Last week, following The Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow‘s “Step Up” comment, we saw a public petition — now with nearly 14,000 signatures — calling for his resignation. This call was echoed by an industry petition signed by 21 powerful women, mostly attorneys and talent agents. And then there was the news yesterday that the top labels and publishers –conspicuously absent from the industry letter — had sent a separate letter to the Recording Academy board that Portnow reports to; it stopped short of calling for his resignation, but demanded change and results as it related to equity and diversity of all sorts.
Now there’s yet another petition addressed to the Recording Academy and Portnow circulating — frankly already long overdue — that is seeking the signature of the top men in the music industry. The petition, being circulated by Tom Windish of Paradigm Talent Agency, whose longtime clients include Lorde, stops short of calling for Portnow’s resignation, but asks men to “stand in solidarity with the brave women who penned letters to you and ask that more substantial action be taken on behalf of the Recording Academy.” The letter also asks the Recording Academy to “reveal the gender and ethnic makeup of your voting members and make necessary changes to the population of the Academy to reflect the gender and ethnic diversity that is the music industry.”
When Windish was asked why he created the petition, he said it was “to support women and encourage the academy to make significant changes.”
The Recording Academy couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.
There are some impressive people who have backed it now. But there are still men — top managers, talent agents and attorneys who everyone knows by first name alone — who have been reticent to sign, or “are considering.” What side of history do you want to be on?
However the Recording Academy responds to petitions, and whatever the reasons for their shortchanging women when it comes to nominations, the organization is running on the wrong side of many people’s patience for change. Because Portnow’s response didn’t fully address this urgency, there remains concern that his leadership will bring change. Knowing Portnow as I do to be a thoughtful, concerned person, I do believe he is able. But that ownership will come from a self-awareness, both his own and the Recording Academy’s, that we have seen too little of in the public sphere. I know that the Academy is working, seriously and effectively behind the scenes to create a new, more current membership and voters. But this can’t take years.
The history nerds among you may have shared my interest in this week’s news about the Berlin Wall — on Monday it passed the threshold of now being down longer than it had been up. The wall was and remains a potent symbol for much: the ideological divides of the Cold War, the realities of post-war Europe, and ultimately, reunification. But it’s also a symbol for the way change often unfolds. When East and West Germans awoke on that fateful Nov. 9 in 1989 — the date that the checkpoints finally opened and the sledgehammers came out — no one had any real idea what was about to transpire in a matter of hours. To paraphrase Hemingway, revolution happens slowly, then suddenly.
The remembrance of the wall provides a fitting context in which to consider today’s music industry. The circumstances leading to these turbulent times have unfolded slowly, arguably since the very earliest days of the music industry. But the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements have torpedoed, seemingly suddenly, into the music business’ largely white, male hegemony.
Context is a funny thing. It always comes down to whose context you choose to inhabit.
When Portnow’s “step up” comment became the proverbial spark in the powder keg, he (eventually) issued a statement that was less of an apology and more of an explanation. “Regrettably, I used two words, ‘step up,’ that, when taken out of context, do not convey my beliefs and the point I was trying to make,” he shared. To Portnow’s credit, he then went on to outline his commitment to making the industry a more woman-friendly place — a context he had mostly offered at the same time as making the fateful “step up” comment.
But there’s a broader context that many, especially women, cite. That context goes something like this:
After a year in which we’ve gotten a clear, concise, horrifying picture of the injustice and outright abuse that women have had to suffer across so many industries…
After a year in which all of the top 20 songs and top 10 artists on Billboard’s year-end charts belonged to men…
After a week in which newly-released research showed that only 9.3 percent of Grammy nominations in recent years went to women..
After a week in which only 9.5 percent of the top quarter of the Billboard Power 100 list were women…
After a Grammys night when only one woman won a televised award…
After a Grammys night when the only woman nominated for album of the year was the only person not invited to perform her own song…
This was the context in which the words “step up” came out of Portnow’s mouth. Keep in mind when considering the numbers above that women are 51 percent of the population. This is as far away from a case where women need to “step up” as could possibly be. Companies, men, institutions — these need to step up. When 51 percent of Grammy nominations and 51 percent of the Billboard Power 100 and 51 percent of board rooms and executive suites are women, we will know that those who needed to step up finally have.
Just before the first industry petition hit the public, Portnow and the Recording Academy announced the creation of a task force “to review every aspect of what we do as an organization and identify where we can do more to overcome the explicit barriers and unconscious biases that impede female advancement in the music community.”
But you can still hear the frustration in the petitions. “Your comments are another slap in the face to women, whether intended or not; whether taken out of context, or not” read the first industry petition. “Needless to say, if you are not part of the solution, then you must accept that YOU are part of the problem.” To put it in a parlance the business can relate to: The drinks are over. The check is due. And you no longer have an expense account.
With all the change that has begun to happen — the marginalized finding voice, platform and power — one thing that hasn’t generally changed in the leadership of the music business. At the Recording Academy, and all across the music industry, the power structure is not only still overwhelmingly white and male, but the same white men who were in charge 10, 15, 20 years ago. I know many of these folks personally, and many of them are great humans with a track record for elevating and promoting women and people of color.
But they are going to have to prove that they are now up for very different leadership challenges. Even if your track record is great, how’s your consciousness? How’s your organizational culture? Your policies and implementation of them? Where is the money you are spending on your commitment to real change, and where is that real change? How close are you to 51 percent (or more) of your most senior team being women? How do you know that a woman feels she has a safe path to report harassment or abuse? Would you get great responses on these questions if you anonymously surveyed the women in your company?
We are in an era of progressive white men recognizing their privilege. If at this point, after a year of #MeToo, #TimesUp and #BlackLivesMatter; after a year of headlines about a current presidential administration that protects, exploits and rewards white, male privilege at every turn; if anyone still doesn’t get it, still doesn’t understand that the narrative and context that matters in building a just society, a just music business is no longer that of the white male? Then it may be time for someone else to step in.
Follow the Money
Much of the public discussion last week focused on the Grammys and Charlie Walk. But as I listened to women from across various industry sectors and leadership levels throughout the week, one name I heard a few times was that of LA Reid, in connection to the launch of his new business.
It has been widely reported that Reid was ushered out of his CEO role at Epic Records in May because Sony had to settle sexual harassment claims from a former assistant. In recent weeks, it has also been widely reported that Reid has received anywhere between $70 million and $100 million in investment money to build a massive new music company. What message does it send to women, then, that seemingly on the way out the door at Sony, he was reportedly validated with this enormous cash infusion from new investors? Lest you think this is rhetorical, women have told me that the message is that this is a small business and the executive that you knock off a perch yesterday will simply pop up in a new position of power tomorrow.
One senior executive floated the narrative that Reid “was lucky” because his May ousting came “before everyone was paying attention to this issue.” But the facts don’t bear that out fully. The news of Reid’s dismissal broke May 14. This was a month after more than 80 advertisers dropped from Bill O’Reilly‘s show, leading to his firing at Fox. This was three months after former Uber engineer Susan Fowler posted a blog about her experience with sexual harassment at the company and users started mass-deleting the app. (It was also three months after “Nevertheless she persisted.”)
But even if you feel that these international newsmakers somehow didn’t equate to writing on the wall, then presumably, Reid didn’t have investment contracts signed the day he was out at Sony. Between then and the end of the year, #MeToo and #TimesUp became arguably the biggest story in the world. But Reid’s investors? Nevertheless, they persisted.
This has a chilling effect on women reporting similar harassment claims. I believe this is changing, but it can’t happen soon enough. I recently asked a major investor in the music and media space if the sexual harassment past of executives was something he considered when making an investment. “It wasn’t four weeks ago,” he said. “It is now.”
One can imagine an effective education and awareness campaign to key investors in the music space and elsewhere. Reid Hoffman, the CEO of LinkedIn launched something similar last year but this feels like an idea that could use some more effort.
There is a volcano of change bubbling under the public surface of the music business right now. When and if it blows — if even a fraction of the names I’m hearing are legitimately implicated — it could rewrite chunks of the broad music industry’s power structure. The only thing suppressing this eruption is fear. It’s not just the understandable fear that women have that they will damage their own careers or face other insidious forms of retribution for speaking out and telling truths. There’s also:
The fear men have that they may be next.
The fear that some business leaders have that getting involved somehow risks hurting their own bottom line.
The fear media outlets have that they may be sued, possibly by billionaires.
The fear seemingly everyone I speak with has that the music business will be dramatically changed from top to bottom.
Businesses and individuals will have to reckon with many of these fears on their own. But as for that last one? Yes, the unknown is scary. But the present is untenable. It isn’t an option.
Please consider: Even if doing the moral, just thing isn’t enough motivation, ultimately, being on the right side of history is always the correct business decision. No one — not the major label CEOs, not the heads of the most powerful agencies, not the biggest artists in the world — no one is irreplaceable. The business will go on just as it always has, only with hopefully better standards for how we treat each other.
Bill Werde is the director of the Bandier undergraduate music industry program, and the graduate Audio Arts program at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. He is also the former editorial director of Billboard. Reach him on Twitter at @bwerde.