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Portia Sabin Talks Diversity Gains and Pandemic-Era Silver Linings (Music Biz 2022)

The Music Biz president briefed attendees in Nashville of the positive changes made to the org since its last in-person conference in 2019.

You can find all of Billboard‘s Music Biz 2022 coverage here

The first Music Biz conference in three years has recaptured its groove, more than matching the 2019 edition in attendance already with 2,100 industry execs from 650 companies and 30 countries at the Nashville meet-up running May 8-12.

That’s the count as reported by the trade group’s president, Portia Sabin, who was still new to the organization when the pandemic kicked in and caused the hiatus.

“When I started this job in September of 2019 I could not in my wildest dreams have predicted what the next two and a half years would have in store for us, both as an organization and as an industry,” Sabin told attendees during a brunch meeting on Tuesday. “We all know the many downsides and challenges that the pandemic brought, but it also had an amazing number of silver linings for this organization and allowed us to evolve for the better, in ways that I’m not sure would have been possible otherwise.”

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Right ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Music Business Assn. held an in-person board of directors retreat in New York City, at which the members identified four things that they wanted to see the trade group accomplish:

  • Create a global footprint
  • Increase and diversify our events
  • Develop the board and staff through diversification and inclusion
  • Identify and apply the group’s voice throughout the industry

Since then the board, which in Fall 2019 was comprised of 13 white men and two white women, has been remade through a new board election, the creation of an advisory board and a junior board. “As of today we’re at 70% women and 40% people of color from 38 companies, which is what you call a good start,” Sabin said.

But that’s not all. The last four hires at Music Biz have been women of color, including well-regarded industry veteran Sonya Askew, who has worked for such companies as Def Jam, the Universal Music Group and Trans World Entertainment. Meanwhile, the conference schedule is populated with panels, seminars and keynotes aimed at helping the music industry address issues of equity, diversification and mental health. Beyond that, the speakers at the conference are almost 50% women and 40% people of color, Sabin said.

Moreover, Sabin noted that Music Biz’s “efforts at diversification aren’t limited to race and gender though — one side effect of the pandemic was to attract more companies to our membership from more sectors of the industry, growing our membership significantly.”

As part of her mandate for the organization, Askew is responsible for coordinating the org’s academic partnerships, which currently includes over 30 schools around the country; and as part of that, Music Biz has made a special effort to reach out to HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities, “to bring them into our community,” Askew said.

In particular, Askew said during the trade group’s address to the conference delegates that her responsibilities also include helping to expand the “Music Biz umbrella.” She reported that in the last year, the org’s membership revenue has grown 79%, and overall is showing growth of 99% over the last three years.

That’s a far cry from what Sabin faced in her new job as she began envisioning how she wanted to transform the organization. “In March 2020…the world shut down and we moved into crisis mode,” Sabin said. “Instead of worrying about goals, we were worrying about keeping the doors open, the lights on, and our staff and members safe.”

Still, Sabin and the Music Biz staff found a way forward, beginning Music Biz Live — virtual speaker events — three weeks after the shutdown

Initially, that effort focused on talking about how the pandemic was bringing out the positive side of social media and providing a way to talk to leaders “about what they were doing to keep themselves, their employees, and their artists connected and supported.”

“We spoke to MusicCares about how artists could access COVID relief money, we talked to lawyers and business managers about applying for SBA loans, we talked to the newly-formed National Independent Venue Association to disseminate information on how the live music industry could get help, and we discussed mental health concerns and resources available for artists and executives alike who needed them,” Sabin said.

Beyond that, Music Biz drew upon its long history as a trade group and helped the physical business sector put on their annual Summer Camp conference as a virtual event, which was called Couch Camp. “This event drew hundreds of retailers and answered pressing questions such as how to start an online store and best practices and protocols for a group who are the front line of music sales to the fans,” Music Biz’s vp of communications Nicole Hennessey said.

And other events on other issues followed including a “Let’s Talk Physical” series and an ongoing series with SoundExchange on the Future of Monetization in the industry, Hennessey added.

Before concluding Sabin thanked the Music Biz team for all their efforts to keep the organization afloat during the past two and a half years as well as staging the convention. And she also encouraged attendees to make the most of their time at the conference.

“Many people call this conference ‘the four most productive days on the industry calendar’ and we believe that that’s true, but mainly because we’re always Better When We’re Together,” Sabin said earlier in her remarks, paraphrasing the conference’s “Better Together” slogan.