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USC-Annenberg Leader Talks Damning Music Industry Diversity Report: ‘These Companies Have a Workforce Crisis’

·7-min read

The new report on “Inclusion in the Music Business: Gender & Race/Ethnicity Across Executives, Artists & Talent Teams” from the USC-Annenberg Inclusion Initiative makes no bones about how far the music industry has to go in its stated goals of gender and racial equality — even after most major music companies loudly trumpeted their commitments to advancing its efforts in those directions in the wake of Blackout Tuesday and the Black Lives Matter protests last year. The report — which was sponsored by Universal Music Group — surveyed 4,060 executives across 119 companies and six industry categories and was created over the past year, so many of those efforts were well underway.

While the report’s tone and conclusions are unambiguous — in just one telling example, across 70 major and independent music companies, just 13.9% of top executives across were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, 4.2% were Black, and 13.9% were women — its wording is polite. “Commitments, statements, and charitable giving are all important ways for companies to take action to foster racial justice. However, change begins at home,” its conclusion begins. “To truly foster an equitable, inclusive industry, companies must look carefully at the way they recruit, hire, and promote. This must extend to the way positions are siloed or stereotyped, and how preference may be given to certain types of people or experiences that facilitate movement up the proverbial corporate ladder.”

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Speaking with Variety, however, Annenberg founder Stacy L. Smith and research scientist Katherine Pieper were bound by no such niceties, and they put the report’s conclusions in much more outspoken terms in the interview, conducted Monday, below.

They make no bones about the desperate need for change: “Our data makes it really clear that these companies have a workforce crisis on their hands,” Smith says. And while they’re not singling out individual companies this year, next year, Smith pledges, they will.

The report is pretty damning about where the music industry stands on diversity. Considering everything that’s happened in the past year — between #TheShowMustBePaused, Blackout Tuesday and all of the efforts music companies have said they’re making to increase racial and gender diversity — we’ve only advanced this far?

Smith: That’s one of the reasons why we did this study. The industry needs to make sure they’re calibrating in three ways: One, they need a baseline and we’re providing it [with the study], so the industry is transparent in their ways to create change, and everybody knows where they need to move from.

Secondly, these companies need to make commitments and specify very clearly how they’re going to map forward change. I don’t know if we’ve seen a specifically detailed inclusion policy or plan yet — I mean, we looked at 119 companies, and I haven’t seen a lot of those, if any, in the music space.

Third, we need to [create another report] in a year, with detailed, company-specific data. This [year’s report] is the aggregate, the ecoysystem — and [its conclusions] are not good, despite all of the effort around activism in the music industry in the past year. But we’re inviting companies to work with us to create a plan for systematic and sustainable change so that when we do this again in a year — by company, including subsidiaries — we can see where there’s been progress, and which companies are stalled in terms of change.

So next year you’re going to name names, which you didn’t do this year?

Absolutely. I think it’s pretty clear there needs to be immediate change that results in short- and long-term gain. This is our invitation, and next year will be specifying progress by company and where there’s room for improvement, so consumers and audiences can know.

Many of the companies say their diversity policies are laid out in detail on their websites. You’re not seeing enough of the specificity you feel is needed?

We want to see specific target inclusion goals and a process for how you create criteria for change not just at the beginning of people’s careers, but all the way through the executive ranks. We want to see specifically how companies are dealing with a concept called stereotype threats, or the lack of belonging within organizations, and there’s a rich literature on what’s called ambient belonging that I can’t imagine companies are talking about — if we haven’t seen it, that’s our oversight. And until the perception of who can lead is directly tackled, we will continue to see this struggle in terms of hiring.

There is talent available. It’s access and opportunity that are the problem keeping underrepresented black and women executives — and particularly black women executives — from having the same opportunities as their white counterparts.

Pieper: I think we also need to make the distinction between corporate philanthropy and the [internal] commitments these companies make. Our study isn’t focusing on [philanthropy], it’s focused on what’s happening within companies to ensure that employees have access and opportunities to leadership roles.

What are some solutions you’d propose? Is it in something as simple as expanded executive-training programs?

Smith: I have a two-fold answer. I think we know where the problem is, and it’s not in the talent applying for the jobs: It’s because the environment and the organization are set up to institutionally exclude voices that have been marginalized for decades. So I’m not talking about a training program, I’m talking about: How are you going to change the culture within an organization? Because our data makes it really clear that these companies have a workforce crisis on their hands. Who is consuming their content, who’s graduating from colleges, who’s interested in working in music — those folks don’t look like the people at the top, so these companies aren’t going to be able to attract the talent they want if they continue to be tilted in the way that they are.

There are ways these companies need to think about how to change the culture from within so that it allows women, people of color and other underrepresented racial groups to not only land a job, but to succeed and thrive within those environments. There’s a lot of academic literature about this that needs to be embedded in these policies.

Something we often heard around the time of your female inclusion report two years ago was, “Oh, you can’t create a hundred top-flight female recording engineers overnight,” and I’d imagine a similar argument is used in other areas. What’s your response?

That’s what refer to as “adventures in missing the point”: They’re putting the emphasis on a group of people — women, people of color, in particular women of color — by saying that they aren’t there. But our research shows the talent is there. Are they cultivated, promoted, encouraged, [incentivized] in the same way as their white male peers? Unequivocally not.

Over and over and over again, we see the same individuals being lifted up and given access and opportunities — since we first started doing the study nine years ago, we’ve seen the same handful of white males [involved in] about 20% of the Billboard Hot 100, and you have to ask why everybody is going back to the same people? I’m sure they’re extraordinarily talented, but where is all the talent that people are passing over because of their identity?

So I am over the pipeline problem, because it is something people with decision-making power say to feel better about their exclusionary practices and not have the guilt: “Oh, if I say they’re not there, I don’t have to take responsibility.” It’s time for people to step up.

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