have seen a number of women ascend to the top of the corporate ladder, with Lucian Grange (Head of Universal Music Group) being recognised for championing female leadership. Though this is something to celebrate, majority (if not all) of these women are white and with 93% of the top corporate end in the UK Music industry remaining white, it is hard to dispute that white privilege plays its part. A report by Music Tank published this year revealed that discrimination and stereotyping are common features and serve as a hindrance in BAME employees being selected for promotions. Diversity Management in the UK Music Industry – the thoughts and perspectives of Black Employees.
"I think breaking the stereotype of what they thought or what people thought of a black man or what he should be doing or where he should be - i didn't want to get boxed in that stereotype - was for em probably my greatest challenge" - Darcus Bease - President of Island Records
Another highlighted issue is the lack of systems in place to measure diversity progress or lack there of. Earlier this year UK Music’s Diversity Task Force held their first ‘Diversity Summit’ also launching the industry wide UK Music Industry Workforce Diversity Survey, which will be repeated each year and aims to “map out progress and improve opportunities for individuals from all backgrounds to forge a career within the industry”.
"The economic and cultural success of British music over the last couple of years has been astronomical. For us to continue such success we need an entry point pipeline of diverse talent as well as career progression and diverse management at the top. It seems obvious but businesses with boards which accurately reflect the public and consumer do better than those that do not" - Jo Dipple , CEO UK Music
Additionally, following the #BritsSoWhite saga the Brits voting academy has undergone a shake up and introduced 700 new members of diverse and cross-sector backgrounds. BPI have implemented new strict guidelines which stipulate that voting lists must be 50% male, 50% female and at least 15% BAME representative. This is of course progress, but will have minimal impact unless diversity is achieved industry wide, when considering that to be eligible for Brits nomination an artist must have charted the official top 40, which of course is heavily dictated by industry politics i.e. by white men who hold the power making each other promises at Shoreditch House.
Nonetheless, we welcome the positive steps being taken in different corners of the industry to change the narrative.
Some small recommendations …
There needs to be a more pragmatic approach to the recruitment process (stop giving jobs to your sisters baby father) by sourcing a broad range of platforms to advertise jobs on which will in turn reach a broader demographic and sourcing individuals based on merit and suitability for promotions. If Music companies such as the majors, Spotify, Soundcloud, Live Nation, Apple Music etc. are truly committed they need to start looking beyond the middle aged, middle class white man with a privileged educational background as the only viable option. There is a strong pool of talented young BAME professionals, who are suitable yet they often remain stagnant with little progression.
There should also be a strong focus on building a collaborative culture with young entrepreneurs and influencers who understand the culture, music and trends and work tirelessly to elevate the scene rather than employing people who have zero understanding of the culture or how certain music is communicated (having a terrible flashback to that time the Evening Standard sent John – who has zero understanding of Grime Music or Culture- to review Skepta’s historic Ally Pally show describing Skepta’s “wheel up” as a “restart” due to technical difficulties, I’m about to be sick…brb). Appropriation, misrepresentation and tokenism are very bad alternatives.
Increased funding for platforms such as Young Music Boss, Sorority House and Girls I Rate who play an important role in educating and nurturing entrepreneurship. Initiatives such as these create developmental resources, mentorship, access and exchanges which in turn empowers young people, from broader demographics and ethnic backgrounds, to believe that their aspirations are attainable.
Is it foreseeable that in the near future we will see a shift in the hegemony, a transformation that will change the face of music’s gatekeepers? I think yes, but positive action is not enough, internship programmes for BAME to access the industry is not enough, there needs to be investment in education, empowerment, mentor-ship and HONEST effort to achieve real structural changes.
For an industry which profits hugely from the exploitation of black music and culture, with Hip Hop and Grime as major exports, the duty to ensure reflective representation – particularly on an executive level - is an ethical one. 2017 is the year to implement transparent, inclusive and actionable strategies to break the deliberate glass ceiling in music.