Music

Behind the collective fighting to advance Black voices in Canada's music industry

‘Let's try and do something that's going to be lasting. Instead of just putting up a black square.’

‘Let's try and do something that's going to be lasting. Instead of just putting up a black square'

Vivian Barclay, Mira Oballa and Craig Mannix are the co-founders behind Advance, Canada's new Black music business collective. (Courtesy of non-profit)

A little more than a month after people took to the streets in record numbers to protest the killing of George Floyd, a Canadian Black music business collective called Advance announced its launch, hoping to combat anti-Black racism in the music industry.

"We were talking about [the collective] starting I'd say some time last year," says Advance co-founder and entertainment lawyer Miro Oballa, who's currently based in Toronto. "With everything that was happening and [with] the protests and everything in America, which then led to the music industry there doing the Black Out Tuesday thing, that actually ended up spurring some other people here as well in Canada to want to do something."

Fellow co-founders Vivian Barclay, general manager of Warner Chappell Music Canada, and Craig Mannix, an A&R manager A&R for Sony Music Entertainment Canada, are among the people who officially came together to register the non-profit organization. Oballa says they currently have a working group of about eight people to finalize a soon-to-be-public list of volunteer board members, and will eventually hire an executive director. Rapper Kardinal Offishall, who is the creative executive director for Universal Music Canada's A&R team, is also involved with Advance

"[We] came together and said, 'OK, you know what, let's really work on this, let's try and do something that's going to be lasting,' you know? Instead of just putting up a black square," continues Oballa, laughing lightly. "Let's properly create an organization that has the interests of the Black community at large and music community and music artists and everybody  [that] has those interests at heart. And let's see if we can figure out some real ways to solve some of the systemic problems that we've seen in the industry over the years."

Oballa's nearly 20 years working in the music industry as an entertainment lawyer have also seen him serve as both a Polaris Prize Music and Canadian Live Music Association board member, experience that he's ready to bring to the Advance table. He talked to CBC Music over the phone about getting the collective started, what it really wants to do within the Canadian music industry, and how to support it going forward.


How did you get involved with Advance?

It was something that myself and some other senior executives in the business have been talking about for a little while there, because, you know, even though I've been in the industry for 20 years, one of the things that I was noticing, and as were others, was that unfortunately, the representation of Black people within the industry wasn't really increasing. It was static. And in some cases, frankly, it probably decreased from a time, because when the revenue started to decrease because of situations like Napster and file sharing … a lot of the departments [in Canada] that were forced to reduce were often the "urban" departments, right? So you actually probably had a contraction of Black people working in the industry for the first little bit and then it didn't really change. And that was something that was a bit frustrating and kind of saddening. 

Aside from the co-founders, who's working behind the scenes right now?

I guess for now, what I can say is it's a cross section of Black people working in the music space, and that includes people working at the publishers, people working at record labels ... all of that. That's on the board level. And on the membership level, it's broadly open. We're just going through the process of building our membership across Canada, you know, just in the various pillars of the industry, but also in the various provinces because even though the industry is concentrated in Toronto, there is a music industry across the country and we want to make sure that we're representative of everybody. 

Why did you choose the name Advance?

It's a bit of a double entendre. But the chief name is Advance in terms of advancement, right? The key being the advancement of Black people within the music industry. And then the sort of play on it is that often for business advisers who are new to the music industry, whenever they're doing a deal, whether it's a record deal or publishing deal on behalf of their client, they tend to be focused on the advance, which is the money that the artist or songwriter or producer gets when they sign. But … you've got to pay [it] back with future royalties. So it's often not the most important part of your deal. But it's the part that people end up focusing on. So part of [the name] is a reference to education. 

What has the response been like since you opened up the membership?

Generally positive, yeah. A lot of excitement. And I think a lot of people feel like, "OK, it's a long time coming," and I think people are glad that the opportunity exists. That an organization like this is going to be there to act as a unified voice. 

I know it's pretty early in the game, but in terms of what Advance has laid out as objectives, I'm wondering if you know any tangible ways that you want to provide that unified voice for Black people working in the Canadian music industry?

There's a few things that we're looking at. One of the things that is important out of the gate is to conduct a proper audit of the industry at large. Right now, we've got some sense of things like numbers of people who are employed and that, and where people work in the different sectors, but really getting a proper lay of that land is important. 

In conjunction with that, getting a sense of, OK, how much does Black music currently contribute to the music economy in Canada, right? And then in addition to that, one of the key things for us is building proper mentorship and training programs. So, whether that's us liaising with the organizations that are doing that and connecting members or potential people who potentially want to work in the industry with those situations, or establish those structures ourselves so that people can be properly equipped with skills in order for them to succeed.

And how do you want to hold corporate, private and government sectors accountable? 

I think in a variety of ways. Like I said, the first part is getting an understanding of, OK, what are the numbers? … Ensuring that any potential kind of systemic barriers, whether conscious or unconscious, that may restrict the hiring of Black people in the industry or the advancement of Black people in the industry [are] examined and addressed. That's a key one. And ultimately also creating a place for the larger industry to be able to go to have these conversations. One of the nice things has been that we have gotten the sense that the industries want to have these conversations. But sometimes, you know, the willingness and then the ability to have them are two separate things. So that's what we have to provide. 

And in terms of going forward, how do you want people to support this collective?

Through a number of ways. Through memberships. There's opportunity also to be an ally of the organization if you don't fit the membership criteria, but want to support nevertheless. We're also in discussions with some of the different industry pillars about funding and support and how we can help work with them, and how they can work with us. 

Since it's early days for the organization, is there anything else you'd like people to know about it as it's forming?

I would say that at the end of the day, I think the takeaway is that we're here. It's been a little while coming but we're here and we're ready to really try and make some progress on some of these issues that have been plaguing the industry here for a while. 

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