Why Did We Pause the Show?
10 min read

Why Did We Pause the Show?

Hello, folks! Thank you for all the kind words, as I took a little time off to recuperate from protesting the last couple of weeks. This week’s newsletter is a reaction to how the music industry is responding to this ongoing protest movement and, in particular, the #TheShowMustBePaused campaign. We’ll return to (semi) regularly scheduled programming next week as I look to cover TikTok, but I first wanted to finally put together my thoughts on the last few weeks of historic actions.

A Day of Inaction

Last week, Billboard published a profile of Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas, the two women behind #TheShowMustBePaused. The two music executives talked about the pain over the death of George Floyd that sparked the original hashtag and social media campaign. The duo, rightly, attempted to distance themselves from the celebrity co-option of people posting black squares in an effort to raise awareness...without directly mentioning any cause. That bizarre post-modern remix of the #TheShowMustBePaused campaign is fairly easy to mock, but I’ll point my criticism towards the campaign’s initial conception.

On June 1st, a day before the digital protest, Agyemang and Thomas wrote on Instagram:

The music industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. An industry that has profited predominantly from Black art. Our mission is to hold the industry at large, including major corporations + their partners who benefit from the efforts, struggles, and success of Black people accountable. To that end, 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.

When I read this statement, a single word stood out: “accountable.” There’s little reason to expect a pair of music executives to use more radical language, but there was a real tepidness about the horizon it put forth. There is no proposal for a music industry without record labels, higher levels of government investment (hello...National Endowment of the Arts), nor the potential of reducing the exploitation of music workers from interns to artists. Instead, this is a call to further entrench into communities the vary companies accused of exploiting black people.

Robert L. Allen’s Black Awakening in Capitalist America warned of these efforts back in 1969: “However, the essential purpose for putting black power into business—the creation of a stabilizing black buffer class which will make possible indirect white control (or neocolonial administration) of the ghettos—is still guaranteed by the structure of the program.” Thus, it can’t be too shocking to see why businesses immediately jumped on board with the #TheShowMustBePaused campaign. It offered an authentic way to appeal to real grief mediated through the black capitalist class.

After communications and marketing departments frantically adjusted to the moment, the pocketbooks started opening up. Warner Music Group’s initial public offering saw billions of dollars flow to Len Blavatnik and a few Warner Music executives, and nothing towards musicians or music workers at the label. That irony did not prevent the company from following Agyemang and Thomas’ vision, as it announced a $100 million dollar fund with WMG managers and the Blavatnik Family Foundation. (Note that the press release says decision-making power for this fund will remain in the hands of executives, not the workers or musicians of WMG.) Republic Records removed the word “Urban” from its company vernacular to tepid response. YouTube announced a $100 million fund towards supporting the black community. Nearly every major music company suddenly could mark off the racism box with a couple pen strokes.

I’ll save scolding the non-profit industrial complex for another day, but needless to say, a number of companies shielded themselves from a bad press cycle with these donations. Yet, this feels inappropriate for this moment. What all of these programs and initiatives show are ways for black faces in high places to get larger budgets and chunks of the company pie to spend in ways that suit their interests. #TheShowMustBePaused’s Instagram recently posted about that exact topic and even directed people to vote in New York state’s upcoming election. The ideas being put forth—because there’s been no direct call to action since June 2nd—are just awareness campaigns.

There’ve been calls about how distribution companies, record labels, streaming platforms, etc. can do better for black artists, but little has been said about their employed staff. A reason for that can be seen in the quote Thomas gave to Billboard about the project’s future (emphasis mine):

We’re formalizing various committees as we divide the organization into two branches. One branch will focus on social justice and systemic racism … from the boardroom to the boulevard. The other branch has to do with restructuring the organization within music industry companies to gain more room for growth opportunities for black people.

This bizarre analogy suggested that the power struggle of corporate boardrooms should be conflated with issues like mass incarceration and police brutality. The former concerns are of a privileged few, not the oppressive class conflict that impacts millions of black Americans. This record-industry-led movement is about executive decision-making, not real music worker power. Even the phrase “growth opportunities” hints towards again climbing, not challenging, the corporate ladder.

Cherie Hu wrote on her Patreon about how few black music executives there are in the music industry, which has long been a complaint of the black elites (see: every Kanye West interview). An opportunity to create better pathways towards black leadership and more philanthropic programs cannot be thought of as improving the music industry. Instead, it deepens the roots of this exploitative industry within the black community, as explained in Allen’s quote above. If the local park is named after a record label and they have a black CEO, it shuts down the ability to critique the same record label that signs teenagers to bad deals, underpays its interns, and produces a toxic work culture. All of that would be masked over. This moment should spark more than corporate empowerment.

Another Path Forward

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.)

Wage Transparency

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 a 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 borrow from a couple of 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 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 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.

A Note of Financialization

This week there is no ‘Unheard Labor’ section. Instead, here is a small update on the financialization of the music industry. (I’ll admit this is a bad pun and everything here might not fit with the term financialization but forgive me I like a bad joke.) Anyway, Tencent acquired a $200 million stake in Warner Music Group according to Variety. The company now controls 2% of Warner Music Group, 9% of Spotify, and nearly 10% of Universal Music Group. Horrific. That is to say, any organization looking to advocate for musicians or music workers should think deeply about issues of antitrust and consolidation. (I’ll shout out the Future of Music Coalition, which already does a lot of good work here.)

How Independent Music Venues Are Fighting for Their Existence - Pitchfork

The National Independent Venue Association's latest survey shows that even with more businesses across the country opening up, the live music sector is still in a dire situation. Marc Hogan spoke to venue owners about this situation and the demands the organization is putting towards the federal government for relief.

On TikTok, Fighting Racism Requires a Song and Dance - Pitchfork

I’m fairly exhausted with “viral” moments, but I also find people trying to maneuver around a platform’s algorithm pretty fun.

Twitch Users Face Potential Channel Bans Following Platform’s ‘Sudden Influx of DMCA Music Takedown Requests’ - Music Business Worldwide

Just adding this to the ever-increasing conversation about live streaming and where it exactly fits within the future of digital music.

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Strength in Numbers: A More Secure Future for the Music Industry - Electronic Beats

This is a nice, slightly more theoretical dive into the current labor issues within the record industry. I appreciate that there are a couple of organizations that are fighting to allow us writers to better articulate ways to improve our situations.

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The first write-up says not to expect a speedy ruling by the European Commission, which is fine. Just very curious if this might be what stops Apple’s absurd ability to demand rent on in-app purchases. A ridiculous, anti-competitive practice by the company that only harms companies that do engage with the App Store. Even though Spotify is doing this for their own bottom line, certainly won’t be hard to get other groups behind this push.