Country Music Has a Diversity Problem. Here’s How To Start Making Things Right.

In the time since The Morgan Wallen Incident, the country music industry has reacted in ways both predictable and unexpected. The immediate censure of Wallen led some to wonder if we were finally at a tipping point, but we were also reminded that “country music is a family,” as many of the same peers who’d criticized his actions one day circled their wagons the next. Meanwhile, countless well-meaning panels have been convened, the majority of them set up to ask Black people outside the business to help white people inside the business find a solution to a problem that exists for one reason:

Country music is built on white supremacy.

I’ve worked in and around the genre for 15 years. I started as a journalist, transitioned into digital media and fan engagement, and ended up in artist management. I can count on one hand the number of people of color I’ve worked alongside over the years. I am just as complicit as everyone else.

But I also work outside the business as a community organizer, campaign volunteer, and voting rights advocate, avocations that have widened my circle of friends, enriched my perspective, and provided opportunities to see the world beyond Music Row and my own privilege. Because of that work, I feel compelled to speak out, with the knowledge that, like all white people, I still have a lot to learn.

Why isn’t the country music industry more diverse?

Because we don’t hire people of color. We don’t sign people of color. We are entirely focused on the success and personal comfort of white folks, in boardrooms, on stage, and in the audience. That’s it. That’s the answer.

If you do hire and sign people of color, congrats, and keep it going! The first steps I present here are not original ideas, and in fact, many of my colleagues have in their own ways been raging against the machine for years. But we all know it’s not been enough.

Understand: Country music, by design, is a machine that deliberately shuns diversity at virtually every turn, whether it’s a new sound or a new person. If country music is a family, that family is the mob. Loyalty is required, first and foremost. It is not an environment that is conducive to growth.

We don’t want to be “political.” We love a performative photo op and a thoughtful panel, but we get insulted when people tell us we need to do more. We center ourselves and our experiences. We literally embrace people we know are garbage, and then go silent when they cause damage. We passively observe every form of abusive behavior, because we assume we don’t have the power to stop it. (We do.)

So the process of diversifying and bringing equity to country music, despite everyone’s best attempts to fix things overnight, will not be an easy one. It will take time. Ten years feels like a good baseline.

How do we get started?

  • Hire and sign BIPOC and marginalized voices. And don’t just slot in some token folks — hire and sign an army of people who don’t look, sound, think, or worship like you do.
  • Set entry salaries at a level where an individual with student debt and/or without a fiscal security net can afford to take the job. Set label advances and publishing deals at a similar level.
  • Give your new hires and artists mentors, skilled A&R, and a peer structure.
  • Give them the freedom to leave if the environment becomes harmful.
  • Better yet, promote them, in the office and at radio. Prop them up with all the good faith and money you’d put behind a white boy with no sleeves, or a blond girl who graduated from Belmont.

Start now. Keep doing it, again and again. In ten years, maybe we will be on the threshold of true equity.

Artists, you have a bigger responsibility.

I’m not talking to the emerging artists, but those with singles on the charts and streaming numbers in the millions. The headliners, the superstars, the household names. The people who actually have something to lose. Y’all are, I regret to inform you, the only ones with the power to move this heavy needle.

Sadly, it’s not enough to tweet a hashtag. It’s not enough to be supportive in private conversations. Being an ally isn’t enough. Your responsibility is to now become what Charlane Oliver of the Equity Alliance calls a “co-conspirator.”

How do artists get started?

  • Adopt an inclusion or equity rider.
  • Insist on diversity at your record label or management company or talent agency. If you don’t get it, go somewhere else.
  • Stop doing interviews or appearances with radio stations and DSPs that won’t expand their playlists.
  • Refuse to participate in sponsored content if those lucrative branding opportunities aren’t being distributed equitably.

You might take a hit in the wallet — but you will still have more than those who, as Andrea Williams recently put it on Rissi Palmer’s podcast, do not have enough money to eat.

Not ready to fight the power just yet? Then go with what you can more easily control:

  • Fill your recording studios and tour buses with Black people, Indigenous people, Asians, Latinos, LGBTQ folx, disabled folx.
  • Use BIPOC and marginalized photographers and video producers.
  • Host aftershow parties at restaurants owned by not-white people, in parts of town where you will stand out like a sore thumb. Order studio and office catering from them, too.
  • Write with someone who didn’t come from the same world you did. See which stories you share, and which you need to learn from.
  • Invite artists of color to open for you, and create a zero-tolerance policy for any harassment or abuse directed towards them in the space that you’ve created.
  • Put all that good work on your social media, so the world sees you being an advocate for inclusion.
  • Demand that everyone in your circle does the exact same thing.
  • Stop looking the other way.

When will we know we’re on the right track?

  • When there are multiple executives and decision-makers of color, and a deep bench of diverse talent coming up behind them.
  • When there isn’t a scramble for names to create the illusion of diversity on a roster or a playlist or a festival bill.
  • When you can fill a cocktail party with BIPOC colleagues who have thrived in the business for so long that you can’t remember what their first jobs were.

We will also discover where the actual racists are, both personally and within the industry at large. As a wise friend said to me recently, “a hit dog will holler.” We must brace for the hollering, but remember that we’re fighting the righteous fight.

It’s been an excruciatingly difficult year for everyone in the music business, but the painful disruption of the pandemic also means the chance to — if I may borrow a phrase — build back better once the world returns. Layoffs across the board mean hiring opportunities as the money starts flowing again. An audience trapped at home and desperate for entertainment is probably looking for something new to discover. This is the perfect moment to put a new machine in motion, one that values the lives, experiences, talents, and contributions of all people, not just the ones you already know.

Approach making positive change with the same passion you’ve approached your careers, both on stage and behind the scenes, and maybe in ten years, you’ll have built a better business model. I guarantee, at the bare minimum, you’ll have made better art.

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