In Pollstar Live! ‘Honest Look At Diversity And Inclusion,’ Panelists Emphasize Importance of ‘Real Action’

– An Honest Look
Jonathan Azu, Eddie Orjuela, Noelle Scaggs, Shavonne Dargan, Binta Niambi Brown and Nicole Barsalona (from left) discuss diversity and inclusion during their Pollstar Live! panel.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the live entertainment industry dominated conversations at this year’s Pollstar Live!, but discussions about inclusivity and equity within the sector also permeated most conversations.

Those topics took center stage at “An Honest Look At Diversity & Inclusion In Live Entertainment,” a panel examining the challenges faced by marginalized groups in the industry – and what actions can be taken going forward to remedy them.

“It’s been a wild 15 months,” said the panel’s moderator, Culture Collective founder Jonathan Azu, at the start of the discussion. “So much has happened, obviously, to us as a country. But, more importantly, the industry looked itself in the mirror, finally, and said, ‘I don’t like what I see.'”

“Before, it was always present, racial equality and all these different subjects, but everybody’s so busy,” said Eddie Orjuela, Latin talent buyer at Nederlander Concerts and Orjuela Entertainment. “You’re talking about it, but it was hard to enact and put into action.”

Panelists agreed that 2020’s two historic events – the coronavirus pandemic and, less than three months later, the police killing of George Floyd and the global protests it inspired – spurred them to examine their roles within the industry.

“I felt like I needed to actually use my platform to talk about the things that I’ve experienced and start putting forth some action with people that had been in the trenches for a while,” said Diversify the Stage founder and Fitz and the Tantrums singer Noelle Scaggs. “It was super helpful. It really brought some purpose back to my life that I felt like I was starting to lose.”

While the pandemic was devastating to many, it’s intersectional nature – the way it disproportionately impacted marginalized communities – provided an opening for professionals to discuss issues of inclusivity, and the Floyd protests deepened the sense of urgency many felt.

Binta Niambi Brown, co-founder and co-chairperson of Black Music Action Coalition, acknowledged the “extraordinary privilege” involved in finding silver linings in the pandemic, but powerfully voiced how it motivated her to take action.

“The pandemic, the racial reckoning, has conferred a lot of blessings,” said Brown, who is also head of operations at Keep Cool/RCA and founder and CEO of Moalilly Projects. “I have wanted to say things about racial inequity and racial injustice and the United States and the music business and the entertainment business for a long time. … Being able to not just own my voice but to use my voice in a way that helps push all of us toward something where things are better for everybody, not just black people, not just women, not just any other marginalized or historically or currently oppressed groups, but for all of us.”

A key theme of the panel was that actions taken by the industry to correct decades-long trends of inequality must be substantive and comprehensive, and not tokenize marginalized groups or attempt to placate them with symbolic gestures.

“You don’t get to just wave a flag on your social media and expect it to be accepted,” Scaggs said. “We have to get out of the performance art. … It did feel really performative because on the back-end I wasn’t hearing any conversations about real action happening.”

A vital antidote is increasing diversity in hiring, and providing companies with the tools to implement such practices – which a slew of new resources for the industry have sought to do.

“Doing nothing isn’t an option,” said Shavonne Dargan, senior vice president of strategy and marketing at CURATeD by Live Nation. “There’s no more excuses to say, ‘I can’t find this person for this specific role in association with a show or a tour.’ There are plenty of vendors out there.”

Representation remains critical as well, which Nicole Barsalona, Women In Music president and Everyday Rebellion Entertainment director, spoke to in relation to her own experience as a mother who works in the industry.

Years ago, when she was considering a career in the business, “I went to South by Southwest and I saw a panel about moms in music,” Barsalona recounted. “Seeing those women literally changed my life. … If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. For these young kids to see themselves represented at every level of this business will change the future. It will change the world. And this business will be so much better for it.”

As Brown concluded, a more inclusive industry is a stronger industry: “The more equal, the more equitable things become, the less likely it is that the things that threaten to take us down are going to actually be successful in taking us down.”