Last week the music industry observed #BlackoutTuesday, a movement started by Atlantic Records marketing executives Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas. The movement began with an impassioned plea that #TheShowMustBePaused, in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other Black US citizens at the hands of police. With good intentions, music industry organisations co-opted this movement to create the #BlackoutTuesday social media campaign. Matt Griffiths, CEO at the UK music charity and funder Youth Music, argues the case for what should happen next.
On Tuesday 2 June 2020, major institutions around the world posted black squares as a sign of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Instead of a black square, we posted a statement of solidarity, and used our communications channels to share resources and opportunities for young Black creatives.
The music industry in its current form is largely disconnected from many of the communities it claims to serve. Where it once thrived on and encouraged diversity and originality, now it has become a top-heavy and often siloed machine, tending to recruit and invest in its own image, rewarding the same people and organisations – and not necessarily those with the most to offer.
Taking a stance on social media is a good start but not nearly enough
With little incentive, culture change has been too slow at the top. In recent days, it has been promising to see so many organisations pledging to do more to remedy the industry’s monoculture, to support Black musicians and behind-the-scenes professionals. But much more than a day of reflection is needed to remedy an ecosystem riven with socioeconomic inequalities.
If the music industry is serious about pushing through long-term systemic change, then organisations need to be dogged in removing barriers and improving access to the full range of roles that exist in the wider industry – beyond the core focus on talent development.
Unpaid internships make carving out a career in the industry significantly harder and, in most cases, unsustainable for those from low income backgrounds. These must end – full stop. Instead, we should see organisations across the board pledging to pay the real Living Wage for internships, apprenticeships and other roles.
In the age of streaming, the music industry must look long and hard at how it rewards and incentivises emerging artists. Currently, Spotify pays an average of just £0.0028 per stream to ‘rights holders’, an all-encompassing term including massive record companies and independent artists. Streaming subscription charges are divvied up from one large pot, with the lion’s share going to the major music corporations. As a consumer you can’t have confidence you are supporting the artists you listen to, and as an emerging artist you’ll struggle to obtain your fair share of royalties.
Video: Dámì Sule was a nominee for the 2019 Youth Music Lyricist Award sponsored by BandLab. He took part in a Rising Stars North West project supported by Youth Music
Independent music venues, particularly those outside London, also need greater recognition and support, as do the many grassroots projects that work tirelessly, and more often than not, on a shoestring to nurture and develop the next generation of professionals and creatives.
And across the board, organisations must put in place comprehensive evidence-led diversity and inclusion policies. This is just the start.
Change needs to start at school
For meaningful change to happen, it is crucial that the drive for inclusivity and diversity begins at school – mirrored in the music curriculum. Our research shows 97% of young people listen to music each week, and those from lower income backgrounds are more likely to see themselves as musical and are just as likely to sing and play an instrument. But their creative identities all too often go unrecognised in schools. This will have an impact on the diversity of the future music industry unless radical change happens now.
As we showed with our Exchanging Notes research, the canon of music studied in schools needs broadening and reimagining. Musician, author and speaker Nate Holder explains why, at this time in particular, it’s not enough to learn about ‘protest songs’ – but instead to study Black Lives Matter protest music: ‘It shows that you are aware of what’s happening, and you’re not prepared to gloss over it.’
Moreover, we must open up education to teachers and community practitioners with different backgrounds and experiences, to give young people access to representative role models.
Youth Music will continue fighting for change on behalf of and alongside young people
Campaigning for inclusion, diversity and representation is at the heart of our work every day. But we know that we too have more to do. 52% of the organisations receiving our Fund A grants identify as ‘diverse-led’, yet only 9.5% of Fund A grants went to BAME-led organisations. It’s a complex problem, and we ourselves do not have all the answers. But as ever, we welcome feedback so that we can do more and do better.
I’m hopeful that is the moment the industry truly commits to doing better too, and that we can count on our peers across the industry and education sectors to make change happen – now and in the future.
About the author
Matt Griffiths originally trained as a percussionist and was a professional musician and music educator for ten years. This work included leading workshops and projects in prisons, young offender institutions, special schools and mental health settings.
It was this work in particular where Matt saw first-hand the significant personal, social and musical benefits of music-making particularly for people facing challenges in their lives. It has been the focus of his career ever since.
His previous roles include founding Director of Plymouth Music Zone, Director of Arts for the Dartington Hall Trust and founder of the Devon School for Social Entrepreneurs. He is the chair of the Cultural Learning Alliance steering group, a member of the Music Education Council forum and a speaker for Speakers For Schools.
Header photo: A young musician from Groundworkz London, a Youth Music-funded project