These Racial Justice Actions Are Already Making Change In the Music Industry

On the last Sunday in May, Universal Music Group general counsel/executive vp business and legal affairs Jeff Harleston called Motown Records president Ethiopia Habtemariam for the second time that day. It was just six days after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, and UMG chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge had asked Harleston to lead the group’s Task Force for Meaningful Change, dedicated to furthering the fight for racial justice through charitable giving, mental health initiatives and more. Harleston, who’s also the interim chairman/CEO of Def Jam Records, sent a to-the-point reply: “Only with E.”

“Both of us understood that we had not only the responsibility but the opportunity to really make significant change,” says Habtemariam. The next day, they scheduled what was intended to be a one-hour town hall to discuss the civil unrest sweeping the country. The virtual event lasted two-and-a-half hours. “There was not one person on that Zoom who didn’t cry,” says Harleston. The idea of meaningful change, he continues, “means a lot to us, because this can’t be about the summer of 2020. Hopefully this is the inflection point we’ve long waited for.”

Like UMG, major-label groups and companies across the industry are starting to enact long-term strategies — assembling coalitions, hiring C-suite officers, developing ongoing educational initiatives — to improve diversity and address systemic racism both within and outside their offices. Though the more ambitious efforts may take some time to yield concrete change, those aimed at a more immediate impact are already showing positive results.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is — Now

Independent label 10K Projects has created the charity 10K Together, setting aside $500,000 for nonprofits fighting inequality and providing grants for Black creatives. It has already donated to the racial justice organization Color of Change, a GoFundMe for Jacob Blake and his family, and the Louisville Bail Fund; it has also matched 10K duo Surfaces’ contribution to the Minnesota Freedom Fund. “We wanted our reach to be varied and broad,” says 10K senior vp business and legal affairs Danielle Price, “so that we could effect change in different ways — and that change would have varied effects.”

In June, Sony Music Group established a $100 million social justice fund and offered to match employee donations to the American Civil Liberties Union, Black Lives Matter, the NAACP and The Innocence Project, among others, while Warner Music Group has created its own $100 million fund to help underrepresented populations, starting with a grant to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which protects voting rights in the state.

Support Those Already Doing the Work

In October, Live Nation Urban created the Black Tour Directory, an online portal with the names of hundreds of Black tour and production managers, sound engineers, lighting experts, stage and set designers, and more — all from established organizations like Roadies of Color, Diversify the Stage and Black Promoters Collective. “It was important that we spoke with all of these entities, because they’ve been doing the work,” says LNU manager of marketing and creative services NyAsia Burris. “We wanted to be a partner to amplify the work that’s already being done.”

UMG has supported protesters by donating to bail funds and helping to pay legal fees for those arrested over the past few months. Harleston says the company also assembled “thousands of backpacks for protesters, which had kits in them with water and bandannas and the things you would want and need on the front lines.”

Lower Barriers to Entry

In the midst of the live-music shutdown, says Burris, she has been fielding inquiries from graduating students of color looking for opportunities in the sector — and she regularly connects them with LNU’s network of industry veterans “so that they can learn more once live is back at full scale.”

UMG’s task force has partnered with its internal resource group Black Label to create UPLIFT, a yearlong mentorship program available to any UMG employee, aimed at increasing retention of Black staff and fostering career advancement. In an effort to diversify and expand their internship programs, companies including Concord Music Publishing and PULSE Music Group have begun reaching out to students at historically Black colleges and universities for paid and college-credit roles, respectively; and 10K Together has gone a step further, seeking out young people lacking the means to pursue higher education. Those internships are paid, says Price, so that young people of color aren’t “foreclosed from having that experience on their résumés and potentially breaking into the business at a later point.”

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 14, 2020, issue of Billboard.