Diversifying Music's Leadership As Hip-Hop Surges: Diddy and Others Share Action Plans

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From left: Combs, Liles and Bynum.

One thing that might motivate the music industry to promote more executives of color to top jobs: star musicians demanding the change.

“Companies don’t think they need black executives if artists don’t complain about it,” says one former major label executive, advising acts and their managers to “look around as you walk through the halls” before signing, or re-signing, a record contract.

The idea is one of several potential solutions that executives shared with Billboard following the article that appeared in the April 14 issue of the magazine, “Who’s Rising as Hip-Hop Booms?” which examined the experiences of black executives outnumbered in the music industry’s C-suites -- even as R&B/hip-hop drives the business’s brisk resurgence as music’s top genre.

“Know your worth!!! If any of you kings and queens wanna mob and unify let me know!!! We must own our culture! It’s not negotiable!!! The culture that we created will be our first real opportunity to gain economic wealth as a people,” read an all-capped Instagram post by veteran label executive and industry entrepreneur Sean “Diddy” Combs, in response to the Billboard story.

Some plans are already in motion. A month ago, Capitol Records launched a new after-school program called Bonus Tracks in partnership with the Compton Unified School District and Dominguez High School in Compton, aimed at developing future executive talent. The 10-class program is comprised of weekly 90-minute sessions during which juniors and seniors interact with Capitol brass as they learn about the basic workings of a modern record label; opportunities include internships at Capitol and potential scholarships.

“This program provides opportunity and learning in a built-in network to students that previously wouldn’t be able to access those types of possibilities,” says program co-creator Brian Nolan, senior vp of seventeenfifty, Capitol’s sync licensing and brand partnerships department.

Republic Records, meanwhile, has since last year been running regular meetings of what it calls its “Urban Collective,” the people who work with Republic’s R&B/hip-hop roster -- which includes Drake, The Weeknd, Nicki Minaj, Metro Boomin and Post Malone -- helmed by senior vp, marketing Katina Bynum.

“The conversations are about what urban music means, effective marketing strategies, how we can super-serve the artists and what things can we do better,” Bynum told Billboard last year. “We get into the nitty gritty here and not just cover the surface. It’s important to have open conversations on how to steer the ship.”  

But 300 Entertainment CEO Kevin Liles, who served as president of Def Jam Recordings and executive vp of Island Def Jam Music Group between 1999-2004 and later executive vp of Warner Music Group, argues that “in order for those issues to change, it’s not going to take a program. It means empowering a diverse person with the opportunity. Leadership should come in all different genders and colors. Marvel empowered a director and cast in Black Panther; look at the result. I challenge not just the music industry but any company that’s living and breathing off the hard work of our culture to not just talk about diversity -- give somebody the rock.”  

Giving execs of color such chances has been a given for some veteran major label executives like Doug Morris, founder of the new 12 Tone Music Group. Interviewed by Billboard in 2005, Morris -- then Universal Music Group chairman/CEO -- said, “White executives don’t always understand black culture. It makes them uncomfortable. They would rather go with what they’re familiar with, and that’s a mistake. Diversity makes a company strong.”

And while Billboard’s April 14 article mentioned the 2012 appointment of Joie Manda to Def Jam president by Def Jam and Universal Republic’s then-chairman and CEO Barry Weiss, Weiss has also helped advance the careers of a number of today’s top black executives, some of them noted to Billboard.

As for how artists and managers can help exert pressure for change in music industry C-suites? Josh Binder, a partner at Rothenberg, Mohr & Binder whose clients include Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith and Kendrick Lamar, says that while companies rarely agree to contracts with so-called “key man” clauses that hinge on the employment of a specific executive, savvy artists with enough leverage could influence staffing decisions during talks with record label heads, by saying, for example, “That’s my guy,” or “Give her a promotion or a raise.”

Says Liles, “I challenge us -- intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs alike -- and hold us accountable as well to do greater. The barrier to entry is lower now and there’s more opportunity than ever.”