#BlackoutTuesday: how a music industry protest became a social media moment


On the US Billboard album chart, black artists have held the No. 1 spot for 11 out of the past 13 weeks — and occupy four of the top 5 slots this week.

Australian artists, including Guy Sebastian, John Williamson, Tkay Maidza and Midnight Oil, were among those who posted black squares in support of the shutdown. Indigenous rapper Baker Boy matched his post with a strong plea urging his fans to take their “activism further than your social media”.

Australian independent record labels, including the Mushroom Group, Remote Control Records and Etcetc, also posted in support of the blackout, adding links to organisations, resources and petitions for their social media followers to support.

Local divisions of global record companies Sony Music, Universal Music and Warner Music also followed the lead of their US offices, with social media posts announcing they’d be pausing operations for the day to support the fight against racial injustice.

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 theatre, 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,” 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.”

On Twitter, Sydney punk label RIP Society was among local voices who questioned the corporate bandwagon-ing of the initiative.

“I don’t want to dismiss people or industry employees who want to show support against police violence and state oppression, even those that are a little tone deaf, but I do feel cynical about the corporate response, the use of anti-racist language by companies that are materially making the lives of the marginalised people they’re supposedly supporting much, much worse,” said label founder Nic Warnock, contrasting a blackout post from Amazon with the recent treatment of employee Chris Smalls, who was fired from the company last month after protesting a lack of protective gear for employees.

His concerns echoed those voiced by US punk label Don Giovanni Records which refused to partake in the initiative, saying on Twitter: “If [Black Lives Matter] calls for the music industry to take action, we will. But I have no interest in supporting major label record executive white guilt day.”

On Tuesday, The Show Must Be Paused released an additional statement clarifying its intent. “The purpose was never to mute ourselves,” the group said. “The purpose is to disrupt.”

Beyond the confluence of hashtags, others in the US music industry questioned what was being done beyond promises for reflection and general statements of support. “how much money is being donated from the labels, publishers, streaming services and all other corners of the music industry tomorrow? i can’t find this info,” artist and producer Jack Antonoff, who has worked with Taylor Swift and Lorde, posted on Twitter. R&B singer Kehlani said she was taking issue with “a bunch of suits on instagram saying black out tuesday for the industry. with no context. no nod to the original organisers or the original flyer.”

At the same time, the calls for action this week have intersected with long-standing 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 colours.” Separately, Universal Music Group said it was forming a task force to address issues such as “inclusion.”

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 organisations.

The corporate displays of support, which have stretched far beyond the music business, followed a weekend in which many top-tier artists took to the streets or their social media channels in protest. Artists including Grande, Halsey, J. Cole and Lil Yachty were seen at marches while others, like Taylor Swift, Pink, Billie Eilish, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga posted messages online. Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota said he spoke with Jay-Z on Sunday, with the rapper imploring him, “Justice needs to be served here.”

-with Robert Moran

Most Viewed in Culture