James Hanley 1st Jul 2021

Celebrating Pride in the music business: 'Visibility is so incredibly important'

As part of its Equality Sessions, The BPI ended Pride Month with two online panels including a range of voices from across the LGBTQIA+ space in the music business, alongside representatives from related campaigns and networks...

The latest event in BPI’s Equality Sessions series brought the curtain down on Pride Month with a pair of compelling debates on inclusivity in the music industry.

Held over Zoom yesterday afternoon, Celebrating Pride showcased a host of diverse voices from across the music industry and the wider LGBTQIA+ space.

The closing panel, Out & Proud In The Music Industry, featured TikTok UK’s head of label partnerships Darina Connolly, MMF Accelerator Programme Manager Paul Bonham, BPI Director Of Communications Gennaro Castaldo and The Orchard’s Label Manager, Artist & Label Services Kieran George.

Bonham, who has managed artists such as Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, recalled the obstacles he faced in his early days in the business.

“I hoped to work in A&R at the time,” he said. “There was definitely no gay men that I was aware of. And I don’t think the lad culture associated with A&R and those particular roles has changed. It’s changed in some ways in that you see a handful of female A&Rs at the moment. But I think that some of those real gatekeeper roles haven’t shifted at all, and LGBT people are probably still quite siloed into the pathways they might be able to take.”

Castaldo countered: “I totally get Paul’s point that there might be particular sections of the industry – as there are of society – that may work against a particular sort of community. But overall, I’ve never really sensed that there isn’t strong representation in music. If anything, I’ve always been hugely aware of LGBT people that have worked in music and entertainment. And I’ve never really felt that it was underrepresented. I’ve always felt that it was actually a bit of a home, if you like, for people who have a certain outlook.”

However, George said there were other potential barriers to consider.

“One of the things that gets overlooked sometimes with queer representations is the intersectionality that can come in within that,” he said. “So you can be, for example, black and trans in the music industry, or black and bi and a woman as well, and with that comes other layers that you’ve essentially got to get through. They might have to face feminist issues, as well as queer issues, as well as being a person of colour. And that’s where seeing representation makes that key difference.”

Connolly, who joined TikTok last December after 10 years with Apple, said there was a lack of representation for gay women in the upper echelons of the music business.

"It would have been so impactful and important for me, in the beginning of my career especially, to have that representation and to have other queer women to be able to look up to and to have more of a pathway."

“Visibility is so incredibly important and something that’s always stuck with me is the saying that, ‘You cannot be, what you cannot see,’” she said. “It would have been so impactful and important for me, in the beginning of my career especially, to have that representation and to have other queer women to be able to look up to and to have more of a pathway.

“It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in senior positions in the music industry and that, in and of itself, is an issue. There has been very positive change in that direction [but] there’s so much more that we need to do to not only have more representation for women in the music industry, but also to recognise the strength in diversity of having queer women and people of other LGBTQ+ identifying in higher echelons of the music industry.”

Connolly praised the “huge” impact of social media for uniting like-minded people.

“To be able to access music from queer artists and artists that are very out and proud – and being able to find other people just like you – has been hugely powerful,” she said. “There is obviously a downside of social media, but the power of being able to access music and talk to other people just like you has been hugely impactful in terms of progress.”

Bonham claimed the internet had also been a force for good in terms of bypassing the “homophobia” of gatekeepers within the industry.

“The gatekeepers are still there, but the artists have now got that direct facility to express themselves,” he said. “That’s been phenomenal for queer artists.”

He added: “Lady Gaga, like Madonna before, stole from gay culture. Whereas I think what we’re seeing now is evidence that LGBT artists can build audiences. That is addressing the confidence issues that larger scale artists have to be able to come out, or for labels and publishers and the industry to invest in large scale LGBT acts. And I think that’s what we’ve seen with Lil Nas X. Frank Ocean coming out probably moved the needle in the confidence for the Lil project to happen.”

The day’s opening panel, Working Towards Further Progress: Trans & Nonbinary Inclusivity, brought together TransActual UK director Helen Belcher and board member Rico Jacob Chace, trans activist Charlie Craggs, and public speaker Jude.

Jude said there was still a significant degree of “social acceptability” around transphobia.

"The younger generation is incredibly inclusive. They're not the same as past members of a more stringent society. Things are changing and the music industry should also."

“People still think being trans is a choice and it’s a decision and it’s unnatural – the kind of things [people] used to say about the rest of the LGBT community back in the ’80s,” said Jude. “I have to challenge those ideas directly.

“Education is important. Representation in the media is really important. But I’d like to see more done on a structural level. I often think that we need to look at the structure of a workforce. We need to look at how we can essentially uplift, employ, discover trans people and not just use trans people as tokens, because that’s what I’m seeing more and more of. And the motive with that, I’d say, is more about saving face than it is actually working on structural equality. So I think more needs to be done behind the scenes.”

Chace, who is also founder of Against Racism, expanded on the difference between tokenism and inclusivity.

“The example that I use is, if your office doesn’t look like your bus ride home, you’ve got it wrong,” he said. “So don’t give me one black person in an office and pat yourself on the back. [Also], don’t expect the person to talk only about their black experiences, because people are multi-dimensional. So don’t ask a trans non binary musician to only write songs about their plight about being trans non-binary and how terrible it is, because it is stereotypical. Let the artist write about what they want to write about.

“The younger generation is incredibly inclusive. They’re not the same as past members of a more stringent society. Things are changing and the music industry should also. So I don’t think a young generation really bat an eyelid if they are listening to a trans non-binary inclusive person.

“Lady Gaga was accused of having a penis, that was a rumour and Lady Gaga said, ‘I’m not telling you, because would it be so bad? What is the issue?’ And I remember seeing that and thinking, ‘Wow, she doesn’t care,’ and that is the precedent we should be setting – that it’s about the music and the art as opposed to the person’s gender presentation.”

Craggs, an author and media personality, commented on the level of trans representation in music.

“Music is not an overly trans place right now,” she said. “I mean, the only trans musician I can really think of is Kim Petras. But, with Lady Gaga for example, I was a teenager when Lady Gaga came out and it was revolutionary to all queer people of my generation. She identifies as bi I think, but before she came out she was taking a stand saying she was so for LGBT rights and we need more big media personalities to take a stand politically. It is a matter of urgency right now.”

Liberal Democrat politician Belcher had her own message for the music business.

“I remember the splash that people like Boy George and David Bowie made in their time and what I would say is, don’t necessarily look at what you did then as being the right way,” she said. “It’s about talking and listening to the artists who come through and see how they want to be presented. Because some of the coverage of David Bowie, Boy George and Pete Burns was not helpful. It was kind of playing back into those stereotypes. So even though the music industry was saying, ‘Look at us, we’re very forward thinking,’ actually, some of it was very damaging as well. So, look, you have a history of doing this, you can learn from the things that didn’t go well and listen to see how things can be made better moving forwards.”

James Hanley

Freelance Journalist, United Kingdom

James Hanley is a freelance journalist, specialising in the live music business. He began his music industry career as news editor of Audience/Live UK magazines in 2012 before moving on to Music Week, where he spent six years as senior staff writer and remains a regular contributor. He also writes for publications including M Magazine and Champions Journal.