What’s the fastest way to put music industry money into the hands of its Black creators? A small Swedish synthesizer manufacturer has a plan.
Teenage Engineering, which makes sleekly designed, retro-sounding machines adored by dance-music producers, will soon begin sharing sales revenue with a set of Black musicians and other artists of colour in the United States in recognition of their role in popularizing the company’s products.
“This is not charity,” Emmy Parker, the company’s chief brand officer, said in an interview. “Not only is it the right thing to do, it is also good for our business.”
The U.S.-wide soul-searching in the wake of George Floyd’s death has been felt with particular acuteness in the music industry, which owes much of its wealth to the work of Black artists but has just a handful of Black executives in the most senior jobs. Scrutiny has brought the business together in rare ways, with corporate rivals taking part in passionate discussions over Zoom and major companies promising to diversify their ranks.
Still, a thread of anger and impatience remains palpable behind the scenes.
“If history is any indicator, this blows over,” said Troy Carter, a longtime music and technology executive who is now an adviser to the Prince estate.
Despite some cynicism about the promises for change, the predominant mood is one of a momentum that must be seized. Almost as quickly as the major labels made big pledges in the past few weeks, an advocacy group, the Black Music Action Coalition, was formed to hold those companies to account.
“One of our main motivations is not to allow the record companies to get away with pledging money and not pledging systemic change,” said Prophet, a manager of Asian Doll, Layton Greene and other acts, who is part of the group. “Even though their foot was not on the neck of George Floyd, that same systemic racism that plagues society plagues the music business.”
Here’s where the industry’s responses currently stand.
Pledges from the major labels
On June 2, a campaign begun by two young Black women who work in music, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, paused the industry for a day of reflection and grew into an internet phenomenon under the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday.
Within days, a deluge of donation promises from major music companies followed. Warner — backed by a foundation connected to its parent company — and Sony each pledged $ 100 million (U.S.) to charity. Universal committed $ 25 million and established a task force to examine its operations. Spotify, Apple, YouTube and SiriusXM made further pledges.
In tacit acknowledgment of the industry’s poor record of hiring minorities for top positions, each of the big labels has undertaken employment inclusion efforts. Sony and Warner began searching for top diversity officers in recent weeks; Universal began its diversity push in 2017.
Universal is also a partner with the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California, which two years ago rocked the music world with a study finding scant representation of women in pop. Last week, the initiative said it would study the diversity of record labels, publishers, talent agencies, digital platforms and other companies.
“I think the findings will be shocking,” said Stacy L. Smith, an associate professor at USC who is the founder of the Annenberg initiative.
The term ‘urban’
One of the few concrete changes made so far has been contested. Three days after #BlackoutTuesday, Republic Records, a Universal label that is home to Drake and Ariana Grande, said it would stop using the word urban in department and job titles, calling it “outdated.”
That term, once used by radio stations to evoke sophistication, has come under fire as pigeonholing Black music and stunting the career growth of Black executives. Last month the Grammys renamed its urban contemporary album category “progressive R&B.”
Yet moves to retire “urban” have been called premature. Ethiopia Habtemariam, the president of Motown Records and a co-chair of Universal’s task force, said in an interview that addressing the word was not the task force’s first order of business. The greater goal, she said, was “to make sure we are creating a diverse environment at our company, making sure we have Black leadership across all of the industry. That’s the key.”
One complication: Many Black executives fully embrace the term, including Shawn Gee, the manager of the Roots, whose promotion company, Live Nation Urban, is a joint venture with the concert giant Live Nation Entertainment. The debate over “urban,” Gee said, is a distraction from the industry’s larger problem of a dearth of Black leaders.
“Who in these companies has been able to green light Black culture?” Gee said in an interview. “That’s where the real problem lies. The problem lies in the infrastructure, in the system — not in the word.”
Calls for Black leaders
One goal of the newly-formed Black Music Action Coalition — whose public letter was signed by artists including Pharrell Williams, Nicki Minaj, Travis Scott and Lady Gaga — was to address what it called “long-standing racial inequities in the music business.”
“There are not enough Black executives in the music business who have control of P&L,” said Binta Niambi Brown, a manager and executive who has worked with Chance the Rapper, referring to the profit and loss statements that measure a business’s finances. Brown, who is part of the coalition, added, “But they are required to explain Black culture to white executives who do run that.”
Carter, now of the Prince estate, became Spotify’s global head of creator services in 2016 — a high-ranking job covering all genres. But when he left two years later, Carter said, an Amazon executive offered him a job there as head of urban music.
“That is the bias that is automatically built into our business,” Carter said. “That if I am a Black executive, call me for the urban music job, which is completely unfair at the end of the day.”
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An Amazon spokesperson denied Carter’s account, saying he “was never officially offered a role at Amazon.”
Looking back at old deals
Another question is the treatment of artist contracts from previous decades. Lisa A. Alter, a copyright lawyer who works on behalf of many older artists, said that in the past, Black artists routinely received poor contracts.
“Historically there was less robust representation of artists of colour from a legal point of view,” Alter said. “That resulted in an inability to get advice and negotiate strongly in certain areas — particularly the recoupment of advances and how royalties are calculated.”
Stories of poor contracts for older artists, particularly Black ones, are legion. Little Richard, for example, said that he waived his rights to many of his classic songs early in his career, though he regained them as part of a lawsuit settlement in the 1980s.
“I didn’t read my contracts right; I signed bad contracts,” he told the New York Times in a 1992 interview. “I paid dearly for it.”
One company, BMG Rights Management, a mid-size label and publishing group, has said it will review its past contracts to address “any inequities or anomalies.”
Yet the company’s pool of contracts is far shallower than that of any of the major labels, which have catalogues going back a century. BMG’s review also only covers its recording contracts, not those for music publishing, which are a majority of the company’s holdings.
In a statement, a Universal spokesperson said the company recognized “there is more work to be done” and is committed to looking into legacy contracts.
The Teenage Engineering plan
Compared to giant record companies and streaming platforms, Teenage Engineering is a tiny force. In 2018, it had about $ 11 million in net sales, according to its most recently disclosed financial statements.
But the company is positioning its revenue-sharing plan — which it is calling an artist fellowship — as a bold statement to recognize and quantify the contributions of artists of colour.
The program is set to begin Sept. 1, and Teenage Engineering’s contracts with artists are still being finalized. But Jesper Kouthoofd, its chief executive, said the company will pay at least 15 per cent of sales revenue to four acts when customers in the United States use special links to the company’s website. The four initial fellows are Underground Resistance, a long-running collective from Detroit; Suzi Analogue, from Miami; and VoltageCtrlR and Baseck, both of Los Angeles.
Other companies on music’s margins have drawn acclaim for their efforts to put more money in artists’ pockets. Bandcamp, an indie streaming and retail platform, has waived its fees on certain days during the pandemic. On Juneteenth, the site donated its share of sales to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Parker, the company’s chief brand officer, declined to give specific terms of Teenage Engineering’s deals for the new program, but said the artists’ share of company revenues “could be anywhere from $ 100,000 a year to, in some cases, close to $ 1 million a year.”
“This will allow us,” Parker said, “to make a shift in the economic model immediately.”