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Wes Jackson on Significance of Grammys, Effects of #BLM, and the Future of the Music Industry

While 2019 was proclaimed as the Year of the Woman after 31 women won Grammy awards, some say that annual entertainment awards shows have still not kept up with the times. Emerson Today caught up with Wes Jackson, Director of the Business of Creative Enterprises (BCE) program and a music industry veteran, for his perspective on the most notable moments of the 61st annual Grammy Awards, the evolution of the awards to date, and what may lie ahead for the future of the music industry.

Jackson began his career in the 1990s producing concerts for musical acts, including Nas, The Roots, Dave Matthews Band and De La Soul, before establishing his own promotions company, Seven Heads Entertainment. His company was instrumental in launching the careers of musicians such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Rawkus Records. Jackson also co-founded The Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival.

Q: What were some of the most significant moments in the 61st Annual Grammy Awards?

Jackson: There were a lot of moments. The choice of Alicia Keys — and the message she was bringing — was significant. It was both subtle and not so subtle. Keys is clearly committed to getting more women involved and getting more people of color involved. But the other important question is: Are the Grammys as an organization committed?

Childish Gambino’s absence was also conspicuous. And Drake, whose presence at the Grammys surprised me, used his acceptance speech to make a statement that the award was unimportant: Don’t use this to validate your career.

The Grammys have a clear pattern of not supporting women, people of color, and hip hop. They didn’t consider hip hop a true art form. And now hip hop is dominating the streaming economy — and it’s coming home to roost.

Q: Are the Grammys still relevant in 2019?

Jackson: You can shoot a charging elephant with a shotgun, but it is still dangerous as it comes toward you.

Like the Oscars and the Tonys, the Grammys are still the elephant or 800 pound gorilla in the space — and you can’t say that they’re not relevant. The reality is when you win a Grammy, sales go up. Streams go up. Booking rates go up. These awards are still relevant but they’re in danger; the elephant has been shot.

The Grammys are wounded and losing some relevancy because they didn’t keep up with the times. For too long, the Grammys saw hip hop as synonymous only with black culture, and therefore not relevant. It wasn’t too long ago that the Grammys refused to televise DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s performance as the first winner in the category. In the ’80s and ’90s, suburban college kids were listening to Public Enemy, but no one was talking about it. Now there is an understanding that hip hop is youth culture, American culture.

Do the Grammys have a chance to recover? Absolutely. As weak as some may claim they are, from a business perspective they have no real challenger in the market. They can clean it up, and I know they want to. We (The Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival) met with the Grammy Foundation, and they’re trying to fix the problem. But it will take a commitment from the entire body, from the top down.

Q: What other music awards matter today?

Jackson: There’s really no other threat within their category, but the category itself is under threat. The Grammys — and annual award shows in general — are literally old news. They’re still based on the old 6-month timeline of traditional record production. But kids today are like: What about yesterday? What about this morning? Not let’s look at last year.

The life cycle of the music business has quickened so much that annual awards shows don’t have the same meaning. Cardi B.’s ascent was quick. J. Cole is in the studio Monday night, and his track is on Tidal the next morning. My prediction is that it’s only a matter of time that one of the streaming services like Spotify does some type of awards show soon.

That said, artists still love recognition. They want to win the weekly awards: #1 on Spotify this week, #1 on Billboard…those still matter.

Q: How has the #blacklivesmatter movement affected the Grammys — and the music business as a whole?

Jackson: The Black Lives Matter movement has undoubtedly affected the music business. It’s fundamentally changed how artists view the world. And it’s changed who gets booked on the Grammys and other national shows.

Black Lives Matter helped set the stage for the rebirth of conscious hip hop, which goes all the way back to Zulu Nation, the Black Panthers, and the Civil Rights movement. Rihanna, Jay-Z and Cardi B all turned down the Super Bowl; for black artists, it’s been a concept, a movement that they can rally around.

And even if you’re not wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt or using the hashtag, anyone can listen to a song. So it is quite participatory.

Here’s what’s interesting too: Take the discussion around 21 Savage getting detained by ICE this month, which forced him to miss his Grammy performance. Jay-Z hired an immigration lawyer to defend him, and the hip hop community is coming together to support him. J Cole mentioned him in his NBA All-Star Game performance.

Ten years ago, this would have been a different conversation. The headlines would have been all about: “21 Savage is lying — He’s not from Atlanta, he’s from London!”

But we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about criminal justice reform. We’re talking about immigration reform. We’re talking about what happens when you get caught up in the system.

That’s what BLM has done. It’s helped us see what matters.

Q: You’ve been an entrepreneur and innovator in the music business for more than 20 years. What are some of the most significant changes you’ve witnessed, and what changes do you foresee for the future?

Jackson: When I was the same age as my students are, the means of production and barriers to entry in the music business were so high. It was elitist.

The cultural moment that we’re experiencing now comes from the democratization of the tools of production that started happening ten years ago. Everyone has a story. And now everyone’s story can be told.

What I worry about is the reconsolidation of the industry.  There are no more independent venues; it’s all Live Nation. There are no record stores; it’s all Spotify. Music was once in the hands of Sony, Universal, and Capitol, and now it’s in the hands of Apple, Google and Amazon. We consumers give them so much information, and we’re indebted to these companies. They are imbued with a tremendous amount of power over our lives.

The monopoly got smashed, and now it’s regrouped in a different form.

Q: For your students interested in going into the music business, or any creative enterprise: What do you want them to know?

Jackson: Success in the creative industry is all about knowing your discipline, having transferable skills, and being able to look at things from different angles.

If you want to be in publishing, you need to know graphic design. If you’re in film, you need to understand how the music business works. Fashion is a part of music. Music is part of tech. Tech is a part of sculpture. The most successful enterprises are a gumbo of things.

The Renaissance woman is coming back. That’s what the marketplace is looking for and rewarding. Being good at just one thing is no longer a thing.

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