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How USC’s Diversity Guru Plans to Put More Women and Minorities In Music’s Top Jobs

With no female or black CEOs running record labels at the world's three biggest music companies, it's clear the industry lacks diversity where it counts.

With no female or black CEOs running record labels at the world’s three biggest music companies, it’s clear the industry lacks diversity where it counts.

But University of Southern California professor Stacy Smith, founder of USC’s new Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, wants to determine just how big of a diversity problem the music biz has, and why.

“It really hit us that there wasn’t rigorous data on the business itself,” says Smith, whose team is interviewing dozens of executives while analyzing charts, song lyrics and music videos “in order to really understand and counter implicit and explicit bias,” she says, aiming to release the initial findings in early 2018.

Smith says that she hopes to create “targeted solutions” for both the live and recorded music sectors, such as encouraging music companies to put language into their employment contracts that incentivizes the promotion and retention of women and minorities in bigger roles. It’s an idea that borrows from Smith’s years of research on the film industry, in which “all an A-list financier has to stipulate [before funding a movie] are inclusion criteria,” says Smith.


Another “huge problem” is music’s lack of female producers, which she likens to Hollywood’s dearth of female directors. The relative few female directors that do succeed still get overlooked, her research has shown, while many in the industry associate leaders with “masculine” traits such as being “tough as nails.”

“When women act feminine, they are punished for not acting like leaders. When they act like leaders, they are punished for not acting feminine enough,” Smith says.

With board members including Universal Music Publishing Group chairman/CEO Jody Gerson, Superfly president of corporate development Jennifer Justice and WME partner Samantha Kirby Yoh, the initiative also has Universal Music Group participating by sharing internal and external data, helping connect USC to the wider music ecosystem and serving as a test case.


Yet while no female executives at major record labels hold a CEO title, there are a growing number of women in power positions: Julie Greenwald is COO of Atlantic Records; Ethiopia Habtemariam is president of Motown; Sylvia Rhone is president of Epic; Cindy Mabe is president of UMG Nashville; and Gerson runs UMG’s publishing division, for example.

The good news: the music industry appears much hungrier for change than Hollywood, Smith says. Despite her team’s activist efforts to date, less than one-third of film’s speaking characters are female, a statistic that hasn’t changed since 2007.

By contrast, she says, her initial discussion last year with UMG’s chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge showed her that in music: “There’s a real hunger and desire in this space.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of Billboard.

2017 Billboard Women in Music