• Brandon Keith Brown

Managing Racism

Updated: Nov 6

During classical music’s Black Lives Matter movement, Artist management companies are going bankrupt. Here’s why.


Artist management companies in 2020 are in dire financial straits. Excluding Black artists and audiences leaves millions of dollars on the table annually. Still, they make no effort to adopt the Black community’s cultural values.


Racism is more valuable.


No principal classical agency has Black agents. Artist management companies don’t socialize with Blacks and there isn’t a financial push for racial diversity from white boards, artists, presenters, and audiences. Agencies don’t sell classical music; they sell blissful trips away from the anxiety-inducing anonymous Blacks of daily life.


Artist managements sell aural excursions of white supremacy.


None made mission statements in support of Black lives because they

  1. Have white fragility.

  2. Don’t rely on Black dollars.

  3. Don’t hire Black artist managers.

  4. Believe self-proclaimed white liberalism is a substitute for being antiracist.

  5. Don’t sign Black artists or work with Black presenters.

  6. View statements supporting Blacks as political instead of human.

  7. They may have no Black friends, neighbors, or even acquaintances.

Blacks demand relatable artists. Oprah's "I’m Every Woman” campaign cemented a Southern Black woman — who rose from poverty — into the hearts and minds of well…every woman. Black artists would play into all audiences' hearts and minds, but white agencies would rather compromise their financial health than increase Black artist representation, even if it means bankruptcy.


COVID-19 is not to blame


Ignoring racial equity led to the current financial crisis of artist management agencies, not COVID-19. They’ve lived hand to mouth for years, alienating and ignoring Black audiences and artists. Marketing to upper-middle-class white bourgeois audiences is their one-trick pony, but no one is buying it anymore.


When you have no Black artist managers and few Black artists, marketing to Blacks is difficult, especially where Blacks are the largest racial/ethnic demographic, such as Detroit, Baltimore, Washington DC, and Philadelphia.

(Source: Census.gov)


Now, agencies can’t squeak by on white bourgeois dollars, scrambling quarterly to appease white shareholders.


Hazard Chase was the first to fold in April 2020. Opus 3 was bought out recently by diversity savvy San Francisco Conservatory of Music. US behemoth Columbia Artist Management Inc.(CAMI) closed, while others fired or furloughed managers, leaving artists to go it alone. Some formed smaller fiefdoms of white supremacy, such as Marcus Felsner, ex-EU director of Opus 3 Berlin, which has no Black artists, not even a token Black singer.


The entertainment industry is ultra-competitive. Artist management companies can’t rely on presenters to connect their artists to Black communities. A mission of racial inclusion and equity will increase market share, secure trust with intangible Black communities, and create a cash reserve during the next COVID.


Diversity Initiatives: The ROI


Diversity initiatives benefit companies by enhancing creativity and idea generation. Hiring Black artists managers will help agencies gain privileged cultural insight on marketing to Black communities, but including them specifically on boards increases company profits even more.


Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity on executive teams were “more likely to have financial returns 35% above their respective median national average” (Mckinsey 2018). They’re also more likely to “outperform others by 33% on their fourth-quarter earnings before income taxes (EBIT).”


(Source: Delivering Through Diversity: McKinsey 2018)


In the US, “for every 10 percent increase in the racial and ethnic diversity of executive teams, the EBIT increases by .8 percent.” Most promising is that “the relationship between racial and ethnic diversity is linear with financial performance.” British companies fare better. Those with “a 10% higher gender and ethnic racial diversity on managements and in boardrooms have an EBIT 5.8% higher than others.”


A prior focus on diversity would’ve helped agencies react more effectively to market shifts (Covid-19) and the needs of new customers. 


In 2020, new potential Black customers are entirely online but few Black artists are featured in streamed concerts. Presenters and agencies are missing a critical opportunity to entice new loyal Black audiences. Whites believe Blacks aren’t interested in classical music so why bother. Therefore, they continue featuring white and Asian artists to mostly aged bourgeois whites.


“Blacks just aren’t good enough”: The myth of meritocracy


Meritocracy is an excuse to exclude Black artists from rosters and the stage. The narrative is we’re not good enough. Presenting whites, Asians, and white immigrant artists exacerbates the implicit bias that Black classical musicians aren’t as competent.


Orchestras go decades never featuring Black conductors for masterworks programs. White women and Asians are offered as diversity stand-ins for Blacks, with the racist sigh of, “It’s just that Blacks aren’t good enough.”


Meritocracy is a fictional, morbid, and dangerous social disillusionment. Only whites decide who’s deserving of a career in classical music. Because the assessors of talent are always white, meritocracy maintains white supremacy in classical music. Meritocracy is racist. Whites are not the only ones capable of assessing talent and potential.


For meritocracy to be plausible, we must be fooled into believing that Blacks historically start from zero — like white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men — with equal unfettered access to equity and fulfilling our full potential. The truth is we start from at least negative 100, working twice as hard as whites (yes, including white women!) to achieve half as much.


Artist management agencies uphold the myth of meritocracy —distracting from their complete ignorance of US-American slavery's legacy— , anti-Black racism, classism, their hoarding of cultural capital, and the virulent racism that plagues classical music.


“Let in one and no more”: Tokenism isn’t racial equity


Excluding Black conductors from artist managements teach whites we’re inferior. Opus 3 has no Black conductors, and London’s HarrisonParrot hasn’t had a Black baton since Henry Lewis. Not only has Germany’s KD Schmid never had a Black conductor, but they’ve excluded Black artists altogether. Others, like IMG, tokenize Blacks, which is in some ways worse — due to racial stigmatization — than having none at all. None have racial equity mission statements on their websites.


When Black conductors are tokenized, managements choose non-threatening, demure, universally acceptable artists, not necessarily the best.


"The most easily tolerated black person in the white space is often one who is “in his place” — one who has been vouched for by white people in good standing. [They are] less likely to disturb the implicit racial order — white people as dominant and black people as subordinate. "—  This is what it feels like to be Black in white spaces by Elijah Anderson in The Guardian


Mediocrity is detrimental to the Black cause. It reinforces the implicit bias that Blacks don’t belong on the podium, making it harder for others.


"We tried a Black already. It didn’t work out. Never again."


Although whites enjoy the white privilege of individuality, Blacks are an anonymous collective. If one of us fails, the entire race is penalized.


Get into “good trouble”


Black artists are expected to be mute race-less eunuchs. Whites like Black moderates, who don’t challenge them to grow, looking at their own racism. Advocates for re-envisioning classical music, through the lens of racial equity, are radical heretics and silenced. Whites expect Blacks to be satisfied with being allowed in the room. Insisting on more brings strong rebukes — from Blacks and whites — for being the difficult naughty Negro.


"There comes a time when silence is betrayal. — Martin Luther King Jr."


If you really think all-white artist managements and orchestras have no implicit racial bias, and can financially afford to remain oblivious to the Black Lives Matter movement, you deny the legacy of 400 years of slavery, the Black lived experience of racism, the power of the Black dollar, and concede that the deaths of George Floyd, Breona Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery — or the Black lynching of the day — have nothing to do with race.

The bigotry of low expectations and higher standards


It’s an open secret that artist managements accept lower fees for Black artists. Classical music journalists, with strong ties to all-white orchestras and opera companies, refuse to report on it.

Besides artist fees, lower expectations abound for Black conductors. A high powered consultant and ex-manager gleefully told me, “I know LOTS of Black conductors that have VERY successful careers!” For those unfamiliar with conducting, this statement is problematic.

  • There aren’t “LOTS” of Black conductors, and our numbers certainly aren’t proportional to white conductors.

  • What does “very successful” mean? Is it Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, or eking out a living conducting LMNOP-level orchestras?

  • It smacks of the soft bigotry of low expectations and standards.

  • She’d never say this to a White conductor. They dominate all levels of the field and don’t face racism.

Incompetence and racial double standards poison artist management.


At dinner, I shared my affinity for Mozart with a newly hired junior manager of a major London agency.


Manager: Can you do all the [Mozart] symphonies from memory?


Me: Of course not.


Manager: Then, so what!


Black artists are often held to a higher standard than whites.


Few conductors, if any, know all 41 of Mozart’s symphonies by heart, and most — outside of specialists — never perform them all. Would he expect prospective white conductors to do the same? Why is this unnecessary feat the yardstick for a thirty-something Black conductor? His Eastern Bloc mind could only fathom selling a Black circus act, not a serious artist.


Who will survive?


Blacks demand the entertainment industry see and hear us. Most of the music industry is finally addressing racial inequity. Classical artist managements remain silent.


Artist management companies have been unsuccessful without Blacks. The music, racial equity, social justice, and communities their artists serve aren’t their agenda. Now, they struggle to survive. The white musical gravy train is ending, and a sullen march to the scaffold of bankruptcy court has just begun — and no Berlioz wouldn’t be happy.


"Artist managements sell aural excursions of white supremacy."


Blacks are a fertile customer base that artist management companies ignore because they are uncomfortable working with us. When managements decide to hire Black managers, represent numerous Black artists, and engage in racial equity, they’ll ensure financial viability, maintain market share, and help orchestras and presenters connect with potential Black audiences.


Hiring Black artist managers has never mattered. White managements are scared white presenters won’t buy from Black managers. Black managers seem far removed from the white European tradition. Agencies also fear their mostly white and Asian artists and presenters won’t trust a Black manager. These racial biases are real and can’t be ignored, but what can be done to socialize white agencies with new Black managers and artists?


1. Write a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging vision statement.


Post it publicly for accountability. Use it as a guiding light to reform company-wide institutionalized racism.


2. Formalize Black Artist manager internships.


Establish internships for Black managers at the undergraduate level. Train talented Black managers just as you do with whites. By shadowing agents, white artists and presenters learn to trust and socialize with Black managers, who can eventually take over their own accounts. Finally, through affirmative action, Black interns must receive priority for promotions and have their numbers tracked company-wide. Affirmative action has worked well for white and Asian female managers. Now it’s time to apply it to Blacks (especially Black women), the people it was originally intended for.


3. Train all employees in Diversity Equity Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB).


Diversity is being at the table. But hiring Black artist managers and signing Black artists as window dressing isn’t enough.


"75% of white people don’t live around Black people, which makes the self-reporting of racism suspicious." — Harvard sociologist Dr. Michele Lamont in Getting Respect.


Inevitably, white artist managers must have racial sensitivity training to understand how racism and racial bias work. They must learn to reflect on how the absence of Black managers — and Blacks in their personal lives — unconsciously contributes to believing Blacks are inferior.


Equity means giving everyone what they need to be successful.


Racial equity in artist management begins when a Black woman at a major agency signs the prodigy Asian violinist, and/or that prize-winning Eastern European pianist, and books them with the Vienna Philharmonic.


Black artists and managers need more support to counter the inertia of anti-Black racism and implicit bias in society. This is where equity comes in.


When Black talent is discovered, it must be fast-tracked. In a world where a Black man bird watching may be killed, Blacks must quickly circumvent steep racial bias to reach our fullest potential.

Black artists benefit most from Black managers of the same cultural repertoire and narrative, allowing the racial relaxation and automatic cultural understanding white artists enjoy with their managers. Classical music is high stress. The relationship between artists and their managers is extremely intimate. The fear of making your white manager uncomfortable discussing racism puts distance between the artist and manager, adding unnecessary racial tension to the artist manager relationship.


Supervisors must learn how implicit bias leads to the inequitable over assessment of Black employees. Overassessment adds to the stress of racial stigmatization in the workplace, and the daily wear and tear of living while Black. Race-based over assessment creates a hostile work environment, leads to poor performance and high employee turnover. As you can see, diversity alone is never enough to achieve equity.


Inclusion is having a voice at the table.


At this point, Blacks aren’t on artist management teams. Inclusion is thus irrelevant. Once Blacks are in the agencies and boardrooms, they must be allowed to contribute equitably.


Belonging is having that voice heard.


Belonging isn’t an issue if Black artist managers aren’t included.

Once Blacks are allowed at the table and speak, they must be active in steering the future of the agency, not silenced bystanders.


4. Incentivize racial equity and inclusion in artists' manager compensation.


Tie compensation to the company’s DEIB statement. Having a successful Black artist takes more talent than promoting a white or Asian artist.


Black artists must overcome anti-Black racism, implicit bias from presenters and audiences, and disenfranchisement from over 400 years of slavery. Managers who achieve racial equity by finding and developing Black talent, and fight on their behalf for equitable engagements and fees, are a treasure.


The entertainment industry can’t afford to ignore racial inequality in a globalized society. We must realize that the goal of racial equity in classical music isn’t altruism. It’s to thrive and remain relevant at all times. Think of Beyonće.


Artist management companies must create a racial infrastructure that includes Black artist managers, and represent a plethora of Black artists — not just singers — who’ll best empathize and genuinely connect with prospective Black audiences. A focus on racial equity is integral to the efficacy of Black artists, the financial health of agencies, and the future of classical music. Those companies that refuse to meet the demands of classical music’s Black Lives Matter movement will continue to perish.

International prizewinning conductor and activist, Brandon Keith Brown, believes classical music can change the racial conscience of society. He’s led the Konzerthaus Orchestra Berlin, Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Cape Town Philharmonic, and Tokyo Philharmonic among others. His voice and writing were featured on NPR’s Here and Now, Deutsche Welle, in DIE ZEIT, Deutschland Kultur, WDR, the Medium, and Der Tagesspiegel among others. Brown has lectured at Berlin's Humboldt University and consulted for the University for Art and Music Berlin on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. For speaking engagements and consulting (DEIB), contact Brown at info@brandonkeithbrown.com. Follow him on Instagram: @brandonkeithbrownconductor.









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