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Universal Music Group’s New Task Force Leaders Share Their Vision: ‘A Real Opportunity for Change’

The week after George Floyd’s killing on May 25 and the protests that followed, Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group all launched multimillion-dollar initiatives to fight racism and support social justice, with pledges to curb bias endured by black artists, executives and staffers. It’s not the first time the business has tried to tackle these problems. But UMG executive vp/general counsel and Def Jam interim chairman/CEO Jeff Harleston believes that this effort will lead to real, sustained change.

“The particular ingredients that have gone into where we are now have created more opportunity,” says Harleston, who UMG just announced will co-chair the company’s Task Force for Meaningful Change with Motown Records president and Capitol Music Group executive vp Ethiopia Habtemariam. “Certainly, the black community is saying this has gone way too far — but now others are also saying this is enough. I believe in long-term sustained change, but I [also] respect and understand the need to act immediately. That combination is very potent in creating this current opportunity.”

UMG was the first major label to offer details about its social justice initiative, and Habtemariam hopes that puts it in a position to “lead the change” across the industry. As she and Harleston said in a June 4 company memo: “We are charged with reviewing the company’s commitment to addressing and promoting tolerance, equality and elimination of bias within UMG, the music community and the world at large.”

One important part of the task force’s plan is holding UMG itself accountable to recruit, retain and promote a diverse workforce. “We’re not above looking at ourselves,” says Harleston. “How can we improve in providing more opportunities for black executives to grow into leadership positions? How can we create the best version of Universal with respect to equality, diversity and inclusion?”

The plan’s first phase also involves further donations and action, facilitated by a $25 million fund with a focus on immediate- and long-term goals for charitable giving; encouraging equality, bias and inclusion efforts in UMG offices worldwide; affecting public policy; working with business partners on these issues; and developing educational and creative programming on racial equality. The work will involve a 30-member team of employees from across the company’s labels and international offices, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Latin America and Africa.

As they helped create UMG’s strategy, Habtemariam says it was imperative to “lock arms” with everyone from top executives down, challenging task force members to get perspectives from artists, business partners and junior staffers. “We walked into this knowing we had to allow every voice to be heard,” she says. “We’re not taking this lightly; the experiences of the last several months have been traumatic for everyone.”

“Over the years, there have been a number of conversations about what the music business can do,” says Habtemariam. “Now we’re doing a lot of listening and recognizing that this is a real opportunity for change.”

This article originally appeared in the June 13 issue of Billboard.

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