Concert Industry – Now is the Time: Black Lives Matter
First published on PLSN.
The complete shutdown of our industry, coupled with the ever-increasing attention being paid to the state of race relations in this country, spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement, has caused many of us in the production side of the live concert business to consider the question of racial diversity within our corner of the industry. Why aren’t there more people of color involved in production? Certainly, there are plenty Artists, Managers and Promoters of color represented in the concert business but no so much in Production.
The larger answer is, of course, the same issue that the country as a whole is currently grappling with, systemic racism. Those of us who have managed to build decades long careers in this business have done so despite that built in racism. As tour and production managers walking into the venue at the beginning of load in we’ve had the steward or building manager assume the truck or bus driver we were walking with was the person in charge. We’ve had to tell guys on our crew that when improvising a solution to a problem with some gear we weren’t going to “nigger rig it”. While arguing with a truck loader about how we want our gear to be loaded we’ve been told to be careful because the father of the loader we’re arguing with is the head of the local KKK. As a back handed compliment we’ve been praised as “one of the good ones”. And, after several phone conversations during the advance, meeting the local building contact or promoter rep for the first time and having them express surprise that we were Black since we spoke so well on the phone.
The goal of achieving more diversity is a twofold problem.
The first part of the problem is that when the Vendors, Managers and Tour Managers who do the hiring are asked why they don’t hire more people of color, the usual answer is either “I don’t know” or “I can’t find any” qualified people of color to fill these positions. The second part of this problem is that in this business we tend to hire the people we know. And if the people we know aren’t available then we hire the people they know and recommend. This feeds right back into the “I don’t know” and “I can’t find any” qualified people excuse. It’s a self-perpetuating system that tends to be exclusionary by its nature even if there is no overtly racist intent.
While the short-term goal is to get more diversity in current hiring practices we should also think about the long term. There needs to be a pipeline bringing more people of color into the business at the entry level. Once the people who do the hiring become open to and aware of the potential talent pool of people of color we need to keep that pool replenished and sustained with the influx of new people.
Roadies of Color United International (ROCU) is an association of live event professionals of color which exists to address these issues.
We’re approaching the “I don’t know” and “I can’t find any” issues from two directions. The first line of attack is to develop a data base of qualified professionals as a resource for Vendors, Managers and Tour Managers who are looking to hire people of color. The individuals included in the data base will have had their qualifications and resume credits verified by ROCU. So even though the person doing the hiring may not know the individual they will know that person is qualified for that position. Of course, this will require a leap of good faith by the person doing the hiring but at the least they can no longer say “I can’t find any qualified people of color”. The tendency will still be to hire the people they know but if the first choice isn’t available the person doing the hiring will now have a resource to help find someone for that position.
The second line of attack is to encourage ROCU membership to be more active and participatory in the various events, conferences and publications related to our industry.
This article is one such instance. We’re going to encourage ROCU members to participate in the balloting for the Parnelli’s and to submit people for the NextGen feature. We had our first conference earlier this year which was an unqualified success and were making plans to expand our reach and profile for next year’s conference which, like the rest of the industry is now on an indefinite hold. However, once we get back to business we will be endeavor to make ourselves more visible to the industry in general. If the tendency is to hire the people you know then we want you to get to know us.
As to establishing a pipeline for new talent entering this industry one of the proposed features of our next conference is going to be a focused and aggressive outreach program to theater departments at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges & Universities), around the country. We want to essentially begin a ROCU recruiting effort to make young kids aware of the possibilities of a career in the live event production industry. Of course, that also is on hold until the industry, as well colleges and universities can resume some semblance of normality. Another part of the process of stocking pipeline is a more personal approach. In working with local crews, particularly non-union ones, ROCU sometimes notes that special local crew member who really seems to have it together. They’re the ones who work with enthusiasm and intelligence. The one who you make sure is coming back for the load out. We’re going to encourage our members to speak with those standouts and collect some info so they can be added to the data base. This is a process already underway with one of our members who handles staffing for a large video company. He’s building a data base of local crew members who would be good candidates for the entry level positions on a tour.
Diversity in hiring and systemic racism isn’t a problem that’s going to be solved overnight.
As we know the root problem is buried hundreds of years deep in our society and will not resolve itself easily. However we have a unique confluence of events that affords us a moment when people of good will and intention in this industry can begin to make some steps towards a more just and equitable playing field. Let’s face it, we in this industry have always thought of ourselves as cooler and a bit hipper than the average yahoo in the street. Now is the time to prove it.