Blackout Tuesday Was No Day Off for Labels, Managers: Will It Yield Real Results?

Hollywood protest outside Mayor Eric Garcetti's home

Although it was billed as a “pause,” “Blackout Tuesday” — during which much of the music industry “disconnected from work” to focus on ways it can support and stand in solidarity with the black community — was not meant to be a day off, and indeed it wasn’t for the greater music industry. In a rare show of unity,  major music companies quickly — but thoroughly — organized days of breakout meetings, town halls, speeches and open forums to share ideas, as well as counseling and outreach for employees. Sony and Warner also agreed to match employee donations to certain charitable groups.

Those observing “Blackout Tuesday” on their own found different ways to show support, joining protests on both coasts and in more than a dozen major cities, or used the time for self-reflection. Industry professionals who spoke to Variety describe a Tuesday spent reading, learning and thinking. Many also took in movies and documentaries chronicling the struggles of black Americans or had meaningful conversations with others about such realities as white privilege.

The shutdown was led by the #TheShowMustBePaused initiative, which was launched by executives Jamila Thomas of Atlantic Records and Brianna Agyemang of Platoon, who said in a statement Wednesday that more than 1,500 black members and allies from the music community took part in a series of video summits in which participants “engaged in an organized dialogue and generated ideas on how to effectively make change within the music industry,” and which one participant described as “emotional” and “inspiring.” While the participant declined to name who was involved or what specifically was discussed, noting that the conversation was a “safe space,” it ranged from arena-level artists and top executives to entry level. And, most importantly, the person said, “I have no doubt this will shift things in the industry.”

“Yesterday was a strong start to the change we want to make in the industry,” said Agyemang in a statement. “We are taking all thoughts and ideas that were gathered and we will be implementing them into Phase 2 of this movement. Next steps are about clarifying needs and mobilizing the people to be the change we wish to see. The goal is to tap into the community at large to create change that is impactful and long lasting.”

For her part, Thomas said, “George Floyd was killed on a Monday and the following Tuesday we all went back to work. This should not have been the case and this is why we called for the industry to pause on Tuesday June 2nd. The music industry is an industry that has profited predominantly from Black art.

“The point was never to mute ourselves,” she concluded. “This was a day to completely disconnect from work and make a difference in our community because we should not normalize what is happening.”

Each of the major music groups essentially left it to their individual labels and business units to determine how the day was spent — and three of them, Island and Warner Records in Los Angeles and Nashville, allowed staffers to go out and join demonstrations (although there was no pressure to do so).

Elsewhere within Warner Music Group, Atlantic Records co-chairs Craig Kallman and Julie Greenwald, along with president of black music Michael Kyser, led a town hall that included several artists; at Warner Records in L.A., artists signed to the label elected to spend the day honoring the message of the blackout so the company has planned a “View from the Front Line” town hall on Zoom on Thursday. Artists Chika, RMR and IDK will appear along with San Francisco veteran prosecutor and social justice advocate Paul Henderson, who was recently appointed director of the Department of Police Accountability.

At Universal Music Group, a task force helmed by chief counsel and acting head of Def Jam Records Jeff Harleston along with Motown Records chief Ethiopia Habtemariam has been formed. Details are forthcoming.

UMG’s Interscope Geffen A&M (IGA) division, home to Lady Gaga and Billie Eilish, put the focus on IGA’s black employees to gather suggestions of important initiatives and action items that would “enhance company culture and the community at large,” says an insider. As part of a week-long effort, IGA also shared information with the entire company highlighting important literature and ways to make social change.

A source tells Variety that UMG chairman Lucian Grainge is viewing this week’s efforts as the beginning of a years-long effort that will address not just charitable donations but voting rights and community outreach.

At Sony Music, CEO Rob Stringer curated an elaborate day of programming that included town halls and “conversations” with filmmaker Spike Lee;  Ben Crump, the attorney representing the families of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor; artists Kane Brown and Kirk Franklin; the head of the new National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, H. Beecher Hicks, III; and activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Jon Platt, chairman of Sony/ATV Music Publishing and the highest ranking black executive at a global music company, wrote a powerful op-ed Monday morning calling for change. A task force is also said to be in the works, according to insiders. Throughout the day, the fact that the meetings were the first step in an ongoing process was emphasized.

At Sony’s Epic Records, chairman/CEO Sylvia Rhone and A&R chief Ezekiel Lewis led a town hall discussion with the staff, for which they were joined by artists T.I. and Will.I.Am.

Also at Sony, Columbia Records’ evp Peter Gray is among the executives banding together to form The Promotion Coalition, an anti-racist fundraising and action effort which aims to raise $100,000. In a mission statement on its GoFundMe page, the organizers have put aside their radio promotion duties this week “to mobilize ourselves in a loud, clear, public anti-racism effort — with our actions, our voices and our networks. … This is our starting point. There is no finish line.”

Scooter Braun’s SB Projects held a 75-person Zoom call featuring a talk with Patrisse Cullors, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter. Cullors also helped recruit artists like Lizzo, SZA, Zendaya, Kehlani, Common and Ari Lennox for the massive gathering outside of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s home. There, Amber Riley of “Glee” sang in what was designated “a safe space for Hollywood to mourn, process and protest.”

Glassnote held a virtual town hall for its staff in which certain members of the press (along with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe and Larry Jackson) participated. Led by Domonic Rollins, director of diversity, equity and inclusion New York’s prestigious Dalton School, the hour-long session featured a back and forth on the participants’ backgrounds and experiences with race, and concluded with an unexpected — and unexpectedly good — pre-recorded spoken-word piece on Rollins’ own experiences.

Apple’s Jackson was also a participant in a Tuesday Zoom call attended by artists and managers — more than 60 joined in, according to sources, in what was described as an “intense” dialog.

EMPIRE, the San Francisco-based label, held a “Day of Impact” with Zoom sessions during working hours. Among the topics: “Allyship within the Music Industry.”

Industry pundits also anticipate significant donations from the major music companies to relevant charities in the days to come. On Wednesday, Len Blavatnik, owner of Warner Music Group, pledged $100 million on behalf of the company and his Blavatnik Family Foundation “to support charitable causes related to the music industry, social justice and campaigns against violence and racism.” The billionaire businessman also led WMG in its IPO this morning. Up 20% from its opening price of $25 per share, the company is looking at a valuation of nearly $15 billion and Blavatnik himself stands to pocket several billion dollars of his own.

In fact, it’s precisely that imbalance of profit between executive and artist that is infuriating many longtime industry veterans. Ty Stiklorius, the CEO and founder of Friends at Work who manages John Legend, Charlie Puth and Lindsey Stirling, among others, is among those pleading for reparations, publicly urging music companies to “give masters back” to artists, referring to master recordings owned by record labels, a cause taken up by Taylor Swift, among others.

Music staffers who feel their employers aren’t doing enough to help underserved communities have been publicly criticizing their bosses as well. Gimlet Media’s Peter Bresnan took Spotify chief Daniel Ek to task, writing on social media, “I work at Spotify which has not committed any large amount of $$ to support racial justice funds/organizations,” he wrote in a tweet that has been shared by more than 8,200 Twitter users. “I have brought this up in every internal channel available to me and leadership has remained passive.”