Written by Jodie Yates - as part of Commission Mission.
For people of colour, when considering a career in the music industry, two large obstacles stand in their way; a shocking lack of representation, and the voice of their parents saying “why can’t you be a doctor or lawyer?” Careers in the music industry are still considered an unrealistic aspiration for black and brown people due to the systemic racism ingrained in its core, and by parents that don’t really “get” the industry.
For many first-generation parents, the hopes for their children’s careers are projections of their own aspirations for life in the UK and a willingness for their children the opportunities that were denied to them due to their race. On top of this, a lack of knowledge about the breadth of roles in the industry will have parents convinced that unless you’re in the charts, working in the music industry means you will be a penniless artist with no career progression. Black and brown parents will cheer for Stormzy when he headlines Glastonbury, but they don’t show love when you secure that Festival Production Assistant role.
If nagging from parents wasn’t enough, disheartening diversity statistics will do their best to convince you that the music industry is not the place for people of colour. Black culture and music contributes overwhelmingly to the industry, yet it comes as no surprise that those running the show aren’t black. In fact, only 17.8% of people in the music industry are from BAME backgrounds. However, an increasing number of individuals and organisations are creating pathways for people of colour to enter the industry and level-out the diversity gaps.
So, whether you’re contemplating what’s next for you after graduation, or you’re ready to ditch your 9 to 5, here’s a guide to what the industry is really like as a person of colour and some key points to navigating it (and maybe even convincing your parents it’s a good idea).
MORE IS THE MAGIC NUMBER: A portfolio career.
Growing up, we were always taught the idea of choosing ‘a career’, singular. Never was the option of having multiple careers dangled in front of our eyes, particularly when it contradicts the traditional career trajectories our parents dreamt of for us. Today, with only one string to your bow, you’re more likely to be an anomaly. If someone works in the music or creative industries, assume their job title is hyphenated. ‘Marketing Manager by day, DJ by night’, ‘Creative Producer, Music Producer, Documentary Producer’, ‘Journalist, Cellist, Sustainable Flip-flop Maker’ etc etc.
Thinking about having multiple careers might leave you asking the question “shouldn’t I just do one role really well?” and “won’t I be spreading myself too thin?” The answers are: “you can do multiple roles well” and “yes, yes you will be”. It’s not always easy to balance your multiple jobs, but variety is the spice of a fruitful career in the music business.
Although having multiple jobs, or a portfolio career, is likely to make you more employable, more knowledgeable, and ultimately, more stimulated and excited, finding a balance is key. A portfolio career is the perfect way to practice that idea of time management and work-life balance that’s always so talked about. Choose your skills; for example, writer, DJ, presenter, producer. If you’re equally passionate about all four, don’t feel the need to stop doing them, but think wisely about how much time you’re spending on each.
Let me be clear, this does not mean juggling several full-time jobs. A portfolio career is born out of passions. The likelihood is you’re growing your career everyday without knowing. Reviewing albums, sharing playlists and having an extra platform for inspiration does a writer, radio host and curator make.
If you have one too many jobs to juggle, maybe you want to consider the mystical land of freelance. Of the 15.1% of workers in the UK who were self-employed in 2018, only 11.2% were black, the lowest percentage of all ethnic groups. Freelancing can be a lonely place, especially as one of the few FoCs (freelancers of colour), so consider the power of your network and community, by working on projects with fellow-FoCs, providing both emotional and career support.
However, if there’s any benefit to a portfolio career, it’s that multiple jobs mean multiple revenue streams. That’s one way to impress aunty at the next family wedding. A portfolio career isn’t for everyone, nor is it the only route to a successful career in the music industry. The following tip, however, is.
“IT WOULD BE GREAT TO GRAB A COFFEE”: Meeting, Connecting, Networking
Despite music currently being digested almost entirely digitally and dominated by algorithms, the industry itself is about people. Great connections with inspiring people are the thing that will support you through your journey. For some people working in the industry, “networking” evokes images of terrible nibbles and forced small talk.
As you begin your career, you will go to more networking events than you can ever nightmare of. But how can you forge authentic relationships? Talk to people because you’re interested in what they have to say, not because you want to tell them about your latest mixtape or social media campaign. If events dedicated to networking aren’t for you, talk to people at gigs, talks, exhibitions, and the places you would want to meet someone.
In the age of Covid-19 and the rise of the Zoom meeting and online working, traditional forms of networking are currently a thing of the past. This may not be a bad thing, as it might help fish out the phony and forge genuine connections. Facebook groups like Young Guns Network, Ladies / Music / Pub, Sound Women Network and Foot in the Door: Entry Level Jobs and Internships, are the perfect way to share, connect and grow with people in the musical community.
Don’t be scared of talking to people in the music industry, particularly a fellow person of colour. Being able to relate and empathise with your struggle, knowing how few of us there are in the industry, means the likelihood is they’ll want to support you, with knowledge, coffee or email exchange. Don’t be afraid to ask.
IT’S WHO YOU KNOW: Find a Mentor
Whilst having a network and an ever-growing list of contacts will benefit you, don’t underestimate the power of having a mentor. You will always continue learning in this industry, so learn from those that have paved the way. Acting as a sounding board, a hub for advice, and sharing their connections with you, having a mentor will reaffirm that you’re not alone in your journey. Find someone that can empathise with your experiences.
Locating a mentor is the first struggle and choosing one can be even harder. As underrepresented groups in the industry, the race of a mentor dominates our decision process. You want them to “get it”. Organisations such as Creative Mentor Network and The Cat’s Mother aim to connect young people between the ages of 16-25 with a mentor working at creative companies including Sony Music, Google, and Sky. Driven by the lack of representation in the workforce, their mentorship programmes have found that 72% of their Programme Graduates go on to get roles within the creative industries.
Unsurprisingly for a sector dominated by white people, their mentors reflect these statistics. If you’re set on having a mentor who could relate to your struggles as a minority group, try reaching out on social media. Your first mentor may not be the right fit, but don’t feel scared to try someone different. It’s vital you feel safe and supported in the industry.
MUSIC AS AN ACT OF COMMUNITY: from Errol with love
The most important thing you can learn when entering the music industry (and the world) is the power of community. As a peoples whose art is stolen from them for the profit of refunding systemic racism, navigating the industry without a community can be isolating and suffocating. Having worked across the industry, Errol Anderson is the co-founder of Touching Bass, a pioneering South London musical community, whose ethos is founded on bringing black joy through sound, movement and space, has the collective at the core of all that he does:
“Music from ancestral days has always been an act of community,” says Errol, whose parties forge an entirely unique space for those who thought it was impossible to hear their favourites in rare groove and R&B, alongside garage, broken beat and drum and bass on a night out. A celebration of black art, Touching Bass provides the blueprint to creating a safe space through community.
Errol’s experience working at a major label where “one of [my] most prominent memories of the place is the disregard of the music as black art”, instead treating it as another commodity, led him to believe there had to be another way to celebrate the music. Touching Bass and similar communities provide that.
Not only does a strong community provide a space, it provides vital energy and support needed when battling systemic racism and microaggressions that come with being a person of colour in the music industry. Though workload balance can be exhausting, energy and drive, according to Errol “comes from doing something that makes me feel good. Connecting people like myself, creating spaces for my people, creating spaces for black joy, thankfully there has been a beautiful community that has come from that. Having Touching Bass has meant that I have something that ignites my energy which feeds back to everything else I do”.
In current times, community is vital. If you’re pursuing a career in the music industry, find people that you connect with to motivate and support you; “if you can find a group of people who have a similar mindset to you and share a love - there’s strength in numbers”. Maybe it will take you a while to find your community, but once you do, embrace it, and watch your relationship with the music industry change, as your career is supported by like-minded people to lift you up, as opposed to subjugating you in an industry where you belong.
And remember Errol’s words: “Don’t be afraid, be resilient”.
CHEMICAL ENGINEERING OR DJ/PRODUCER
If you decide to pursue a career in the music industry against your parents’ wishes, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. So often is this a part of a person of colour’s journey in the music industry, and a how-to guide on convincing parents is long overdue. Anja Ngozi is a DJ, producer and radio host who has created the perfect jobs for herself. Having worked across the industry since graduating with both a B.A. and M.A. in engineering, Anja knows better than anyone about convincing your parents the music industry is a good idea.
“I never had much confidence in what I wanted to do”, she says. In choosing between careers in music and engineering, Anja “always went back to [music], it was the only thing that made me happy”. Having been creative producer for two albums, and winning Arts Council funding for one, Anja insists it “proved my abilities and gave me confidence, confidence that the industry that best suits me is the one that I have to create for myself”.
She continues: “Our parents’ generation are more wary of our career choices, from being self-employed to having more opportunities. It’s taken me doing stuff like putting an album together and doing radio for them to engage with my career, and now they love it. A lot of it is showing instead of telling”. Having confidence in her abilities and tangible projects to display were two ways Anja convinced her parents that music was right for her.
Anja epitomises that there is space for both creative and scientific passions to co-exist: “I always thought studying engineering was detrimental to my music career, wondering how I could connect engineering with DJing, but especially now I’m producing, I see a lot of parallels between science and music.” Anja’s creative practices provoke and inform discussion on issues that are important to her, surrounding race, being a black woman and her Jamaican heritage, and this is what her parents’ are most proud of. “Now I’m more able to relate with my parents’ world view and connect their struggles with my own. They can see how I’ve understood what they’ve taught me as I take that and channel it into my art. My parents being able to see the result of that is a really beautiful thing to see.”
Although her parents may not entirely understand her life in music, Anja’s career serves as a platform for them to connect over their similar concerns and interests, proving that there is space for parents to support non-traditional career paths. What can we learn from Anja’s journey? Be sure of what you want to do and have faith in it. Have tangible projects to share with your parents. Even if your parents don’t understand what you do, mention notable companies you have connections with, parents love a name drop.
Working in music can be tough, poorly paid and it is systemically racist. However, that doesn’t mean it should stay this way. The work is yet to be done by big corporations, and it is the role of a white-dominated industry to look in the mirror, address and react to its systems that benefit one group whilst keeping others at the bottom. Yet in the meantime, underrepresented groups should continue to create, grow and connect, because if you are a person of colour navigating the industry and you don’t see yourself reflected, you’re not alone.
Music has always been about community, but it is paramount now more than ever. Network, connect and don’t limit your options. Remember the power of collective as you start your journey into the music industry, and just remember that we are there and we exist. This guide might not convince your parents, but it should give you the confidence and insight into pursuing a career in music. And if worse comes to worst, just tell your parents you’re a music lawyer.
Commission Mission was created by Young Guns Network and London In Stereo to commission 20 new and experienced freelance writers to create articles to inspire, inform and entertain young people in the music industry who are struggling during Covid-19.
The supporters who made this project possible were Association of Independent Music, London In Stereo, Musicians Union, Motive Unknown, PPL, Remi Harris Consulting, Small Green Shoots, Young Guns Network, Youth Music.