At the 2022 Music Biz conference in Nashville on Monday afternoon (May 9), Music Business Association president Dr. Portia Sabin moderated an hour-long conversation titled “Roadmap to Change,” featuring DEI leaders from Sony Music Group, Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group as well as advocacy group leaders discussing ways to make positive, meaningful and lasting change in order to increase diversity and equality in the music industry.
Panelists included Jonathan Azu (CEO/founder, Culture Collective and founder of Diversity in Music); Ghazi Shami (CEO/founder, EMPIRE); Liliahn Majeed (senior vp and chief diversity, inclusion and belonging officer for UMG); Noelle Scaggs (founder, Diversify the Stage, Elektra recording artist and co-lead vocalist of Fitz and the Tantrums); Dr. Maurice A. Stinnett (global head of DEI at WMG); and Tiffany R. Warren (executive vp, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Sony Music Group).
Throughout the panel, executives discussed DEI initiatives they’ve put in place. Dr. Stinnett noted that one of the initiatives established at Warner Music Group is the HBCU Immersion program, where the company partners with a group called Culture Creators for a “six-week boot camp” that exposes aspiring young professionals to opportunities in different aspects of the music business outside of being an artist. “When you think about the music industry, minorities and underrepresented individuals usually see themselves represented as far as the artists are concerned,” said Dr. Stinnett. “But there’s a plethora of opportunities for them to plug into.”
Majeed noted that at UMG, the company puts a broad focus on diversity, inclusion and belonging that goes beyond just race and gender, including issues such as religious and age inclusion. She said the company is also trying to change the terminology around DEI — away from words like “underrepresented” and “marginalized” to words like “untapped, she said, “because it puts the onus on the people we are engaging with who just haven’t tapped into the brilliance and beauty and talent of all of these people.”
Majeed also spoke about the importance of understanding that every person at a company has a role to play in fostering diversity and inclusion. “Every time I’m having a conversation I’m talking about the shared responsibility of every single one of us have to create the workplace of our dreams that we want our children and our grandchildren to walk into,” she said.
Warren offered that the rush of DEI initiatives at music companies often “fail because no one has signed on, it’s performative.” At Sony, she highlighted the company’s recently-launched fellows program, an immersive internship initiative that serves as a pipeline for multicultural young professionals looking to learn about the music business. “We’ve done that for years in partnership with HBCUs,” said Warren, “but we wanted a more targeted program.”
Diversifying the Pipeline
Speaking of pipelines that serve individuals from underrepresented groups, Azu launched Culture Collective in 2019 as a way to open the doors to a more diverse workforce within the music industry and inspire the next generation of leaders after noticing he “was the only person of color at the table” after reaching the upper echelons of the business. “Looking at the industry, one of the things we do a poor job of is opening up that pipeline to people of color,” he said. “It’s about who you know and often those people you know happen to know the executives at the company. If the executives of the company are not diverse, the pipeline won’t be diverse, either.”
Scaggs launched Diversify the Stage after noticing “a massive diversity disparity” for women in the touring business. “I would hear about diversity in our executive boardrooms, but I come from an artist perspective, being a woman of color onstage with a band of all males, and the challenges we face of looking for female technical crews,” she said. It was only after launching the organization, she added, that she discovered the issue came down to who was referring musicians for touring jobs. “It’s who you know and how comfortable you are having them on our tour bus for six months,” Scaggs continued. “But it also limits the opportunities for people whose name you may not know at that moment, so I wanted to focus on getting people together.”
Scaggs added that the loss of touring during the pandemic was actually the impetus behind opening up more opportunities within the industry. “I have noticed change onstage since the pandemic, and I think it’s because we lost so many people that it is forcing people to bring in new folks,” she said. “I saw more folks of color in the past week behind the scenes than I have in the past 20 years and that’s at the college levels.”
EMPIRE founder Shami noted that diversity was built into the vision he had for his company. “I envisioned that my company would look like my circle of friends and it would mirror who we market to,” he said. “I felt like you would have a stronger marketing presence, a more evolved A&R approach, if you build a company that is representative of the community that you work with.”
Laying out the Roadmap to Change
Elsewhere during the panel, Dr. Stinnett stressed a need to reframe the way those in the industry view the work of diversity and inclusion. “Oftentimes people think by doing this work, they are doing the minority, the woman, the person of color a favor and you’re not. You’re actually doing yourself a favor by level-setting the playing field…it’s not a benevolent effort.” She continued, “What have we lost by not inviting all of this talent to the table? You are doing yourself a favor. That’s the first thing.”
Warren concurred with Majeed that the “charitable thought process” behind DEI work needs to be reconsidered going forward. “Every description of every diversity program starts with, ‘We’re so excited to help the underprivileged youth in ‘insert city here,’” she said. “Also the words underprivileged…it’s under-resourced. Under-paid-attention-to.”
Azu said the onus to make diversity and inclusion a priority at music companies isn’t only on those at the top of the ladder but those just getting their start in the industry. “Young people in college who are graduating right now should be asking companies what they are doing to bring diversity into the company,” he said, while also conceding, “It starts at the top. Responsibility, authority and accountability. And typically, that’s the CEO. If it’s not at that level as a priority, then trust me, it won’t be a priority in hiring.”
Warren also spoke to the importance of support and coaching throughout an executive’s career in fostering as well as maintaining a diverse workforce. “When you are thinking about coaching and mentoring…coaching and sponsoring is the key to getting more diversity,” she said. “When you talk about why people leave the industry? It’s because at some point they stop getting that coaching and support that they need to grow.”