"We need to fight for our seat at the table.”
That’s the mandate one major-label senior vp relayed to Billboard last April, summarizing an issue that had reached a breaking point: Why hadn't the R&B/hip-hop boom elevated more black music executives to the industry’s C-suites?
What followed during the next eight months was unprecedented: Some 20 seats were added to that top executive table. At the end of 2018, Columbia Records announced Shawn Holiday and Phylicia Fant’s promotions to co-heads of urban music, capping off a series of vp-and-higher appointments at labels, publishing firms, streaming companies and more.
“If you think about it, there haven’t been 20 fucking black appointments like this in the last eight years,” says the aforementioned major-label senior vp. “The Billboard article was a catalyst that gave people ammunition: ‘See, this is what we’re talking about.’”
The most prominent new appointment will take place in March when Jon Platt is set to take over as chairman/CEO at Sony/ATV Music Publishing, which Martin Bandier headed for the last decade. Platt first made history in 2015 when he ascended to the CEO post at Warner/Chappell Music Publishing (adding the chairman title in 2016) to become the highest-ranking black executive in music. Friend and colleague Jay-Z put Platt’s achievement into context last October at the City of Hope gala honoring him: “He’s the Obama of the music industry.”
To fellow black executives, Platt’s ascension signifies more such moves to come. “It has been fairly systematic that black executives with proven track records are overlooked when it comes to CEO and president positions,” says record-label veteran Max Gousse (Def Jam, Epic/Sony), who now manages rising artist Saweetie through his Artistry Worldwide banner. “So I’m glad to see some progress.” One production company executive says that Platt’s appointment “absolutely shows that talented African-American executives can rise higher than had been anticipated [by white gatekeepers] in the past.”
But while recent moves by Platt and others signal steps forward, major questions loom. Is the industry truly heading toward permanent change when it comes to the inclusivity of black executives — or are the past months’ promotions merely indicative of a passing PC moment while R&B/hip-hop dominates?
The group of promotion, marketing, management, publicity and production leaders interviewed for this story agree that it’s imperative for companies to include executives on their teams who come from the R&B/hip-hop culture and thus intrinsically understand how to market effectively to that audience. For years, though, that directive has become an excuse to restrict savvy black executives from consideration for posts outside the R&B/hip-hop arena — an issue that still needs to be confronted.
“That’s why people are also cynical about what’s happening now, because [executive-level jobs] are mostly specific to urban,” says a former major-label marketing vp. (Of those major 2018 appointments, nearly half were for urban-related posts.) “I cut my teeth working in pop, rock and even country. That’s not something you find a lot of African-American executives saying right now.”
At the same time, those interviewed stress that regardless of the opportunity, black executives must also be empowered with equitable budgets and resources to perform on the same level as their white counterparts. Meaningful and sustainable change will depend upon top leadership making concerted efforts to foster more dialogue between the ranks to fully address the systemic problems that persist.
“There has been a step in the right direction,” says a veteran label promotion executive-turned-industry consultant. “But the culture inside [companies] has to change. Barriers are still there for black people.”