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(Credit: Far Out / BLiM)

Music

Far Out Meets: Roger Wilson - How we fix the racist music industry

@TomTaylorFO

Last year, the racist reality of the music industry was elucidated by the pioneering Black Lives in Music survey. Cold hard data displayed that 73% of all Black music professionals have experienced racism in the industry, their earnings were lower on average (£1964 per month vs £2459 for white professionals) and they were less likely to sustain employment as only 21% of Black music creators earn 100% of their income from music compared to 38% of white music creators. Needless to say, the findings were stark. 

As the Black Lives in Music director, Roger Wilson is a trailblazer for necessary change. Recently we caught up with him to address the findings, and today we are discussing how the disturbing truths unearthed can be remedied. Realising the need for change is one thing but enacting it is quite another. As Wilson attests: “Just because the industry might wish to make a change it doesn’t mean that we will see the diversity equivalent of the January sales on oxford street, with people queuing up to get through the door of inclusion.  There is a considerable hearts and minds job to do – trust has to be earned and meaningful actions will play a part in this but not exclusively so.”

The changes that Wilson wishes to see in the industry are ones that we can all get behind:

  • A return of free music education for all
  • Concessions for those from marginalised communities who wish to take instrumental music exams
  • More support for organisations like Music for All that support music learning and champions talent
  • Organisations ringfence funds annually to support the learning and development of their workforce
  • Decolonisation of education curriculum and more specifically the music education curriculum
  • Conservatoires and higher education institution music departments to have significant representation in their lecturing and teaching staff as well as their staff force more generally
  • Classical music orchestras to diversify their artistic offer, including programming, artists and conductors
  • Accelerated pathways for Black industry professionals 
  • Black practitioners supporting Black music creators and industry professionals with mental health support
  • Transparency and parity of pay in the industry
(Credit: Far Out)

However, how do we go about changing these when the reality isn’t even cogitated in the first place? Well, as Wilson explains, even systemic racism can be overhauled by implementing changes that encourage a change to the current cultural discourse. “Addressing systemic racism is central to the change that is needed. There may be people that are racist, but the systems prevent the change that is needed, not the individuals,” Wilson explains. 

Adding: “Recruitment, talent development, artist management, pathways to leadership – all of these areas and many more need to be focused as part of overall systemic change. All organisations need to have a diversity action strategy that includes learning and awareness sessions in inclusive practice. All organisations and companies in the sector should have allocated protected funds in their annual operating budget to enable development and learning for their staff teams. These are structural devices which should, in my opinion, be mandatory and will, in itself, support structural change.”

The central message in this is one that involves all of us: “Become an anti-racist and not a passive bystander – to be silent is to be complicit.” There are plenty of steps and tools to assist this. “I was a child of the analogue age, but now I can go online and both watch and listen to my favourite musicians,” Wilson muses. “So, the message? Get online and self-educate, there is a huge amount of digital material out there, podcasts, interviews, articles, videos and books – you just have to care, if you do, you will find the time. But checking this material is not enough, you have to be reflective in your thoughts and ask yourself where is the connection between the things you learn about and you?   This reflective process is an important consideration if, as individuals, we can be part of the overall change-making process.”

If more people are cognizant of the problem and how it can be remedied, then the more likely meaningful change will become. These changes can be implemented in a number of ways. The first step involves a Grassroots medium to enforce change from the bottom up. “If we don’t address what goes in the pipeline then we can’t expect to see anything different coming out the other end,” Wilson explains. “The children and young people of today are tomorrow’s musicians, audiences, and hopefully all should be key stakeholders. The music education hub model is transactional – please come and have music lessons with us, if you can afford it!  We need to do much more to support grassroots participation by the wider community.”

(Credit: Far Out)

Continuing: “As well as big drives for take up of ‘endangered species’ instruments like bassoons and trombones, we have to have drives to address and engage the wider community. Support needs to be strategic. We know that free music education is the stuff of myth but as a sector, we can work together more effectively to support grassroots involvement.”

In this regard, change perpetuates further change. With greater involvement, the culture becomes more inclusive and beneficial for all. As Wilson explains: “Music needs to be relevant, why is white western classical music largely the only main course on the menu of classical music?  So many young people are now making music in their own bedrooms, using digital audio workstations and technology.  We must engage those young people, not leave them feeling excluded.  We also need to support the amazing talent development initiatives that are out there like PRSF POWER UP.” 

Adding: “Also, there are folks like Ben Wynter and Wozzy Brester who are doing some amazing work, we can’t clone them, so we need to better support the amazing initiatives that they drive.  We need to improve the mentoring offer so that Black talent does not fall off the precipice on graduation.  Most importantly, we need to see ourselves in the areas of industry where we want to be – we need role models and icons. The industry must champion Black talent at all levels so those going after can move into that space with confidence.”

At the heart of this is Wilson’s own Black Lives in Music organisation who will “gather information through its surveys, and it will continue to collate the data and present a real understanding of what change in the industry looks like through its reporting.  It will be up to the industry to act or ignore, my view is positive, change is coming, it takes time.”

However, when it comes to accelerating that vital change, everyone must get involved. “The industry has a duty of care to everyone in the sector. Data gathering, analysis, honesty, discussion, reflection, introspection and having the desire to make change – these are the pre-requisites,” Wilson asserts. Those pre-requisites are more likely to be upheld if change is demanded from the outside. As Wilson opines with his final thoughts: “Thank you to Far Out for giving me this platform my voice to be heard. If you’re reading this article, you are a potential changemaker – now it’s your turn.”