Working towards a fairer music industry

Racism In The Music Industry

The scenes we’ve witnessed recently surrounding the murder of George Floyd are shocking. Until you remember that the same events have been lived, recorded, and protested against over and over and over again on a loop for hundreds of years. A black person is killed by police, justice is avoided, the streets are engulfed in flames, society is outraged and appalled. Police brutality and relentless violence towards black people has caused streets to erupt with anger before. Anguish, rage and sadness have all been expressed in the most visceral ways right in front of us, many times before.  

Reasonable, educated, open minded people have had the same conversations we’re having right now too. Over and over again. Each generation feels as though they are towards the ‘end of the road’ of racism and prejudice because they consider themselves - on the whole - to be more liberal and progressive than the one before. This way of thinking encourages complacency. Our generation is not special, we are not as ‘woke’ as we like to think we are. We are not at the end of the road.  

The music industry’s response to racism is not something I can continue to feel complacent about any longer. Most of what I have read online from various sources has been lazy enough to omit any sense of personal responsibility in favour of referring to ‘white people’ as some kind of generality or pushed the notion that they are ‘standing in solidarity’ with the black community. Standing in solidarity how? People have spoken about privilege but there has been very little airing of personal and professional failings. If we are to have this conversation seriously, individual and corporate accountability needs to be voiced.

I didn’t start Route explicitly to help black people, I started it to help people who found the system of the music industry hard to navigate because of barriers erected outside of their control. Some of those people are from poorer backgrounds, and many of those people happen to be black. Organisations have now deemed themselves ‘gatekeepers’ of our industry but haven’t admitted that they’ve willingly left these barriers in place.

An industry blackout during a pandemic when most staff are furloughed, venues are closed and releases are being pushed back has been championed with no sense of irony or self awareness. Unless we’re careful, vigilant and honest with each other, companies who have profited from racism will be able to attach their logos to anti-racism slogans, inspirational quotes and earnestly written instagram posts in order to brand and co-opt this movement for their own gain, just as they’ve done before with feminism and gay pride.

While protesting is integral to the cause and is of course important for global visibility and political pressure, protesting as a solitary act is just not enough. Where will the protestors be next week, next month, next year?

Being informed about the issue is important and the vast sharing of books, documentaries, songs, films and resources surrounding racism and white priveledge is definitely a step in the right direction, if perhaps a little misguided. Read, watch and listen as much as you can but remember that Racism is not an intellectual argument. There is a danger of the people who inhabit this industry making it one. It’s not about how many civil rights leaders you can name or the dates of certain speeches; murderous racists know those facts too. Engrained ways of thinking are much harder to change, and that is what needs to be addressed for any real progress to take place.

Knowing the mechanics behind being anti-racist does not automatically make you anti-racist. Being able to recognise your privilege does not automatically transfer that privilege to a POC. If you’re about to commit a micro aggression and then stop yourself - you have still had that thought. The process of elimination happens over decades. 

Within all this lies my own sense of guilt. I feel guilty because there is of course a spectrum of privilege and relativity. I am a relatively privileged black man working in the music industry and I have remained, on the whole, too quiet, too polite and too accepting of what I have encountered first hand. At times my lack of reaction comes from fear of being ‘that guy,’ but more acutely it’s because I’ve not wanted to dwell on the thought that some of the more nuanced ways people behave towards me could be due to the colour of my skin. Remaining in this head space for too long has been counterproductive in my own experience. 

There are other occasions where I have witnessed explicit racism. I have watched people physically wince at the mention of a black and asian crowd coming to a venue. I’ve been at festivals and been told that I was such a ‘white black guy’ because the act I was going to see wasn’t hip-hop. I have been on email threads and in meetings where increased hire costs for promoters have been mooted for shows based on the race of the artist. This essentially amounts to a tax on black people playing black music, under the thinly veiled excuse that “certain genres” need extra security on hand, because they “attract trouble.”

If people who are labelled as troublemakers in wider society by our national institutions on a daily basis, are then labelled as trouble within the music community before they’ve even entered a venue, who is making trouble for who here? The fuse has been lit in an office somewhere and ignites weeks later when an audience member is slightly abrasive or rude to a bouncer or member of staff who has already been forewarned of potential dangers.

Some of these incidents I have mentioned at the time but during the past 10 years of my career, I know I have been too quiet about it. This is a personal failing and I’ll be challenging myself to be ‘that guy’ more often. I will continue to address inadequacies for people on the wrong side of these kinds of barriers, through Route and beyond. 

There is a reason why the places I spend most of my time through work are predominately white environments. People may argue it’s to do with black people not liking certain types of music but why don’t they? The amount of white people who go to see black music far outweighs the opposite. This is purely my anecdotal experience but if recent studies similar to Create London’s 2018 ‘Panic Report’ addressing these kinds of disparities across the wider arts has an equivalent in the music industry, please send me the link. If it doesn't, we at Route are actively seeking to contribute to such a study. 

It’s up to the ‘gatekeepers’ to ask the question of whether black people think particular venues, festivals, offices, albums and labels, are ‘for them’ in the same way white people do and if not, why not. Where does the fault lie and what can be done on a daily basis to foster a change in prevailing attitudes. These questions need to be asked this week, next week, next month, next year and if need be, in 25 years from now as well. We’re in it for the long haul.

Jamal Guthrie