Rock Hall's Next Move: New Leadership Looks to Address Lack of Diversity Among Board, Nominees

John Sykes
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John Sykes attends the 2019 Billboard Power 100 on Feb. 7, 2019 in Los Angeles.

"With diverse board members will come diverse ideas," says incoming chairman John Sykes.

Steve Miller called it a "private boys' club." Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl. editor Evelyn McDonnell accused it of "the manhandling of rock'n'roll history." And a critic for The Guardian said it should be "put out of its misery."

Such is the reputation of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

But John Sykes, the Hall Foundation's new chairman as of Jan. 1, 2020, says he plans to expand the foundation's board "to better reflect the nominees we're inducting."

Sykes, who was among the first MTV executives in the 1980s and is now iHeartMedia's president of entertainment enterprises, says he has invited two new people already to join a board that includes industry heavyweights like Eagles manager Irving Azoff, Live Nation Entertainment president/CEO Michael Rapino and Sony Music Entertainment CEO Rob Stringer. "We don't have a large board – we just have to expand it," Sykes says. "With diverse board members will come diverse ideas."

He's taking over a Hall of Fame that is financially healthier than ever: Trustees raised $60 million in the past two years, the museum has gone from 400,000 to 600,000 annual visitors in the past five years, and the hall recently asked the city of Cleveland to approve a $30 million, 50,000-square-foot expansion.

But McDonnell, a Loyola Marymount University professor, criticizes the hall, which was founded in 1983, for giving just 7.7% of the induction slots to women and 32.7% to people of color. She credits Sykes for emphasizing diversity in interviews, but is skeptical. Early in its history, MTV did not play videos by African-American artists, leading to criticism from Miles Davis and David Bowie, among others, and Sykes was part of the team that defended this disparity at the time by likening the channel to a rock radio station. And while iHeart's stations reach 32 million African-Americans weekly and 40 million Hispanics monthly, the radio business in general remains largely segregated into white and "urban" channels, and certain formats, particularly country, have been criticized for steering clear of female artists.

"We need a lot more than lip service," says McDonnell, who believes Tina Turner (by herself, as opposed to with her abusive husband Ike), Carole King, the Go-Go's and Chaka Khan (who is on this year's list of nominees with her all-male band Rufus) are among many deserving female inductees. "[Sykes] has to do radical change. He wants to make things a little better."

Hall executives point to diversity in recent induction classes -- Stevie Nicks and Janet Jackson made it this year, and Nina Simone in 2018 -- but Joe Kwaczala, host of the Who Cares About the Rock Hall? podcast, calls the latest nominees an "embarrassing ballot, specifically in terms of female representation." In their induction speeches, Nicks and Jackson demanded more female representation, but just three of this year's 15 nominees are female and, adds Kwaczala, "It almost feels like the Hall was not paying attention to those statements."

Outgoing Hall Foundation chairman and Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, who will remain on the board and nominating committee, insists the hall has no bias. "The quality of music should be gender- and racially neutral," he says. "The fact that there are less women is not the fault of the Hall of Fame. It is just the way history evolved here. There will come a time 20 years from now: 'What are you inducting all those women for? Every day it's Halsey this and Halsey that!' That's not in our control."

Both Wenner and Jon Landau, Bruce Springsteen's longtime manager, former Rolling Stone editor and critic and head of the Hall of Fame's 30- to 40-member nominating committee, say no individual has disproportionate influence over the induction process. The committee includes stars like Questlove and Tom Morello, and 800 voters pick the final inductees.

Landau, who rarely gives interviews on this subject, acknowledges that committee members can influence the process using the strength of their arguments and the force of their personalities. During meetings, he sometimes expresses opinions, but he usually plays what he calls a "referee role." The influential '70s rock critic jumped out of that role once, he says, when he declared that "KISS gets in over my dead body." It wasn't until years later, when he was sitting with Morello at a bar in Australia, that Landau allowed himself to be talked into KISS' influence. (Morello's exact words, he recalls, were, "You don't know what the fuck you're talking about.") "It's a very inappropriate thing I did," says Landau, "for which I apologize here."

By contrast, Landau adds, he produced the MC5, who have received multiple nominations and are on the ballot again this year, but has been unable to persuade voters to induct them. And when Yes came up, he recalls saying at one committee meeting, "Look, most of the people in the room don't like progressive rock. It doesn't matter. We can't have a Hall of Fame without progressive rock OK, so it's time for Yes. I persuaded enough of my colleagues to do that."

Both Landau and Wenner say the hall has slowly, and appropriately, pointed to pop, beginning with acts like Chicago and Journey and leading to Whitney Houston's nomination this year.

Bob Merlis, a longtime rock publicist and former nominating-committee member, wishes the nominating committee would be more consistent: If the Hall believes pop artists fall under the definition, he wonders why Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney and Dionne Warwick aren't under consideration. But he acknowledges it's hard to unite the committee under one set of criteria. "Whatever makes it, makes it. There's no parsing it by 'was it rock 'n' roll enough?'" he says. "It's kind of like you need an Ayatollah of Rock 'n' Roll to make these judgments -- and there is no such person."

Other than being a member of the nominating committee, Sykes, like Wenner, says he has no influence over the yearly nominees' list. What Sykes will deliver, says Rock Hall president/CEO Greg Harris, is a radio background that will help with "distribution and reaching wide audiences with meaningful rock'n'roll content experiences." Sykes talks about expanding the hall's base of customers, sponsors, donors and advertisers through social media and "taking the intellectual property to audio and video platforms — we can monetize that." He mentions powerful people on the foundation board, including Azoff, Stringer, Rapino and CAA's Rob Light, who have helped secure the longtime HBO induction-ceremony broadcast and raised awareness for the museum.

Yet all the powerful board members he cites are white, and just one, former MTV exec Judy McGrath, is a woman. "When you bring in people from different backgrounds, they'll have different fundraising contacts -- people we probably haven't spoken to or interacted with," says Hall Foundation president/CEO Joel Peresman. "Rock'n'roll is one river that branched in a lot of directions, and that's something we celebrate and that's what we want to grow. It's one of few museums you can take your kid to where they won't hate you." 

This is an updated version of a story that originally appeared in Nov. 16 issue of Billboard.