Do Black Lives Matter to the Music Biz in 2020? Part 1

Blackout Tuesday, Juneteenth and beyond

Black Lives Matter fist (Art: Ron Hart)

America suffers from a trio of crippling psychological diseases: constant amnesia, a refusal to account for our sins and an unhealthy appetite for quick fixes. 

The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Reed and other African-Americans by police were horrifying. But they are also part of a pattern that not only stretches back to the beginning of our country but also forward to the not-so-distant past in terms of deadly ‘law enforcement,’ including the killings of Treyvon Martin, Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, Botham Jean, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner among others.  The usual pattern of reaction is justifiable disgust and outrage and calls to action but then a news cycle sweeps it away and we run away from our bitterest problems, frustrated that there isn’t a quick and ready solution and also hampered by our fear to confront our long-standing racial divide.

So why was this time different?  You might say that it was a combination of factors including our frustration with an inept, egotistical leader in Washington, plus the stir-crazy isolation of the pandemic, but it was also that with the Floyd murder, we could see it happen in painful real-time with own eyes, all eight minutes and 46 seconds of it.  (And did you realize that the whole incident was supposedly over a fake $20 bill?)  Just as the outrageous video of Rodney King’s brutal beating by the police and their subsequent acquittal sparked riots in L.A., Floyd’s killing sparked outrage, but of a different type this time.  There were some early, high profile incidents of violence and looting (which the NYPD itself attributed to their own problems with ‘intelligence failure’) but this soon gave way to sustained, peaceful protests around the US and the world, which included a former Republican presidential candidate.  

As inspirational and exhilarating as the protests were, what was astounding other was that corporate America actually took some small steps to amend for their long-time sins.  Adweek did a really commendable job summing up all the recent changes made by the companies to be more sensitive to racial issues with not just large donations and sympathetic ads but also including HBO temporarily yanking Gone With the Wind, retiring old ad mascots like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s and a growing ad boycott of Facebook for letting Trump get away with inciting violence. As Insider Today and Vulture noted, the media itself is also having a reckoning over its own hiring policies. The tech world also turned inward to rethink its naming convention of devices, such as ‘master’ and ‘slave.’ Even sports that were seen as bastions of conservatives, NFL and NASCAR, has seen the light and supported some form of racial awareness/sensitivity, just as Disney has decided to put its money behind former quarterback & protest flash-point Colin Kaepernick . Trump can try to peddle his race-baiting hate and wrap himself in the Confederate flag to try to scare whites to the voting booth, but he’s already lost the culture war here.

Ben & Jerry’s Black Lives Matter sign (Art: Ron Hart)

And what about the music industry?  Surely, they would have a solution, right?  Well, kind of…

Not long after the Floyd murder, a number of music publications became excellent resources of information about how to support Black Lives Matter, other similar resources and protesters who are involved in these causes, including:

Alongside semantic changes from the Grammys about category names, statements of purpose from news outlets, and a social media show of support from music stars, Atlantic Records honchos Jamila Thomas & Brianna Agyemang came up with the idea of Blackout Tuesday aka #TheShowMustBePaused, happening on June 2, 2020.  For this day, the music biz was supposed to pause its usual work to call attention to the burgeoning social justice movement.  Online music platforms and many other major labels as well as some artists and publications joined in on the effort, which garnered coverage from a number of major news organizations. On that day, a number of homepages from the majors’ websites were seen only as black boxes, sometimes with statements of solidarity for BLM alongside their logos. Similarly, they and the music celebs posted black squares on social media and hashtagged #BlackLivesMatter to draw attention to the cause.

But how fruitful was Blackout Tuesday?  Almost immediately skeptics pounced on the idea until criticism of the effort became de rigueur.  Large outlets like Vanity Fair, Forbes and CNN all pointed out that the black boxes for these postings were crowding out the more important and instructive messaging from Black Lives Matter themselves.  It got the point where BLM themselves expressed frustration over the supposed solidarity of the campaign. Musicians also piled on, questioning the usefulness of the Blackout Tuesday campaign. The Washington Post and Rolling Stone wondered out loud why the music biz seemed to center around one day of pause and why they didn’t do more to address racial inequities, including in its own house.  It got to the point that even Bob Lefsetz was able to somewhat reasonably ding the event (in his usual messy rant style though), which is when you know you’re in trouble. 

Atlantic Records Black Lives Matter (Art: Ron Hart)

So were all these pubs right and was Blackout Tuesday really just a nice little gesture that turned into a fucked-up idea?  Not necessarily. The knocks against it with the black boxes were warranted as BLM deserved prominence, but the effort did become part of the larger cultural conversation and a token of solidarity with the movement. 

The more important issue was this- what was the music biz going to do after Blackout Tuesday?  True, some of the websites kept their solidarity messages on their homepage after that date but true commitment to the cause had to go beyond that.  

One day after Blackout Tuesday, on June 3rd, indie haven/umbrella site BandCamp announced that they would donate their share of sales to the NAACP Defense Fund and provided a list of hundreds of labels and artists with unique releases for that day, many of them benefiting BLM-related cause. Related to there, there appeared a crowd-sourced list of over 1900 black artists on BandCamp (aka “Black BandCamp”).

There were also a number of laudable gestures from big labels and big acts then to show support for racial justice after June 2nd.  There was actual money ponying-up from companies with Warner Brothers’ $100 million donation to social justice organizations, Bandsintown Live donating to the NAACP and a group called ‘The Promotion Coalition‘ (made up of music promoters) doing a fundraiser for BLM and related causes. Two GOAT-candidate rappers put their money/resources to good use with Jay-Z taking out full page ads to honor George Floyd and flying Arbery’s lawyer to a court date and Kanye West (in a brief moment of clarity) donating to the families of Floyd, Taylor, Arbery and joining a BLM march.  There were also challenges from the Weeknd for music bosses to donate to BLM causes  and Wilco asking publishing companies to donate to racial justice organizations.  Even Justin Bieber pledged to speak out about ‘racial justice and systemic oppression’ (maybe he’ll retweet Cornel West) and BMG promised review records deals for inequality (not that I would ever doubt them but someone PLEASE follow-up on this).

BandCamp Juneteenth logo

The music biz had another chance to prove themselves with Juneteenth, the June 19th date to celebrate the end of slavery in the US. The tradition had been around for a while but it gained momentum and poignancy in light of the summer BLM protests.  The Juneteenth rally for the cause though mostly did not come from the majors but instead from, once again, Bandcamp, who donated their own sales to the NAACP Defense Fund for that day and have promised to do the same every Juneteenth. Also at Bandcamp, there were numerous acts who also supported similar charities including (but far from limited to) Dream Wife,  Smokey Emery, The Beths and Amerigo Gazaway as well as labels such as Slovenly, Three Lobed LobsterDAIS and Cantaloupe, not to mention benefit compilations that were helmed by Planet Mu, Rough Trade/Bank Robber and Tompkins Square

Around then, everyone from Phoebe Bridges to Insane Clown Posse were showing themselves to be down with the causes but since then, not a hell of a lot of activity beyond news of Blackout Day 2020 (which is not music-biz centered).  Granted, it’s only been a few weeks but going back to our amnesia problem, that’s a worrying long time and already the span of a few news cycles.

But here’s an idea- instead of waiting for labels and artists to come around to coax you to these causes again, you could make a difference with some donations yourself.  Along with the magazine guides previously mentioned, Charity Navigator is an excellent resource for finding charity organizations that spend most of their donations dollars on the causes that they support.  CN even has a list of civic rights organizations that they recommend.  It’s important to find this out as some of the groups that claim to support these causes may not be who you think they are.  Several highly rated CN organizations that you should know about and contribute to include National Urban League, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU and Equal Justice Initiative.  Otherwise, you would want to, of course, support Black Lives Matter and for justice/bail reform, check out Community Justice Exchange’s National Bail Fund Network.  

So what are you waiting for?  Put your money to good use and tell your friends.

 

In the next two installments in this series, we’ll speak to many of the BandCamp labels/artists about their support of these causes, their future plans of support and their ideas for justice reform and then a conversation with two of the above-mentioned charities about their work with the music industry.

 

VIDEO: LL Cool J Black Lives Matter freestyle 

Jason Gross

Jason Gross is the editor/founder of Perfect Sound Forever , one of the first and longest-running online music magazines. He also does freelance writing for Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Time Out, AP, New York, MTV, Oxford American, Billboard, MOJO, The Wire, Blurt among others.  Reissues and collections that he's produced included Delta 5, Essential Logic, Kleenex/Liliput, DNA, Oh OK and OHM –The Early Gurus of Electronic Music. He lives in New York with his girlfiend and their 30 plush cats.

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