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How Do We Penetrate the White Male Roadblock at the Top of the Music Industry?

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By Emma Garland

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Each year, the Billboard Power 100 list rolls around to remind us who really runs the music industry. As much as we would all like to think it should just feature Beyoncé 100 times, this is a more statistical chart about the biz itself. As a result, the usual contenders are your chairmen, your CEOs, your executives; the people we don’t tend to think about but who spend most of their time influencing everything we hear. The list for 2016 was released on Friday and, confirming something we all suspected already, the outcome isn't exactly a veritable smorgasboard of diversity. 

Despite gender and racial equality being at the forefront of public consciousness, the fact that white men come out on top where power is concerned isn’t remotely surprising—but it is an imbalance made even more damning every time a new wealth of statistics comes out to support it. As mathematically ascertained by Music Business Worldwide, here are some cold hard facts:

- The entire Top 10 is made up of white men.
- Women comprise just 9 percent.
- White people make up 96 percent of the top 50.

The Billboard Power 100 itself isn't at fault. The sad truth is that this list is about business power, not cultural influence, and as such is more or less frighteningly accurate. The lack of diversity is basically statistical evidence of the thick glass ceilings that lurk above the heads of women and people of color whenever they are rising up the ladders of the music business. So just in case you were wondering exactly what Lady Gaga meant when she insisted the music industry was still a "fucking boy's club" in December, then here you go.

Aimee Cliff highlighted this brilliantly for the Fader last year when 2015’s list dropped, but this year things actually seem to have gotten marginally worse. In 2015, of the 127 people represented (many share a slot), 15 were women and 11 were people of color. This year, only 13 women appear, and ten people of color. Youth is also a problem, with an old guard roadblocking the top ten—the likes of Irving Azoff, Martin Bandier and Doug Morris all rocking in in their late sixties and seventies, with no sign of shifting. The fact that Jay-Z (who was top in 2014) and Dr. Dre don't even make the cut just exemplifies how different our publicly projected impression of music industry success is compared to what is happening in reality.

Billboard's own work—like the Women in Music Awards and their feature on the most powerful 50 women music executives—has evidenced that women are definitely rising up the music business ranks, but seeing them appear so few and far between on the actual Power 100 shows just how hard it is to breach the Hoover Dam that lurks above.

It makes for a particularly tough battle to win when most people don’t know that it’s happening. After all, this doesn’t really wash anymore at the frontline of pop culture. When festivals proudly roll out their 97 percent male lineups, there is backlash; when grime is omitted from the Brit Awards, MCs make their point heard; when the Oscars failed to represent everybody in the industry—giving Sylvester Stallone an award for Creed while ignoring the film’s black director and male lead, for example—the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite spreads like wildfire. But when it comes to the comparatively private field of the music business, it’s like spotting how a magician shifts cards. It's also funny how many of them look like magicians.

"The music business is not like many other creative businesses in that there are very few standard practices or ethical standards,” explained New York music writer John Seabrook explained in a recent interview with Noisey. “Why it’s like that has to do with the fact it historically grew out of an organized crime rip off of black artists who didn’t understand the value of their publishing and had their copyrights taken off them for very little. This ended up enriching all these white guys and it’s become a haunted graveyard that the whole business is built on."

The fact that artists like Rihanna and Kanye West opt to support Tidal over services like Apple Music isn’t just representative of the monetary differences between the two—it’s because Tidal is one of the only black-owned major music businesses in the game right now. If that doesn’t speak for itself politically, then the company’s recent donation of $1.5 million to the Black Lives Matter movement should. 

Over in the UK, music industry inequality is not much better. In an article appearing in Music Business Journal, Natasha Patel demonstrates that although women are becoming organized, all is not well. In Britain, “Women working in the business are more inclined to have a superior qualification compared to their male colleagues but nearly 50 percent of them earn less than £10,000.” She goes on to say that, “61 percent of music professionals in the UK are male. In sectors such as promotion, management and live music, that number rises to 70 percent."

There are groups chipping away at that patriarchal structure at the heart of the music industry though. Sprouting from last year's successful Berklee Women's Power Symposium, ProjectNextUp is a global initiative that prides itself on empowering young women by embracing the ideas of mentorship and diversity, with a view to highlighting female trailblazers in the industry, and rewrite the narrative of leadership and success. They are hosting their next event in April, with speeches from Island Records' Alyssa Castiglia, LeClairRyan's Christiane Kinney, and Live Nation's Celia Carillo.

So, there is change is in the air, but perhaps we’re only just beginning to see the results of this kind of centralised organization. Who knows how many more years, and how many more Billboard Power 100s, it will be before we see a more equal music business. It’s easy to mistake the changes in the more public facing aspects of the industry for change across the board, but we have to be careful not to do that. The only way to achieve real change on a long-term basis is to tackle the issue at its core, which means tackling the power structure, the backbone of the music industry itself.

The Power 100 might have not been set up to show us the inequality in the music business, but it has come to be inadvertently meaningful in the way it holds a mirror up to reflect the true state of the industry for all to see. That image is one of a business built on the talent of women and people of color, but who are suddenly markedly absent when it comes to the upper echelons of power.

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