Advocacy and Mentorship for Black Professionals in the Music Industry

In recent weeks, the music industry has begun to have a reckoning with its need to increase advancement and empowerment for Black professionals and creatives who contribute so much to the health and wealth of the industry while being kept out of the dividends. Several companies announced funds and task forces to rectify high-level inequities such as artists’ contracts and executive development and opportunities. While it is great to galvanize resources and capital to address these issues, there is also an abundance of issues down the pipeline that deserve solutions as well.

Mentorship is one area that would benefit from being established more systematically and not just offered to those lucky enough to encounter powerful titans like Clarence Avant who have spent decades looking out for others. As someone whose power had previously remained largely unknown outside of the industry, last year a Netflix documentary about his life showed the immense influence he has and the long-running efforts made for him to not only to help others in dealmaking but also in binds that don’t have a rulebook for how to get out of. While there are several robust intern programs offered across different companies and organizations like The Recording Academy who give young hopefuls a chance to learn more about the business and build community, beyond entry-level opportunities, there are no programs for one-on-one mentoring between more established executives and aspiring or junior-level executives. These types of opportunities would allow for targeted learning and advice for specific situations as well as a safe space for professionals to navigate cutthroat politics.

Speaking of politics, as much as it is ingrained into the very fabric of this business, there is no manual on how to deal with it or be protected from it. Donald Passman has written and updated a very robust book of the music business, and there are several other books like Hit Men that do go more into the nuances of working in the music industry, but there are no materials out there currently on how to deal with frequent occurrences such as a toxic, unsupporting boss or how to identify and foster relationships with the right allies. Often, speaking up or speaking out around any grievances in employment contracts, working environments, company culture, and the clear dichotomy in treatment and value across racial and gender lines results in retaliation. There’s a lot of ego and entitlement in the industry that is not surprisingly allowed freely more for some than others. Although a public guide about politics is nearly impossible and runs counter to the clandestine culture of the business, the industry could stand to have a network of individuals dedicated to being accessible to help others navigate their own professional journeys.

While raising awareness and repairing problems in the industry on a macro level is necessary, it is also necessary to examine at a ground level the everyday treatment of Black professionals in the workplace. It is unacceptable if there’s a pattern of individuals being left out of key emails and meetings, as well as having very different levels of access to T&E budgets as well as even having support staff such as administrative assistants and offices. Pay inequities and title differences among executives with comparable backgrounds and responsibilities should be reassessed and readjusted.

In terms of the development of young professionals, trauma should not be what’s expected and celebrated in other to cultivate an informed, and assertive executive when that experience is not being duplicated across the board. As long as there are individuals offered opportunities before supposed needed years of experience and connections, Black professionals should not be held to the fire to gain their own traction and relationships as an executive before stepping into a building or doing deals.

Black excellence is the commodity long used in the music industry to keep the lights on. While symbolic and top-heavy displays of support sound good, equity should be top of mind for anyone who advocates for Black lives in the industry and as a whole. Equity includes more imprint deals being done where the partners are given credence to development and shape careers in their own way without losing that power once an artist begins to become profitable for the parent label. It also means while utilizing the talents of a particular demographic, that same demographic should be given more stake in the ecosystem in the business. For example, there several prolific Black female songwriters in the pop, R&B, and hip-hop space that has existed throughout the last decade such as Missy Elliott, Ester Dean, Makeba Riddick, Priscilla Renea, Starrah, Victoria Monet, Naija Charles, Jozzy, Gizzle, Tish Hyman, Tayla Parx, and so many others. So why are there not more of them reflected in key A&R and other creative business roles? There have also been solid Black female managers such as Phillana Williams, Kei Henderson, Natalie Prospere, Ericka Coulter, Paris Hines, among others. Why aren’t there more Black women being offered JV deals to run their own labels? Black Twitter is one of the most culturally relevant constituencies in the modern-day and hip-hop/R&B is the most consumed music in the age of streaming. Why aren’t there more Black entrepreneurs and engineers gaining venture capital investment to create the next Spotify or iTunes?

In the rising ubiquity, and unfortunately, the corporatization, of the Black Lives Matter movement, diversity is being positioned primarily as a fight for social justice and the discourse in the music industry sees it similarly as many of the funds and organizations being put together focus on fighting injustice. That is important, but it is also important to recognize as several studies have shown, that diversity is good for business. It’s not a coincidence that many of the recent breakout stars in the business come from imprints such as Keep Cool (Lucky Daye, Normani), Right Hand (Khalid), LVRN (6lack, Summer Walker), Dreamville (J.I.D., Ari Lennox, Earthgang), Artclub (Jhene Aiko), among others which is not different from where many stars of yesterday were once burgeoning artists of legendary labels such as Bad Boy, Roc-A-Fella, and Aftermath, and Death Row Records. It’s a clear pattern that these labels provide a pipeline of amazing Black talent that is properly developed and ushered into the mainstream. It shouldn’t be a discussion that more money along with agency should rest in the hands of these places who know what to do with it.

Black professionals in the music industry deserve investment at the point of potential, not just at the point of peril.

Lyfe of Lyle is a music entertainment media and services company that focuses on the advocacy and advancement of young business and creative professionals in entertainment and media.