The fragmented nature of the music industry leads to people juggling various gigs. Someone in advertising sales may manage an artist on the side; a white-collar major label worker may DJ on the weekends; or, a touring musician may do sound engineering work. This can produce a sense that everyone is always a moment away from success (the industry feeds on this), even if for many this is simply a requirement to sustain a living. There is an ever-present feeling that one’s projects may take off, and that sooner than later, you’ll have your own company where you can call the shots. This creates a fairly anti-solidaristic and needlessly paranoid environment where folks are always ready to latch onto what blows up next, rather than a space where folks could push for an industry that doesn’t force everyone into competition, as personified in the Billboard charts.
If Agyemang and Thomas’ view is that of the executive power struggle, I’d like to offer a counterpoint from a little lower on the corporate ladder. Or else, this campaign and effort will be used by corporations to virtue-signal and leave the actual black workers within the music industry still underpaid and outside of hierarchical decision-making opportunities. Here are a few ideas that could start paths towards equality and justice within music workplaces, as opposed to creating needless non-profit projects.
Pay Your Interns
Back in 2013, Warner Music Group faced a lawsuit
by former interns alleging they were denied wages for their work. A number of these lawsuits were filed against other major labels and eventually resulted in a settlement worth over $700,000 by Warner
. The practice of unpaid/underpaid internships isn’t unique to recorded music, as recording studio interns
face similar issues. These jobs are often prerequisites for completing college majors and can be leveraged to get entry level jobs in the industry. If someone cannot afford to make $Free.99 for a summer, especially in New York City or Los Angeles, then the door to make it in the industry gets even harder to open.
An informal poll on the Penny Fractions Twitter
showed dozens of folks testifying towards their own recent unpaid/underpaid internships within the industry. If internships do continue, they must be well
-paid so that they aren’t solely the domain of those who can endlessly grind it out to work at a billion-dollar company. Far too many “exceptions that prove the rules” stories dominate the mistreatment of these workers, and a company cannot claim to care about black lives while accepting unpaid labor. (I’ll note that Sony is the only major label
that explicitly mentioned on their website that internships are paid. The others not so much
, even though I assume their labor practices should be up to the same standards.)
Not unlike internships, a cursory glance through job postings across the music industry reveals it’s hard to know just how much any
job pays. The exceptions are executives and artists themselves, so when Warner Music Group made their IPO, one could see Stephen Cooper, the company’s CEO, made nearly $60 million
from 2017 to 2019. (Just for comparison’s sake, that’s more than half of the amount that WMG earmarked for “social justice.”). An industry known for a century-plus of exploiting the labor of black musicians shouldn’t continue to obscure white collar wages in the first step of the hiring process.
Though Cooper’s made an obscene amount of money, it is better for such information to be in the public rather than hidden. Employees should know how much their executives and senior staff are paid and see salary ranges upfront in job listings. If not, these practices will continue to disadvantage people of color and women, who are often left behind when it comes to negotiating for a better salary. I’d also point to the many, many unionized workplaces
that have public salary floors and agreed upon yearly wage increases. It’s almost comical to talk about wanting real change in the industry that is obsessed with streaming numbers and record sales while keeping distance from an open discussion of wages.
Real Diversity Commitments
Unpaid internships and low-waged, entry level jobs must be addressed but it doesn’t mean companies cannot directly address diversity. I’m going to burrow from a couple recent union contracts as guideposts. For example, The Huffington Post won a $35,000 yearly budget
for diversity initiatives; Vox Media got commitments towards interviewing
a diverse range of candidates for union job listings. The articles should certainly be read to get the full picture, but it shows some small steps that can be taken towards diversity without being hidden by lackluster leadership pathway programs. #TheShowMustBePaused appears to focus on the plight of those already in, or in aspiring towards, power. Little consideration is given to those still getting their first foot in the industry. If
this moment is going to have an impact on the lives of black people in the music industry, it must start with those who are trying to get their first step inside. (Yesterday, Spotify UK agreed to the #EquityinAudio
pledge that addresses many of the issues outlined above
, but still, a question should be asked as to who, if not their workers, will hold them accountable to such gestures.)
Right now, there is an ear for black voices, but the push for reforms cannot just improve the lives of those who’ve “made it.” It must help those who haven’t yet entered the industry. This is the current struggle for workers in journalism
, college football
, public sanitation
, and beyond. These workers aren’t just asking for a seat at the table but rather demanding for safer working conditions and more democratic control over their labor. These are demands worth shutting down an industry over. This moment shouldn’t turn into a feel-good session for aspiring multi-millionaires that who want more corporate power.
The inequity of the music industry is well-documented when it comes to underpaid interns or artists trapped in overly complicated record deals. This is why the demands around #TheShowMustBePaused needs to turn inward, as many in the industry struggle during this particular moment while others can escape off their yacht
. We shouldn’t beg an industry that is creating obscene wealth for only a handful of people to be even more deeply entrenched within black communities. Unless decisions about this industry come from the bottom up (both within and outside of the record label offices), we’ll end up with more days of inaction and more corporate programs. New generations will hit the same glass ceilings, face the same levels of exploitation, and have a few more black executives, but it will not make the system any better.