The Music Industry Needs Confrontation More Than Reflection

Illustration for article titled The Music Industry Needs Confrontation More Than Reflection
Screenshot: Instagram

On Tuesday, the music industry coordinated a “Black Out” to stand in solidarity with the black community in response to protests following the murder of George Floyd. Major record labels and companies like Spotify and Live Nation jumped on board, calling vaguely for days of “action,” while others pledged to push back releases and make donations, the New York Times reported. But the effort was marred with confusion on behalf of artists and fans who wished for more specificity. And when the blackout image was co-opted by people outside the music industry—posted on Instagram with #blacklivesmatter hashtags—that solidarity transformed into suppression as important protest and aid information was pushed out of tag pages.


The Black Out had good intentions. It was an initiative spearheaded by two black women in the industry, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, who created the hashtag #TheShowMustBePaused for a day that called for a productive conversation (not silence) about supporting the black community. It linked to bail funds and anti-racism resources and was clear in its intentions: this was a day for the music industry to answer for how it profits off of black people. “It is the obligation of these entities to protect and empower the Black communities that have made them disproportionately wealthy in ways that are measurable and transparent,” they wrote.

The response in the industry was scattered. Some record labels and streaming services ceased operations for the day. Some, like Spotify and Sony, matched employee donations to organizations fighting on the frontlines. Universal Music Group told the New York Times they were forming a task force to tackle “inclusion” at the company. But the ceasing of operations, pausing social media feeds, and blacking out images of services, was a unifying trend. “Perhaps with the music off, we can truly listen,” Columbia Records posted on their Instagram.

It’s ironic that the music industry would consider silence a substantial form of protest. But it makes sense once you take into consideration that many labels or platforms don’t see music as a vehicle for political change or protest. When you see music as apolitical, as a vehicle for escapism and uplift alone, the solution is to silence it instead of actually harnessing it to reflect the real world. Labels see themselves in the business of entertainment as if entertainment is excused from discussions of racism. But politely stepping back and ceasing business implies that the problem exists outside the industry alone, when the problem is a cornerstone of the industry.

It’s also easier to create a single day to reflect on the music industry’s racism because music industry officials—and companies like TikTok and Spotify—know that it will take much longer. There were concrete ways the Black Out could have been more effective as it happened: if labels, companies, and artists were unified in boosting the donation links and aid funds the original The Show Must Be Paused page suggested. The donations some labels did do is a step in the right, immediate direction and should continue indefinitely. But the longer-term change, and the change the music industry is best suited to make happen, requires a specific discussion of how companies leech off of black art and have done so for decades.

What would it look like if Spotify answered to the millions of artists who’ve lost wages through its platform that significantly devalues music? Or if TikTok cracked down harder on the proliferation of racist videos on its platform? Or if record labels stopped signing and building up white artists who appropriate black art while relegating black artists to “urban” labels? If all companies created task forces that required diverse hiring practices? If astonishingly white music publications hired black editors and writers instead of calling on freelancers to speak for all black listeners? These hypotheticals may be frivolous as black people are murdered in the streets, but the music industry should be able to aid the black communities they profit off of today and work to dismantle its own racist structures tomorrow.

The initial Show Must Be Paused statement made it clear that the Black Out was not a 24-hour initiative. For that to be possible, labels and companies should be explicit and organized in who they’re donating to, how much they’re donating, and what they’re actually doing to aid the black community moving forward. But it also means recognizing that reflection is not the same as confrontation and that turning the music off doesn’t erase the racism that already exists well within it.

Hazel Cills is the Pop Culture Reporter at Jezebel. Her writing has been published by outlets including The Los Angeles Times, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, ELLE, and more.



Or if record labels stopped signing and building up white artists who appropriate black art while relegating black artists to “urban” labels?”

This calls to mind the mess between Luther Vandross and then-CBS/Sony Music Chairman Walter Yetnikoff back in the 1980s. Luther was making tons of money for the Epic label, but Yetnikoff kept denying his request to be promoted to Pop formats, even though Top 40 stations were playing Luther’s music without corp[orate support. Only when “Give Me The Reason” appeared on the 1986 movie “Ruthless People” and soundtrack did Luther get the pop push he rightfully deserved, but that was a one-and-done deal. Yetnikoff, meanwhile, did push Michael Jackson all over the place.

The one exception to the first part of your statement was the Beastie Boys, who were originally signed to Def jam, which at the time was distributed by Sony. Yetnikoff didn’t like the Beasties or their producer, Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin, and couldn’t stop meddling in Def Jam’s affairs. Even when “Licensed to Ill” went platinum, Yetnikoff kept bitching and harassing and refusing to support the band, their album and Rubin until the Beasties left for Capitol Records and Rubin quit to start a new label, Def American.

What can I say?  Walter Yetnikoff was horrible.