Diversity in the music industry: ‘We are all part of the solution’


From the recent open letters from women working in the Swedish and Australian music industries condemning harassment to the ‘step up’ storm currently engulfing Grammys organiser the Recording Academy, diversity is a huge topic for our industry in 2018.

The term covers a number of related issues, from harassment to equal opportunities to enter and advance up the industry for women, people of colour and other groups. So how well are music companies tackling these challenges, and how can they improve?

Live Nation Entertainment’s director of diversity and inclusion, Genevieve O’Neil, offered her assessment of the progress being made and the barriers still standing, in a speech at the FastForward conference in Amsterdam today.

“There is a lot of chat in this area of diversity and inclusion, and not a lot of change. Because fundamentally what we’re trying to do is to get people to change their behaviour to be inclusive, and then to make measurable change, because this is very hard to track.”

She started with the why of it all: why is this important? Because it’s the right thing to do as a human, but also… “There’s a really strong business case for this. 83% of millennials are more actively engaged when they believe their company fosters an inclusive culture,” said O’Neil, noting that in 10 years, this demographic are expected to account for 75% of the workforce.

She also quoted McKinsey research suggesting that gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform their peers. Yet even this hasn’t fuelled change as fast as might have been expected. “It’s puzzling: it shouldn’t be that hard to get this right.”

O’Neil described diversity and inclusion as “a huge opportunity for our industry” at a time when true gender-equity parity still seems centuries away, and when movements like #MeToo are highlighting historic and current harassment. And…

“We have openly racist world leaders! Not just in America but in the media. That’s scary. But on the flipside of that we have conversations around racial diversity happening in a way that hasn’t before,” she said. “We have transgender children who don’t feel safe emotionally or physically to go to school because of the way they identify, but on the flipside we have the most amazing, inspiring transgender role models in popular culture that they can look up to now.”

O’Neil talked about complacency. “Sometimes I liken the diversity and inclusion work we do on a global scale to climate change,” she said. In that the problem feels so huge, it’s daunting to try to think we can have an individual impact on it by our daily actions.

“Gender equity and parity is going to take 217 years. So we’ll all be dead… and that sucks. On the one hand I’m so passionate about that, and on the other hand, I think what are we doing?” said O’Neil. But she offered some thoughts on how music companies can effect genuine change.

First: talking to leaders. O’Neil talked about the point when she noticed a lack of women on the organisational chart for Live Nation, and forwarded it to CEO Michael Rapino asking him what he thought of it. He replied via email, including asking for her ideas on how to change it. “I was like: ‘Yes Michael Rapino! I do!’,” she laughed. And that led to her current job.

“I think it’s so funny the way we relate to the leaders of our companies. These people are time-poor, they’re under so much pressure, and we regard them as these godlike people. Michael Rapino’s a legend! I reckon most CEO’s are: they’re really hard workers. And they need your ideas to succeed, and they notice the good ideas… Don’t be scared of them… they all wake up with bad breath in the morning!” she said.

O’Neil’s second point was language: the words we choose to describe things. She suggested that the word ‘headhunting’ for recruitment is really aggressive for example. But it can be about the line between describing someone as a person with a disability, rather than a disabled person – because the disability doesn’t define them.

“And I’m always asked by white people if they can describe someone as black. And the point here is about intention: the intention of the words you’re using,” she said. “It’s a really important piece of this puzzle, I think. Think about the way you describe people… and the way you talk about people who aren’t the same as you.”

The next tip: educating yourself. She told an anecdote about touching her boss’ hair and complimenting it, and then later being told by a colleague that a white person touching a black woman’s hair can cause offence. So the next day she sat down with her boss, apologised and asked if she could explain the issue from her perspective. “It was appropriate for me to create a conversation around that: it helps me be better, it helps me not offend more people, and it’s important,” she said.

But she added that it’s important that it’s not seen as any group’s responsibility to educate others about their culture – in this case the responsibility was O’Neil’s to educate herself.

Her next point focused on the current harassment debate: don’t vilify men. “Most people, I think, are kind-hearted and are doing their best. However, when you start to dig in to the diversity data, particularly in organisations, you will see that most of our organisations are led by men. Because of that they make most of the money. Because of that they make most of the decisions. And because of that, the workplace can feel exclusive to women and other minorities. It can feel like there’s a glass ceiling,” she said.

She suggested that talking to people about inclusion can make them feel defensive, which can then lead to the culture becoming even more exclusive. “It’s really easy to start hating men, and I see it a lot but that is not the goal. They are our partners and we have to include them in this conversation,” she said. Especially for the young men who are only just entering the workforce, or young boys who are hearing the conversation around these issues.

O’Neil called on music people to “interrupt their biases” – whatever those unconscious biases may be. The man on the bus talking too loudly on his phone may have a hearing impairment, so needs to talk louder. The person seemingly following you home in a hoodie might simply have worn one to work, and is now hurrying home to put their kids to bed.

She also talked about micro-inequities: for example not inviting someone to Friday-night drinks; not really trying to learn how to pronounce someone’s unique name. “There’s a lot of them,” she said, adding that these things are easy to fix.

There can also be micro-affirmations: genuine hellos and goodbyes “it’s been proven increase happiness in individuals”, while taking a new person around the office introducing them, and showing them how to work a coffee-machine, and including them in all the emails and meetings they need to be included on. Simple things, but meaningful ones.

O’Neil moved on to hiring and talent development, which are a key part of companies’ diversity strategies. She cited a Harvard study suggesting that adding one diverse candidate to the recruitment pool in the interview process will make that candidate stand out more, which will hamper their chances of advancing. Adding two (or more) diverse candidates makes them stand out less for their difference, and removes that barrier.

Added together: “I really believe that this change is what it takes to reach your potential as a leader, if that’s your path, or as a human being, which is definitely your path! It’s about treating others the way you want to be treated,” she concluded. “We are all part of the problem, and we are all part of the solution.”

O’Neil was asked about positive discrimination within companies. “Positive discrimination is one thing, quotas is another. I’m obsessed with the pace of change: it’s too slow,” she said, before another question from someone working for a dance label asked about the challenges of getting a more diverse roster if most of the demos submitted are coming from men.

“You want to work with the best artists, we want to hire the best talent in our organisation, and it’s complex,” she said. “Maybe you commit to mentoring one female dance artist a year or every six months. There are commitments you can make that won’t cost you much energy or money, and if they fail it doesn’t matter… It’s using your privilege to help others, and you might get some nice surprises too.”

Stuart Dredge

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