How Blackout Tuesday Became a Social Media Moment

What began as an attempt by two music insiders to pause business as usual across the industry on Tuesday, in response to the protests sweeping the nation, broadened and morphed overnight on social media into a less focused action, resulting in a sea of black boxes across Instagram and other platforms.

Brands including Spotify, Live Nation, Apple, TikTok and many of the largest record companies said on Monday that they would cease most operations the following day, in light of the demonstrations sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The industry blackout initiative, which started under the hashtag #TheShowMustBePaused, was the brainchild of two black women who work in music marketing, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang.

“The music industry is a multibillion dollar industry,” the women, who did not respond to requests for comment, wrote in a statement. “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.” On the Billboard album chart, black artists have held the No. 1 spot for 11 out of the last 13 weeks — and occupy four of the Top 5 slots this week.

But as with many social media undertakings, the digital protest took on a life of its own as it was adopted by artists like Rihanna, Quincy Jones, Yoko Ono and the Rolling Stones, spreading far beyond music under the #BlackoutTuesday banner and leading to some confusion about what was being asked of participants, many of whom used blank black posts as a show of solidarity.

As the black boxes spread, first across other creative communities, like theater, film and dance, and then to any individual wishing to show support for broader causes of racial injustice, the gesture largely eclipsed its original specific intent. Some vowed to “mute” themselves online for the rest of the day as part of the blackout, while skeptics worried that silence was not the answer. And when many on social media began appending the general #blacklivesmatter message to their posts, others pointed out that doing so could drown out other postings under the same slogan.

“Posting black boxes on Instagram and hashtagging black lives matter is rendering the hashtag useless,” the drag performer and singer Tatianna wrote on Twitter as millions of similar posts flooded the services. “Remove the hashtag so actual BLM posts can be seen.”

Many in the music business said they would be using the blackout day to plan future action. “This is not a day off,” said Columbia Records, a division of Sony Music, in a social media post. “Instead, this is a day to reflect and figure out ways to move forward in solidarity.” Sony Music said it would expand its mental health support for employees, including grief counseling and a group meditation session this week, as well as promising to match employee donations to social justice organizations.

A spokesman for Def Jam Records, a division of Universal Music, said the company had hosted a town-hall meeting for employees on Monday. “Today, some of us are marching, some are mobilizing, others are praying,” the label said. “Many of us are donating our day’s wages to the organization of our choice on the front lines of this fight.” Def Jam added that it would be “honoring the wishes of our artists who have asked that we pause in the release, marketing and promotion of their music” this week.

Other companies said they would postpone new releases scheduled for Friday, the standard day for debuts. Republic Records, home to Ariana Grande and Post Malone, said it would pause the release of all new music, instead “using the time to reflect on the injustices happening to the Black community in America, and discuss how we and our artists can use our voices to impact and create real initiatives for change in our communities.” Interscope, along with its partner labels, said it would push back music by 6lack, Jessie Ware, Smokepurpp and others.

At the same time, the calls for action this week have intersected with longstanding issues that critics within the industry have identified as systemic problems, like the lack of diversity among employees and at executive levels, from the major labels to the Recording Academy.

“Our industry covers every genre of music and is welcoming to new creations,” Jon Platt, the chief executive of the music publisher Sony/ATV and one of the highest-ranking black executives in the industry, wrote in an open letter on Monday. “Inside our companies, the workforce should be equally diverse. My dream is for our companies to be an orchestra of races, creeds and colors.” Separately, Universal Music Group said it was forming a task force to address issues such as “inclusion.”

But the protest also coincided with the industry’s biggest financial transaction of the moment, the pending initial public offering by the Warner Music Group. Warner, the home of stars like Ed Sheeran and Cardi B, as well as evergreen catalogs by Madonna, Prince and Led Zeppelin, has announced plans to raise as much as $1.8 billion through the I.P.O. — a closely watched deal that solidifies how dramatically the industry’s fortunes have been turned around by the boom in streaming.

While Warner executives have instructed employees to “take a day out from their jobs” and “concentrate on helping yourself and others,” the I.P.O. will go ahead as planned. It is expected for this week and could come as early as Wednesday, according to a person briefed on the company’s plans who was not authorized to speak about them publicly.

A Warner spokeswoman declined to comment about the I.P.O.

At Spotify, acknowledgment of the blackout included the darkening of its playlist logos; “special curation of select songs” by artists like Kendrick Lamar and Gary Clark Jr.; and the inclusion of eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence on some playlists and podcasts “as a solemn acknowledgment for the length of time that George Floyd was suffocated.” The streaming service said it would match donations by employees to anti-racist organizations.

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