Kadeem Phillips: ‘If we don’t innovate country, the genre’s going to start to fall off’


The diversity within the country music industry has been a hot topic in recent times, as last year’s criticism of the sector by the Black Music Action Coalition showed.

However, with a drive for diversity, equity and inclusion underway in the wider music industry, there are also progressive initiatives in the country space. At the NY:LON Connect conference in London this week, mTheory CEO Cameo Carlson and Power Entertainment CEO Kadeem Phillips were interviewed about one of those initiatives by Music Biz president Portia Sabin.

In 2022, mTheory launched the Equal Access program, which aims to empower artists and managers from underrepresented demographics in country music with a blend of financial resources, training and networking opportunities. Phillips was part of the initial cohort of managers – and you may remember that he and Carlson appeared on the Music Ally Focus podcast last year to talk about it.

Carlson began by explaining how there has been a concerted effort in country music to be more inclusive, and while there is a growing diversity in the artists emerging from the sector, that’s not yet matched on the industry side.

Equal Access, she said, helps connect and open doors for managers from underrepresented backgrounds. Phillips explained how the programme allowed him to enter country music after prior success managing hip-hop artists. “What Equal Access did was create a safe space. [Participants] really got the opportunity to show a different side to country.”

It was important, Phillips said, that he was able to get into country music offices and demonstrate that he was there on merit: “To show I am a hustler and I can do everything, and we’re playing the game for real. When you think about the lack of diversity in country management, it’s about engaging [underrepresented] people and saying, ‘hey, you can do this’. This opportunity has opened eyes. I get calls from people saying “how can i be a part of this?”

Carlson said that the programme, which was funded by Country Music Television (CMT),  the Country Music Association (CMA), Opry, and First Horizon Bank “asks a lot of the [Black/underrepresented] managers that we are working with. They’re going to be the only six Black managers in the room for a while. It’s a burden – and we’re asking them to kick down doors. But we need it to happen in country music.”

The root of the discrimination, she explained, is simple. “It’s straight up, in your face racism in some cases – and mainly institutional racism.”

The impact of the Nashville-based project is international, thanks to the network effect. “When [people in other countries] are seeking diverse hires, they’re now connected to the Equal Access participants and can talk to them. It means we have a larger, more diverse network.”

Phillips agreed that the impact of the programme can reach wider, and expand marginalised genres in the city.

“If we make Black country work, it will open opportunities for Black hip-hop in Nashville. I shouldn’t feel like I need to go to LA every time I want to strike a deal.”

Carlson sees those opportunities working in both directions. “There are opportunities for us to expand this – there are a lot of white execs at hip-hop labels. It’s all about connecting and changing the nature of the music industry community.”

For Carlson, the rationale for launching Equal Access is simple. “This business thrives on money – and you’re leaving money on the table when you’re not marketing to people who look like Kadeem; people who grew up on country music.”

For Phillips, it’s a fundamental issue. “If we don’t innovate country, the genre’s going to start to fall off. Country’s a genre where everyone can make money. There shouldn’t be anyone left out. Country is driven on structures and being a team player. Equal Access has caused me to think differently.”

The NY:LON Connect global music summit is run by Music Biz and Music Ally. This year’s event is held in association with Orfium and Viberate, and hosted by Reed Smith. The Artist Managers: Empowerment, Artist Teams, Data, and Diversity track is sponsored by Amuse and beatBread. You can find all our coverage of the conference sessions here.

Written by: Joe Sparrow