As hip-hop and R&B dominate pop culture and drive accelerating music industry gains, there’s an increasingly glaring discrepancy between the color of the artists making the most popular music and that of the top executives getting the credit.
Edging out rock as music’s biggest genre in 2017, audio consumption of R&B/hip-hop grew 19.2 percent in first-quarter 2018 over the prior-year quarter, outpacing the industry’s overall 11.2 percent gain to comprise over a quarter of U.S. audio consumption and 31 percent of streaming, according to Nielsen Music.
But executives of color are still relatively scarce atop major music companies — at least, those they don’t own themselves. That select group includes industry veterans like Warner/Chappell Music chairman/CEO Jon Platt, Epic Records president Sylvia Rhone, Motown president Ethiopia Habtemariam and Universal Music Group (UMG) executive vp business and legal affairs/general counsel Jeffrey Harleston.
“There’s definitely a challenge in the music industry with respect to the pipeline for black executives, which is interesting when you think about the impact of the music that is being sold, because a lot of that is urban music and black culture,” music attorney Julian Petty, partner at law firm Nixon Peabody, told Billboard in February. “You can’t just have a few folks there. We’ve got to figure that out.”
A former major-label senior vp lays out a typical scenario: “[White executives] think that because they cut the check, that it buys them favor with the young, often black artists from the hood. It’s all good until the white executives can’t communicate with the new millionaire and his management team. Then the executives stress out the black female product manager to get answers about the artist, his new album, video edits, etc., because the white head of the company doesn’t want to offend the new young black millionaire. So the black executives do all the grunt work while the white executives get the credit.”
There has been some progress. On April 9, RCA Records promoted Tunji Balogun to executive vp A&R from senior vp in that department and announced his joint-venture label, Keep Cool. Recently, Interscope Geffen A&M named music attorney Nicole Wyskoarko executive vp urban operations. Others who have risen through the ranks include Atlantic executive vp urban promotion Juliette Jones; Epic executive vp A&R Ezekiel “Zeke” Lewis; Capitol Music Group executive vp Dion “No I.D.” Wilson; Def Jam executive vp/head of A&R Steven Victor; Columbia senior vp A&R Shawn Holiday; Warner Bros. senior vp/head of urban marketing Chris Atlas; and Priority GM William “Fuzzy” West. Presidents of black music include Atlantic’s Michael Kyser and RCA’s Mark Pitts.
But a decade ago, a similar-sized group of major-label decision-makers were black. Some left the majors by choice: Jay Brown, executive vp of Def Jam from 2005 to 2008, co-founded Roc Nation the year he left with former Def Jam president JAY-Z; Benny Pough exited Epic in late 2017 to be president of Roc Nation Records. 300 Ent.’s Kevin Liles, Translation/UnitedMasters’ Steve Stoute and Maverick’s Gee Roberson are all major-label veterans as well.
Other promising executives of color were casualties of the music industry’s consolidation after revenue began to tank in 2000. In 2001, BMG dismantled its entire black music department, while Capitol and Priority merged; by 2003, Sony had combined its Epic and Columbia R&B departments under the Sony Urban banner; and Motown Records merged with UMG in 2005.
“Sometimes blacks get hung up in a great accounting process called ‘restructuring – it allows you to write off everything,” former Motown president Jheryl Busby told Billboard in 2005. Even at that time, black executives asked why they were outnumbered: Was it just consolidation, or was bias at play? “With R&B/hip-hop being the leader now,” says one still working at a major, “these questions have to be posed yet again. We’re not being looked at for top positions — at all.”
Another record-company executive used a historical analogy: “It’s like back in the day when sharecroppers tended the cotton fields, tilling the soil, sowing the seeds and nurturing the crop through all sorts of challenges. ? When the crop proved to be bountiful as harvest time rolled around, the white overseers stepped in and took charge, reaping most of the profits.”
As labels now scramble to sign new hip-hop acts at skyrocketing prices, that sentiment has crescendoed, according to recent interviews with over a dozen black executives. Among the challenges they’ve faced: being given a big title but not the full authority that usually comes with it, and seeing white colleagues with less experience promoted in their stead. And if white executives can speak black music, some sources ask, then why aren’t black execs accorded the same consideration when it comes to jobs in pop, country and rock?
At the same time, there is a growing number of black entrepreneurs helming successful independent companies such as Roc Nation, Top Dawg Entertainment, Quality Control and Cash Money. Such ventures can offer more power — and potentially more money — than many major-label roles, especially as the acts they manage gain leverage.
“I get asked [by major labels] all the time to suggest names, but all the talented executives I know want to be on their own,” says one rap manager. “What does bother me is that major labels aren’t nurturing the black executive talent on their staffs.”
Some prefer the security of salaried, major-label jobs, the highest-ranking of which can command millions of dollars a year. “Why wouldn’t I want to aspire to become the next [L.A.] Reid or [Sylvia] Rhone to head a major label?” asks one major-label veteran, recalling his frustration when neither he nor one of his black colleagues were named president of Def Jam in 2012. (Though 15 candidates, many black, were interviewed for the post, sources tell Billboard, Island Def Jam and Universal Republic’s then-chairman/CEO, Barry Weiss, appointed Joie Manda, who has since ascended to become one of the top brass at Interscope, now executive vp.) “I became so disappointed with the corporate music culture that I left to do my own thing,” says the executive.
The majors are working to diversify. Announcing UMG’s involvement in the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative last November, UMG chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge wrote to staff: “The best way to foster an environment where new ideas are generated and innovation can flourish is to create a workplace that attracts and promotes and truly includes people from all kinds of backgrounds — one that matches and supports the incredible diversity of our artist roster.” WMG’s leadership program, Topline, aims to boost diversity that’s “certainly more present at the junior level,” Warner Music Group executive vp human resources Masha Osherova told Billboard in January, adding: “Part of the problem boils down to historical biases.” Sony Music Entertainment, which hired black executive Dasha Smith Dwin as executive vp/global chief human resources officer in February, states it is “proud of its diverse population of talented employees, including many senior executives. We are committed to doing additional work to promote, retain and make opportunities available for a more diverse and inclusive workforce.”
Still, says a major-label senior vp, “We need to fight for our seat at the table.”