Pride

Kindness on Making the Industry More Inclusive: ‘Share information — It’s Quite a Powerful Thing to Do’

Kindness
Sam Wilson

Kindness

The acclaimed producer discusses meaningful ways to empower marginalized artists.

Last year, Adam Bainbridge — the acclaimed British electronic musician who records as Kindness — published a frank, accessible online glossary of over 80 industry terms, including everything from mechanical royalties to retention periods to tour buses (“a rolling money pit”). It’s one of many ways the transfeminine producer has tried to level the playing field for marginalized artists, from tweeting about how they did their taxes to privately sharing their contracts and other documents with fellow musicians over the years. “No one ever talks about this stuff,” says Bainbridge, who’s produced for artists such as Robyn and Jessie Ware. “We live in fear of nondisclosure agreements, but f--k it. Life’s too short.”

What made you realize there was a need for a resource like the glossary?

In my teaching [at Goldsmiths, University of London], I wanted to do a completely transparent seminar with third-year students who were about to join the music industry and talk about all of the things I didn't know at the start of my career. I’d actually show them documents: contracts I’d signed with labels, the way management makes commissions, accountancy fees, tour management fees, tour budgets, the live fees you actually get for doing a show, DJ fees, the fees you get from brands. How it works to be a producer, what producer points mean. What the income from producing a record might be. How my publishing works. How songwriting splits work.

I really wanted to lay it all out: “This is exactly how my career has gone for the past 15 years.” And I realized that it was meaningless because there was so much jargon in it. When I tried to present it to one of my colleagues, we realized that you can’t [walk someone through it] because it's an avalanche of incomprehensible information. So I thought I’d try to define it in a way that was straightforward enough for a new, emerging musician to understand.

In doing so, I was like, “Well, maybe this has become more universal and more approachable than the seminar itself.” Normally the how-tos of the music industry are written by people that worked in management or in labels. I thought an artist talking about [these topics] might be helpful.

What meaningful steps can the industry take to be more inclusive?

Parent labels have sometimes empowered people of color to run imprints or labels within labels — where people of color are the CEO, the decision-maker, the A&R. I’d like to see more of that. But that could start within indie labels.

I work with [the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers] as well, and we have to actively try and recruit people of color. The structure around indie music, or more broadly alternative music, has just been so white for so long to an extent that it’s alienating. We would struggle sometimes to get people [of color] to come to UMAW meetings and keep coming. If you’re just staring at a Zoom room of 20 white faces, it is alienating. Ultimately, that's been my experience in music in general. If it gets to the point where I'm the only person of color in a room, I'll stop going to that thing, and that would include a label.

How did you get involved in the union?

They saw the glossary and reached out to me. I came and presented it to the Label Relations committee, and then I kept going. I had to take a break recently because my mental health was shot, but it has been really helpful working with them and seeing how proactive they are. I don't normally approve of telling white allies what a good job they're doing, but there are a lot of white folks at UMAW who are actively trying to de-center themselves and whiteness, and to understand the privileges that they have even within the DIY, underground music space. That's been kind of incredible to watch. It felt like the first time I'd ever seen people within a broader music space stop and take stock of how they may have it better than somebody else.

It's powerful stuff. That's all it takes, for people to go, “Hang on. This is really f--king hard, but let me just imagine that I'm not white, that I’m not cis-gender, that I’m not a man for a second, and let me understand that this may be exponentially difficult [and has] been since the beginning of someone's career.” It's helpful to see people have that realization.

Are there specific areas you work on with the union?

We did quite a lot of brainstorming for the future in Label Relations, thinking about ways to empower both artists and label workers. I think there is actually solidarity between everyone that isn't ultimately the label owner — that's been amazing to see. I don't think some of it has become publicly visible yet, but [we’re working on] inter-artist solidarity. Maybe artists on labels could get to know each other better and share information — it's quite a powerful thing to do. There is an FAQ now on the UMAW website for people signing deals. I think my glossary is up there as well.

And then myself and Josephine Shetty [UMAW co-founder, who records as Kohinoorgasm] started an LGBTQ+ members group. Sometimes for the most marginalized, what’s really helpful is being able to exist without being tasked with a job. [We’re making] space to be and to congregate, and maybe coexist in solidarity. Maybe there'll be a movie night or a hangout. Queer people just end up having to problem-solve for everyone else. People of color do. The most marginalized do. Women do. You end up being asked to highlight the flaws in the system, and maybe even come up with solutions. Some days, I just want to pick up an instrument and make music, and I feel like I don't have that option most times.

That idea — making sure empowerment doesn’t just mean saddling people with more work — is really interesting to hear in a time when so many companies are starting task forces led by marginalized employees.

Yeah. I think it was the pandemic and a lack of ability to congregate in real life that made the founding members of UMAW start a union. But the thing that I've been saying we don't want to lose sight of is the idea that trade unions and organizing collectives, at their heart, also need to be places of rest, joy and encouragement. If you're always generating new work for yourself, you will burn out. That's also the nature of being in this industry anyway. I see so many marginalized artists come close to burnout. The crisis of capitalism that we're in, it asks a lot of you, and it never stops, ultimately.

How can queer artists avoid being taken advantage of?

Artists should just talk to each other. One of the quickest shortcuts to exposing exploitative practices or inappropriate behavior is for artists to talk. We already had whisper networks, and maybe we kept them smaller, but it's OK to think about what your community is and maybe forge links with those people. By information-sharing, the most problematic of those looking to sign or manage those artists, they'll have no place to hide.

The more successful queer artists leave the rest of us behind sometimes, like, “Well, I've crossed the threshold, I'm financially secure, and now I have mine and need to maintain it.” And something that I've talked about a lot with people looking to make it in the music industry is that those of us in the grassroots will never really get anywhere if those who have crossed the threshold of success don't choose to re-extend the hand back downwards. There's a lot of pulling up the ladder that happens in the music business, and so I wish that the people who are highly visible were still working in solidarity with their peers on the first rung of the ladder.

What else could people do? Educate themselves. I understand label contracts are overwhelming, and it may seem like there's very little negotiation that you could do, especially if they're saying, “This is the only option that you have.” But carving certain things out of an unfair deal will still make it better than signing the deal as is. Always talk to a lawyer about everything you do.

There are ways that people could actively re-work structures which we've just assumed to be the status quo. If you work at an indie label, if you work at a music publisher, if you work at a distributor, you can start questioning the assumed norms of your industry, because it takes someone that understands the specialization of what they do to say, “Well, hang on. Why are we still charging artists for breakages on digital releases? Why are we charging for warehousing?” Just little things that it honestly takes an ally in that field to point out as being unfair.

And it’s not that some of these contract clauses are particularly harmful to LGBTQ+ artists or artists of color, right? It’s that those artists historically haven’t had equal access to the resources that white, straight cisgender artists can call on to help navigate those situations and negotiations.

Yeah. I can think of a big New York lawyer who was known in indie circles as the go-to person, but I also know for a fact that he made all of his non-men clients deeply uncomfortable. That's something that most men don't realize is even an issue — that their own lawyer might make someone feel uncomfortable. There are marginalizations that are only revealed in the day-to-day, in the bullshit of working in the industry, and clearly, a lot of people didn't even realize that it was a thing. I don't know. I'd like to go to a label and have them get my pronouns right straight off the bat, but it invariably doesn't happen.

It’s been really nice to hear your perspective on all of this, because I think so many updates about what the industry is doing to combat racism and homophobia come from people at the top who talk very abstractly about the issues or come across as patting themselves on the back.

Well, this is also where I would talk about white allyship and queer white allyship. There have been a lot of conversations about big, white pop stars who are normally perceived as cisgender men and whether they're queer-baiting — allowing an ambiguity about their gender or sexuality to become part of the mythology around them. Look, to each their own. If someone wants to take their time coming out, I get that. There are many pressures and reasons why people should never feel obliged to come out.

However, a long-term, ongoing flirtation with it that's [encouraged] by other people in the industry — I feel like that becomes exploitative. And the thing that is really worth noting, because it links into white privilege, is that I cannot imagine a white person coming out as any flavor of queer in 2021 and having that hindering their career. I do not see that happening. I don't see their fans turning on them, I don't see the industry turning on them. If anything, there will be a surplus of articles and thinkpieces to be written. And so I think it's worth re-calibrating our cultural gaydar that says white queers are marginalized in some way. White trans people, sure. White gay men? No. That's not a thing anymore. Unless you're in the deepest, darkest Southern red state and someone literally has pitchforks at dawn. I don't think in the music industry, the coastal New York-L.A. music industry, that this is a hindrance. And I think it would be good to acknowledge that.

But I mean, look at Gen Z. I look at Gen Z with something approaching awe and envy at the access to bespoke identity that that generation has now, so it's clearly not unusual, either. There’s going to be more and more queer and trans youth coming through. It will, hopefully and happily, become the norm. But then you're going to have to find something else to write about. Let's start talking about what the music sounds like again. It used to be in paragraph one, but now I feel like it's in paragraph 15.

A version of this story originally appeared in Billboard’s 2021 Pride Issue, dated June 5, 2021.