On June 2, the Instagram tag #BlackoutTuesday contained roughly 28 million black square posts.

June 3, 2020

We Need More Than a Black Square

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We need more from the music industry.

Major record labels have exploited Black artists for generations and now, when it’s time to show support, all they can muster is a black screen on their Instagrams? That’s not even close to good enough.

Blackout Tuesday originated as #TheShowMustBePaused to hold the music industry accountable for their complicity in silencing Black voices. Music executives Jamila Thomas and Briana Agyemang co-created the online movement to provide a day for record labels and artists to reflect and plan to make changes for racial justice. Key to the original goal was to stop posting content as usual to give priority to information regarding protests and donations.

Music companies and the public transformed the movement into something different. #TheShowMustBePaused took on the new name of Blackout Tuesday and, for many, a new purpose — the shirking of any real responsibility.

Many Black activists have expressed their criticism of participation in the Blackout Tuesday movement, as the black tiles hashtagged BlackLivesMatter blacked out the tag, which contains important information regarding protests, donation and resources. One user wrote: “Amplify black voices WITHOUT silencing the movement.”

The movement evolved into the answer for so many record companies, and that is unacceptable. When you actively profit from Black trends and Black ideas, solidarity isn’t enough.

This article will examine the responses of major music labels, and demand more. When you examine each major label individually, their support is paltry and inconsistent at best, performative at worst. Before you read our analysis of record labels during this time, here is a resource for supporting black artists.

Columbia Records, Sony Music, Epic Records and CDBaby all announced that they would partake in Blackout Tuesday, but none pledged any form of support or tangible change.

Def Jam provided links to vote in state primaries, but no money or changes within their company. The company states that “The power of change starts with you.” Yes, but, Def Jam, you can change too. And so can Columbia. And Sony, and Epic and CDBaby. Quoting a palatable social rights activist and getting on with your day isn’t enough. You’re only fooling yourself into thinking you did anything by posting a black screen on your Instagram.

Atlantic, Capitol, RCA, Warner Music Group,  and Distrokid are the only major industry players that have pledged support. Of these, Distrokid is the only label that provides any specifics as to the breakdown of the money going to charity, as they pledged 100 percent of their Tuesday profits to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Color of Change.

Warner Music Group’s donation comes in the form of a $100 million pledge towards multiple charities from Blavatnik Family Foundation, although no specifics were given. It is notable that the announcement came after the conclusion of Blackout Tuesday, and hours before the company’s IPO, which made founder Len Blavatnik an estimated $1.9 billion.

Sony Music put out a statement about giving each artist a platform for self-expression and providing Black artists the chance to “connect, mourn and heal in authentic ways that might be unfamiliar to, or uncomfortable for, some colleagues.” Not only does the label fail to mention any potential donations or actions they plan to take, but this statement reads as an opportunity to profit from grief.

Universal Music Group is a massive umbrella of record labels, with a reach from Interscope to Motown and Quality Control. As of 8 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, only the Capitol Music Group imprints have announced donations, though of an unspecified amount. UMG owns Cash Money, which Lil Wayne sued in 2015 for $51 million for breach of contract and repeatedly delaying his album. Carter V. Wayne settled in 2018 for a rumoured $10 million. Wayne has also sued UMG directly for $40 million in unpaid royalties.

Spotify opted to change the images of some of their playlists to a simple black box, and has put in an eight minute, 46 second track of silence on participating podcasts in memory of George Floyd. Rap and R&B, fields built and led by Black artists, are the most popular genres on Spotify and Apple Music and are streamed at nearly twice the rate of rock. Spotify is profiting greatly off of Black art; their efforts must go further.

Apple Music participated in Blackout Tuesday, but still has allowed people access to their library. On Tuesday, if you clicked on “Browse” and then clicked on “Listen Together” you would find that Apple Music only played music by Black artists, specifically music that uses its platform to address the social and political issues the BlackLivesMatter movement is trying to re-emphasize following the death of George Floyd.

The “Browse” section also stated: “In steadfast support of the Black voices that define music, creativity, and culture, we use ours. This moment calls upon us all to  speak and act against racism and injustice of all kinds. We stand in solidarity with Black communities everywhere. #TheShowMustBePaused #BlackLivesMatter.” Artists featured on the “Listen Together” playlist  include Nipsey Hussle, Kendrick Lamar, Erykah Badu, Michael Kiwanuka and Jill Scott, among others.

Apple Music’s display of awareness of systematic injustice was reflected by Apple’s pledge, which sets a good example: On Tuesday, Apple donated to a number of groups, including the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit committed to challenging racial injustice and ending mass incarceration. Throughout the month of June, and in honor of Juneteenth, they’ll be matching two-for-one all employee donations.

When encountering record companies’ responses to what is currently going on, it becomes painfully obvious that they and so many other entities are following a path of doing the bare minimum — enough so that they can reasonably claim not to have remained silent and to have pledged their support for the protests and their goals, but little-to-nothing besides that. These companies reap the benefits of the label of ‘social advocacy,’ but their sacrifices are painfully performative, and just not enough.

Many social media users extended the Blackout Tuesday initiative on personal accounts, as well. But Tuesday’s social media trend was no replacement for sustained activism; posting a black square on Instagram without concrete action is deceptive to the self and others.


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