It started at a major label as a call to the music industry, but now everyone from music gear makers to artists and media is joining in. And “#BlackoutTuesday” is even squeezing out Black Lives Matter information and organizing. So what just happened, and is there a constructive way to participate?
TL:DR please whatever you do, do not tag “blackout” posts with #blacklivesmatter. You’re replacing the entire Internet with empty black squares, as people in this organizing movement are literally fighting for their lives. (ironically it’s bad enough that even checking the trending #blackouttuesday tag trending now on Twitter, you’ll see a bunch of organizers trying to support BLM begging exactly this.)
But that’s just one of the twists in this latest story of how music currently interacts with the Internet, what media is in the age of social media, and how hashtag activism does – and doesn’t – work.
Let’s go back to the start – as originally, this came from two black women working at a major label.
Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas, senior directors of marketing at Atlantic Records, began the original initiative. And you need to read their text, from the source. It’s not just that some of this got lost in translation as the organizing spread, it’s that the parts that seem to have gone missing are not accidental.
Gil Kaufman* at Billboard has a great write-up that traces the evolution here.
Those original organizers do not use the term “#blackouttuesday”. Their pleas came as African American music employees expressed exhaustion with current events in the US – and a desire for their non-black employees to stop and actually do something. As Brianna wrote on her original Instagram post:
We are tired and can’t change things alone. This is a call to action for those of us who work in music/entertainment/show business to pause on Tuesday, June 2nd because the show can’t just go on as our people are being hunted and killed.
Use this time on Tuesday to come together and figure out how we can hold our partners, colleagues and companies alike, accountable to come up with and execute a plan that actively supports and protects the VERY CULTURE that it profits from.
Surely any industry action that does not include a link to the original statement is immediately disqualified as disingenuous. Here’s their site:
It has specific calls to action, which are worth checking out.
Unfortunately, because of the current $#(&*ed up nature of the Internet (sorry, I’ve got no other words for it), a lot of the resulting organizing lacks links and plain text – especially on Facebook-owned Instagram, which is designed specifically to make the hypertextual, readable Internet inaccessible. Even Agyemang and Thomas don’t post full text. That in turn is an accessibility issue – vision-impaired readers can’t make use of a screen reader on their site. So some of the superficiality of the organizing here is directly related to the structure of social media.
They actually even hid the image as a transparent.png – I don’t want to criticize here, but they DRM’ed their own organizing method. Here’s the full text; I hope I don’t hear from their lawyers. Emphasis mine.
In response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbe and countless other Black citizens at the hands of police, #TheShowMustBePaused is an initiative created by two Black women in music in observance of the long-standing racism and inequality that exists from the boardroom to the boulevard. We will not continue to conduct business as usual without regard for Black lives.
Tuesday, June 2nd is meant to intentionally disrupt the work week. Monday suggests a long weekend, and we can’t wait until Friday for change. It is a day to take a beat for an honest, reflective and productive conversation about what actions we need to collectively take to support the Black community.
The music industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. An industry that has profited predominantly from Black art. Our mission is to hold the industry at large, including major corporations + their partners who benefit from the efforts, struggles and successes of Black people accountable. To that end, it is the obligation of these entities to protect and empower the Black communities that have made them disproportionately wealthy in ways that are measurable and transparent.
This is not just a 24-hour initiative. We are and will be in this fight for the long haul. A plan of action will be announced.
We are tired and can’t change things alone. In the meantime, to our Black friends and family: please take the time for you and your mental health. To our allies, the time is now to have difficult conversations with family, friends and colleagues.
Please follow @pausetheshow on Twitter and @theshowmustbepaused on Instagram for updates and information.
Just be very clear about what they said there. It’s already clear from this and the other post that the idea is people of color need a break, everyone else needs to work harder.
In case that message isn’t clear enough, here is their Instagram post today (posted late Monday local US time):
We see your pain. We see your frustration. We hope that today, you can rest.
We see your logos. We see your hashtags. Now we want to see your plans.
That seems pretty clear. They also don’t use the blacklivesmatter hashtag.
Logos and hashtags
We definitely have the copy-pasted text, hashtags, and logos as solidarity. Also, it seems some workers need today off – and some employers have granted that.
But whether that means that behind the announcement, in fact some corporations are working on action plans? That’s unclear, as the same posts promise action but are vague about what action to expect.
Universal, who slip in a Dr. King quote (you knew that was coming):
Sony Music – whose is some kind of badly-painted ear that looks like it was done by someone’s kid on an iPad:
Sony also has this fancy version where they
DID SOME REALLY
Now, let’s be clear – maybe the solidarity and visibility of this project is a good thing. But big corporations, with major following and the ability to pay to promote their posts on social media, are already squeezing out Black Lives Matter activists online.
For example, as recently as midnight NYC time, Warner’s post still had BLM hashtags and… was met with a chorus of people asking them to please stop doing that.
Plus, the whole message is…
… an empty black square. And now with the hashtag, everyone’s feed is full of black squares, calling some activists to declare #BlackoutTuesday or #TheShowMustPause – censorship. So they amplified one marginalized minority’s message. The problem is, it’s this one:
Artists are, understandably, skeptical. From Alpha Pup label chief Daddy Kev:
My, uh, personal favorite:
Many people are just curious to know what’s going on:
Rolling Stone has a good article with a round-up of skepticism, criticism, and confusion around the initiative – plus some examples of music industry figures who actually are taking concrete action (including political action):
At least some engineers have a different idea – like offering mastering services for people of color trying to get their music onto Bandcamp this week.
Heavyweights like Ambivalent have joined in:
And there are free PR services, too:
As usual, the award for “you are seriously the f***ing worst” goes to Spotify. How much are they the worst?
- Co-opting the campaign without taking any responsibility for compensating black artists
- Promoting their own podcasts
- Promoting their own playlists
- F***ing with their computer-controlled playlists to control what you hear
And in the strangest move of all, they’re inserting platform-controlled, unskippable silences.
Also, more black rectangles, because… wow, people are really obsessed with this. I haven’t seen this much arbitrary black minimalism in a while, since Berghain has been closed.
Maybe I sound harsh. But I can’t think of a diplomatic way to say this. On a day that was meant to give black Americans a break, they’re inserting politics into playlists that might otherwise be a refuge to listeners. And for an initiative meant to involve industry responsibility for its treatment of black creators, they’re instead promoting themselves and offering no answer to artists’ criticism of a platform that robs us of control and compensation.
Now is not a time to shut down
I don’t want minimize the work of African Americans in the music industry. On the contrary, I think the original message from Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas is the one that deserves people amplifying – and I wonder if an empty black rectangle or someone’s logo is the way to do that.
But whatever you do, the whole point of this is – those of us with privilege need to keep working, not stop. If it means stopping normal business in order to do that work, then go for it. But I think people rightfully want to see results.
No artist that I have found so has said we need the media to go silent. On the contrary, I’ve seen activists with pleas for us to not be silent, for us to continue posting, and to amplify the voices of the marginalized.
This is not a good week to stop independent music releases. We should support them. “BlackoutTuesday” falls on the day of the week that’s a major release day for the USA, and Interscope even says it’s pausing all music releases this week, full stop.
But this week has another of Bandcamp’s days to promote independent artists – on Friday. And independent artists and artist-run labels have used Bandcamp releases to pay rent and pay for food. That includes people of color and LGBTQ artists. And, hell, even for people who aren’t in a minority group, our whole society needs more independent artists and less corporate control, full stop.
When we celebrate each other’s music, that’s not cultural appropriation. It’s literally the opposite of that.
But the whole point is, obviously, a lot of us are really not part of the music industry. So if this helps them, great. We had better go on doing the stuff we do that lets us buy groceries.
I would love to have a clear call to action for us as artists and musical instrument makers. I sure as hell don’t. Turns out this takes more than working alone, and more than one day. But let’s reflect – and actually, reflect as quickly as we possibly can. People are dying, and time is short.
And if you need a day off today, please take it. I’ll be posting music stuff to hear and tools to play around with – especially if you’re stuck in an imposed curfew. Best to everybody in the USA and around the world.
(*In addition to standing up for people of color, I believe we also need to stand up for journalism – threats to each of those go hand in hand. Case in point, I casually wound up on Gil’s LinkedIn page and realize I read his stories in Chicago in NewCity when I was in high school. You won’t remember Instagram trends. Let’s make sure writers survive.)