In the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Dion Johnson, and an unconscionable number of other Black people in this country, two Black women in the music industry—Atlantic Records executive Jamila Thomas and Platoon Records Senior Artist Campaign Manager Brianna Agyemang—have called for an industry-wide “Black Out” on Tuesday. They’ve urged everyone in the business, from major labels to artists, to take a day of pause, and consider the fact that the industry has long exploited Black people for their work without giving them their fair share of the money it reaps. Some have praised the initiative for calling attention to that long-standing inequity. Others have criticized it, arguing that—beyond taking a day to acknowledge the issue—labels need to invest more money into their Black employees and artists, and enact policies to ensure the industry becomes more equitable.
Meanwhile, the Black Out has expanded beyond the world of music, prompting countless people to post black squares on their social media feeds with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Well-intentioned as that may be, as Nylah Burton points out, a hashtag typically reserved for critical resources like links to petitions, fundraisers, and guides to protesting safely has become flooded with those images. Now, Burton writes, “critical help is getting drowned out by—quite frankly, useless—black squares.”
Regardless of your stance on the Black Out, one thing is certain: The music industry has always exploited Black people and Black culture for white gain, and continues to do so to this day. That has to change.
Below, we’ve provided a handful of ways to get involved in the fight for racial justice in the music industry. As is the case with the movement writ large, pushing for racial equality in the music industry can’t be limited to a single day, a single month, or a single year. We encourage you to practice what we’ve listed here—not just today, but every day.
Purchase music and merch directly from Black artists and Black-owned labels
If you like any form of popular music, you like Black art. Every genre from rock, pop, country, electronic, and hip-hop comes from Black musicians, and over the years, they’ve all been appropriated and exploited by white consumers and the music industry. During this time, it’s imperative to give your dollars directly to Black artists, Black-owned record labels, and Black communities, especially as many of these artists are donating to bail funds, and charitable causes, and are out in the streets protesting for basic human rights and an end to police violence themselves.
There are many ways to support Black creators and musicians and millions of people to individually support. You can start by checking your recent plays on streaming services, and buying merch from those artists directly from their websites. Consider buying from Black artists on Bandcamp on Friday, June 5, when the platform is once again waiving their revenue share on all merch and music purchases made on the site. You can also do this on June 19, when the platform is donating their profits to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. While the reflection and hard conversations coming to the music industry will continue long after this blackout, giving money from your wallet to Black artists is one thing that can be done immediately, conveniently, and repeatedly.
Read and Share the Work of Black Music and Culture Journalists
Black music dictates social and political movements, fashion, and our modern slang, but publications are not equipped to fully explore those avenues, because of the racial makeup of their newsrooms. While the industry continues to profit off of Black music, the lack of representation in music coverage is still glaring. And this disparity is never more apparent than when police violence against Black people is in the news.
It’s important to listen to Black writers now, share their work with your own networks, and continue to do so after the news cycle moves on. Conscious consumption and sharing more Black voices and perspectives is one very small way to help shift the default voice in this space. Below is a shortlist of Black music and culture journalists that we at VICE enjoy reading, and recommend you follow their work.
Join the fight for fair pay for musicians
In addition to supporting Black artists and Black-owned labels by purchasing music directly, you might want to consider lending your voice to the wider fight for fair pay in the recorded music industry—especially when it comes to streaming and digital copyright infringement. Though streaming has proved to be enormously lucrative for major labels and publishing companies—earning the “big three” an estimated one-million dollars per hour in streaming revenue in Q4 of last year—it’s worth considering that the artists whose music you’re jamming on platforms like Spotify and Apple Music are earning only a fraction-of-a-penny in royalties per stream, making it increasingly difficult for independent musicians, including Black musicians, to generate dependable income from their music.
Meanwhile, platforms like YouTube are home to widespread musical copyright infringement; this means that despite the company’s efforts to control the problem, users are still unlawfully uploading artists’ music to videos used to sell products or generate advertising revenue, a situation that can be especially hard to navigate for musicians without the resources to pursue a legal claim. Think of the last time you stumbled upon a hard-to-find 70s disco cut on the site, uploaded by an account that appeared to have no connection to an artist or label, and you’ll understand how this affects Black creators—including artists who have long since retired from the industry.
Since the coronavirus crisis began, a number of musician-centered organizations have emerged with the express purpose of tackling the royalties issue head-on. The Music Worker’s Alliance launched a Call by Musical Artists for Basic Fairness in the Digital Marketplace, demanding that companies like YouTube, Google, and Facebook establish “standard technical measures” against copyright infringement “to create a more sustainable online music ecosystem that sustains culturally diverse production.” (It has over 5000 signatures). The organization’s demands were presented in the Senate today. The Union of Musicians and Allied workers, a group of independent musicians formed in response to the pandemic last month, has pledged to “organize around issues such as demanding fairer deals from streaming services” and “ensuring musicians receive the royalties they are owed.”
To support musicians in the fight for fair compensation, start by following the below organizations on social media. Keep a lookout for any petitions, direct actions, or surveys they are circulating—and amplify Black artists who are speaking out about how the issue affects them.