Written by Matt Stahl, Western University and Olufunmilayo Arewa, Temple University

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In the summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and activism included voices arguing for economic justice in the recording industry. The Black Music Action Coalition (BMAC) demanded music industry executives account for “inequities in the treatment of Black artists.”

BLM and the BMAC spotlighted what cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon calls the recording industry’s “racialized political economy.” Mahon writes that Black performers “occupy a subordinate position,” even as their music serves as a “central creative resource” in the industry and the culture.

Since the early 20th century at least, the recording industry in the United States routinely underpaid African American artists.

It’s long been suspected by performers, their families, music fans, scholars and critics that negligent and even fraudulent accounting practices denied African American artists and their families opportunities to accumulate wealth and enter the American middle class — our research shows how those practices worked.

We — a communication professor and a law professor — have been studying racialized contracting and accounting in the recording industries since 2015. We have presented our findings at academic conferences, in academic journals and a forthcoming book.

We have discovered archival evidence — preserved by activists, lawyers and labour organizations — that demonstrates in detail how some of these systems produced tragic outcomes for many artists.