Black ownership and infrastructure is needed to fix the music industry - Features - Mixmag

The House That Black Built: Why Black ownership and infrastructure is needed to equalise the music industry

Kwame Safo explains why Black-owned and -led enterprises are necessary for Black artists and professionals to prosper without making compromises in the music industry

  • Kwame Safo AKA Funk Butcher
  • 15 June 2023

Painfully “the saga continues…” as discussions around anti-Black racism, especially in entertainment, have spanned longer than just the past few years. The build-up of countless frustrations since the internationally observed Blackout Tuesday event in 2020, have bottlenecked into a culmination of intersectional issues, which at best serve to dilute and derail the core driver of the movement. The fundamental reason behind the disillusionment and ostracising of Black music creators and industry professionals within the wider music industry is down to simply ownership.

The panacea of ownership is at times an oversimplification. A bridge too far. A concept too abstract to grasp. Ownership itself, from the perspective of the creator, is often linked to insidious agendas to acquire power, and with that, control and dominance of the art and its usage. Parity and equity are typically never included in conversations regarding ownership in the music space, which is why even now as Web 2.0 (the current iteration of the internet as it stands) stares ominously at its new “decentralised” and disparate Web 3.0 form, much of the old mechanics around racism, sexism etc still prevail. Technological shifts very rarely equate to automatic cultural shifts (or counterculture) which is what is required throughout.

Read this next: Why we started the Black Artist Database

The foundational inroads of the music industry had (by careful design) been established to facilitate and accommodate the free movement, expression and commerce as deemed appropriate by its white gatekeepers. Any pivot to satisfy the needs of other communities, whether they had legitimate claim to the industries formation or not, was seen merely as an additionality, rather than something core and set-in-stone. That cannot be changed simply by Black hires, especially if the nature of those hires is to perpetuate old structures and ideals. Typically the levelling up of Black staff via salary mechanisms, doesn't always equate to a balance in the arena of decision-making in the most important rooms. Black hires can at times be strategic from organisations based on the idea that the Black personnel are on-boarded to facilitate pre-existing operational aims as opposed to any real form of structural reform. The acquisition of money being prioritised over key social issues, whilst using an artform which is driven by very said social issues, is the kick in the teeth I spoke of in 2020's editorial.

Is there even a will to change?

During lockdown, the global economy simultaneously flatlined and its institutions were taken to task. Economic activity across all entertainment sectors pretty much ground to a halt. The reflective period, as documented with most near-death experiences, saw a change in the temperament of organisations operating in all music spaces, not just Black music ones. The Black squares were placeholders for more elaborate empowerment schemes devised to amplify and honour Black employees and contributions. Platitudes at best. The phrase “a seat at the table” racked up impressive numbers over the course of the period as both sides alike struggled to identify what it actually meant. Were these seats passive? Or did it actually incorporate voting rights and organisational steer?

The major labels in that time have been fighting on multiple fronts, with the most recent pressure from the UK government's DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) committee report into the Economics of Music Streaming. The results of which even led to an inquiry from the Competition Commission into the power wielded by the major record labels. Whether it's been the #BrokenRecord online campaign to fix aspects of streaming which culminated into a valiant effort by Kevin Brennan and his private members bill. The conversation has taken front seat in an unsure and destabilised global economy. Yet with all this mainstream coverage, the movements from the big three major record labels were lacklustre at best.

Universal Music Group set up its own Task Force for Meaningful Change, which included powerful and respected alumni along its corporate strata. Warner Music Group’s Blavatnik Family Foundation put over $100 million into a new Social Justice Fund designed to combat issues of systemic racism. Not to be outdone, Sony Music Entertainment created its own creatively titled Global Social Justice Fund pledging a similar amount as WMG/BFF’s initiative to tackle “anti-racism”

But what exactly does this money do? And arguably where did the big three land on the topic of “social justice” prior to a Black man’s murder?

Collectively bringing the finest Black minds in the music business to then be hamstrung under directionless and immeasurable initiatives is something we should all be very conscious of and wary about. The reactionary takes to activism, fall into the realm of performance when they neglect the importance of development, defined tangible targets and the sheer scope of the task at hand.

Read this next: How the #BrokenRecord campaign is fighting to fix the music industry

What is even harder to gauge is the developmental practices for Black workers within the sector. Are progression routes opening up for Black members of the organisation? Or are we still called upon predominantly to only activate and engage with Black aspects of the music industry. As a fly on the wall in the HR departments of the company, would I still be surprised by the complaints of Black members of staff cajoled and micro-managed to points of exhaustion?

I don’t think money was ever the issue in many of the instances; it's whether that money transforms into opportunities our white counterparts in the sector currently enjoy.

If somebody is guilty of transgressions based on race within the company, does the organisation have the wherewithal to investigate immediately and take action? If this is still a fundamental topic of deliberation then the generous monetary contributions with no explicit commitment, do nothing for the progression of Black professionals in the sector. Somewhere along the line racism became nuanced, and survivors of abuse would then have to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, the offence occurred. The same corporate idiosyncrasies can be found when approaching issues of sexual abuse and even more-so especially, where sexual abuse and racism intersect. More often than not, the organisational response is counter-intuitive and flies in the face of its marketed values. The cynic in me is tingling, as the real conversation around counterculture and draining the swamp edges into the next phrase of our wokeness.

Build it and they shall come

Infrastructure as a concept has never fully been processed, as the fight for Black creatives was predominantly centred around the most basic of needs which was “to be valued”. Where the civil rights movements of old and Black “professionalism” overlap is the fixation on value of self. The Black creative/employee has/is battling from a societal deficit. A position where he/she/they are seen as less than the norm. The strides made in this area, have at some stages, ignored the next juncture of our involvement in the wider music economy. That is as architects in our own right.

Black ideas have been stifled in part through sheer exhaustion of fighting a battle which is, in reality, but a small part of the overall situation. Cultural autonomy cannot be administered from purely the artistic level. At some stage the relationship between the different parameters which make a healthy, and more importantly, a cohesive Black music sector need to be nurtured and developed. What is/are the boundaries of Black music? How does it show itself? What is its message? What is its legacy?

The intersection of hundreds and thousands of organisations servicing the delivery and narrative of Black music, run and monitored by Black owners, is probably the only way things such as this very feature will stop needing to become a regular occurrence year on year. The oversimplification of what needs to be done is not lost on me. But similarly the belief to fixate on the cog and not the casing which houses the collection of cogs, has led us to an inevitable glass ceiling.

Infrastructure built to support Black music and its talent equates to not just diversity around the recording industry, but the publishing arm also: The development of PR and Marketing which is authentic in its position, and empowered to challenge mainstream and harmful projections of stereotypical tropes which hinder the spread of Black musical talent. The most important one of all is the upskilling and signposting within the recording industry. Infrastructure building should include spaces to onboard new participants into the sector and reduce the current bottleneck effect widely understood from Black music professionals which perpetuates the culture of “one in, one out”. This is a result of seemingly finite opportunities which happen as a result of limited knowledge of the sector to create options for Black music creators. Diversity and competition in the sector invariably helps numbers to grow.

Read this next: Estée Blu: The music industry is not a meritocracy, and it's harshest on Black women

A Black editorial approach to organisations at the very least eliminates the need to describe honest and genuine moves as risky. To even posit them as progressive is detrimental to the idea that a needle is being moved. To frame what should have always been happening as progressive attaches a sense of achievement to organisations who have been historically lackadaisical in their operations. The perception of risk from the status quo is based around a flawed and myopic relationship with the current C-suite (predominantly white men) and their experiences on what works. Adding Black unfettered steer at board level or Black-led organisations, allows decisions such as dark-skinned female leads in music to move beyond the insulting label of bold. There’s nothing remotely bold about a move which is perfectly normal, yet the current model has boxed a number of tropes into the category of foolhardy from a marketing and commercial standpoint.

The creation of Black-owned and -led enterprises, (with expertise in those arenas of Black music creation and delivery) is the only way to experience an unfiltered perspective of culture with zero compromises. It’s also the place where consumers can make an informed decision as to what level of dilution they actually want. Rather than what currently exists, with the consumer being subjected to piecemeal representations of the culture marketed as “conscious” to deride the wider pantheon of Blackness as NOT being as authentic. The reality is that it’s ALL conscious, ALL authentic, ALL representative of the many facets behind the Black experience.

The mere idea that “too Black” as a concept is widely understood by Black music creators is itself a problem and indicative of where editorial and overriding control lies in the retail of Black music.

RETAIN and (you won't need to) come again my selector!

During the pandemic the UK Conservative government waged a war on the creative industries during the height of its furlough scheme. The aim was to trim the fat of the burgeoning debt which they had concluded was being attributed by the creative industries, which was largely inactive due to lockdown restrictions.

The controversy came from the inference that Rishi Sunak (the then-Chancellor) suggested workers from the struggling Arts sector and creative industries should retrain in different areas of business as a way to solve the impending debt crisis and economic slump.

The employment rate has always been the sexiest thing to promote, especially when there is an improvement year-on-year. The government of the day is invested in promoting its wins, what is not perceived as a win however is the concept of retention. A work culture and environment so alluring that employees rarely ever leave of their own volition. Retention (as a marker of inclusivity, and impact of equity and inclusion practices) is not as widely promoted as uptake. In the battle to improve environments and identify workplace tokenism, retention rates are an incredibly useful tool for identifying cultural strengths and weaknesses. Are Black professionals staying? You have a culture which celebrates the nuances of racial diverse thought. A high turnover of Black members of staff? The organisation has a draw (salary, corporate brand etc) but culturally Black members of staff are stifled creatively and lack support to develop and grow within the current business model.

Read this next: How Black women and queer communities are shaping the future of African electronic music

Organisations being short-sighted in their overall strategy of diverse hiring (focused predominantly on the optics), has been a difficult pill for progressive companies who are believed to be breaking down barriers. The reality is that the expectations for new Black members of staff in these set-ups are so restrictive, and in some ways exacerbate burnout, that to succeed in much of the music industry as a Black professional your compliance is inextricably linked to your success and longevity.

Retention of ethnically diverse staff, and more specifically Black employees, is as much about a shift towards an intuitive counterculture which is responsive to the nuances and breadth of Blackness within the organisation, rather than the current culture towards Black being reduced solely to a celebrated win for the company to indicate to its competitors that it is moving in the right direction. Organisations simply need to see beyond Black members of staff being a visible richness of melanin and incorporate the very real and valuable lens that Black professionals bring new and exciting strategic takes to solve ongoing problems. A lack of willingness to throw caution to the wind as new Black professionals enter into new roles does a disservice to any real commitment to institutional change.

Solutions, solutions, solutions

If the appetite for change is not present, how can any solution truly be effective? It may seem like a foregone conclusion. Invariably you meet musicians and industry professionals committed to an anti-racist cultural reform and the spark has been extinguished in them. The likelihood of experiencing tangible change seems to be escaping them.

Conversations regarding change and equity have previously been posited as discussion points. And yet, can you imagine, racial parity and fairness has to be negotiated? We are still very far from experiencing any sort of semblance of a leveling-off in the music business. In the United Kingdom, The Black Music Coalition has adopted a more direct tone in its communications with the wider music sector, a welcome change to the conciliatory approach of yesteryear and could be interpreted as merely setting boundaries and being intentional in its approach.

Aside from tone, protective measures to improve the freedoms of Black industry professionals have been approached by the organisation Black Lives In Music (BLiM). BLiM, who traditionally operate in the genres of jazz and classical music to improve racial inequality, have embarked on an Anti-Racism Code Of Conduct. The likes of which, if endorsed unilaterally, would form the basis of a true framework of measures deemed critical by Black and non-white voices to improve the working experiences of Black and non-white professionals in the UK Music industry. Trade bodies could in theory subscribe to the code and strengthen the convention throughout the industry making it standard practice and etiquette.

The scrutiny of the music industry will inevitably be a continuous process, especially as new developments of technology push the industry into new epochs, and the position and the progress against anti-Black sentiment must be managed and monitored. Many Black and non-Black industry professionals have sacrificed unquantifiable parts of their lives in the fight to level the playing field. Albeit an arduous and repetitive task, the practice of holding the sector to account has to be maintained across ethnicities and more importantly generations.

Kwame Safo AKA Funk Butcher is a DJ, Broadcaster, Label Head, Producer and Music Consultant. Follow him on Twitter

Next Page
Newsletter 2

Mixmag will use the information you provide to send you the Mixmag newsletter using Mailchimp as our marketing platform. You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us. By clicking sign me up you agree that we may process your information in accordance with our privacy policy. Learn more about Mailchimp's privacy practices here.