How Sony Music is supporting global social justice today

by Fin Murphy

On June 5, 2020, in the wake of global protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, Sony Music Group announced the launch of a $100 million Social Justice Fund to support anti-racist initiatives around the world.

At the time, Rob Stringer, Chairman of Sony Music Group, said: “Racial injustice is a global issue that affects our artists, songwriters, our people and of course society at large. We stand against discrimination everywhere and we will take action accordingly with our community fully involved in effectively using these funds.”

One year on from the launch of the fund, co-chairs of the UK arm – Damaris Rex Taylor, director of marketing, RCA UK, Dorothy Hui, SVP for digital & audience development, and Charlotte Edgeworth, director of diversity, inclusion & social impact – share their journey thus far.

Addressing the challenge

As a company with a long legacy of shaping culture, we recognise our ability to make an impact. We want to do our part to support community initiatives that help tackle racial inequality and injustice. In the UK we have a particular focus on funding grassroots programmes. We want to make a meaningful and sustainable impact.

There is a common goal to address injustice and racism around the world, however we must also adapt to the needs that are distinct to our local challenges in the UK. Broadly the supported charities align to key areas of focus: education and skills, criminal rehabilitation opportunities, and holistic and mental health support for black communities.

Building the right solution

Our global parent company, Sony Corp., understood how important it was to set up the fund and gave us the significant financial support necessary to play a bigger role in building long-term change.

We needed to understand the landscape – Sony Music had supported organisations before, but not through a specific fund, so we thought through our goals and what parts of social justice we most wanted to address, because its scope is wide.

Structure is hugely important when it comes to establishing a fund like this. Our core team spent a lot of time establishing clear parameters around what we wanted to fund and guidelines and governance measures.  We considered where we felt we could have the greatest impact and use not only our funds effectively, but also our skills as an organisation.

We also listened to our employees. Staff input into our longlist of organisations which became our starting point for research. Our advisory board comprises twelve representatives from across the business – from label presidents to our diversity and inclusion employee group – who then meet quarterly to decide who we want to fund in each round. It was really important to us to have a range of voices and skills on the board, so we are two thirds black or people of colour, 50% female, and we have input from senior executives across the business, including A&R, marketing, sync, digital and communications.

We invite employees to nominate causes that are important to them (currently we do not accept unsolicited applications) and we then have a donation form for eligible organisations to complete. We have a funding round roughly each quarter and we offer advice at the application stage if helpful. Shortlisted applications go to an advisory board comprising representatives from across Sony Music UK, from label presidents to our diversity, equity and inclusion committee, HUE (Helping Unite Everyone).

The advisory board selects which organisations are then awarded funds for each round. We follow up with every organisation afterwards. Successful organisations are matched with an internal Sony Music ambassador to help build a meaningful partnership and we are looking into ways that employees can volunteer post-lockdown.

Navigating challenging conditions

Like any new entity, we are learning and developing as we go along. We look for charities doing great work in our key areas and work with them to identify how we can make the most impact. To help with that, we consult existing research and plan in the future to commission some of our own, to delve even deeper into social justice topics to help identify root causes.

We also examine how we work best with partners. This has been an unexpected year in the way we have all had to work through the pandemic. Charities have had to be innovative and flexible in a way that nobody expected, so we recognise that and help where we can.

For example, due to lockdown, our partner Young Urban Arts Foundation could not go out into communities and reach all the young people they would normally interact with using their special studio bus. They cleverly adapted their offering to an online model, which helped them reach even more people! We’ve been able to support that through staff helping with education events and getting artists involved in the regular open mic nights, and we’re really looking forward to doing more in person in the summer.

Collaborating to create change

For us selection is very much the beginning, not the end, of the relationship. It’s about securing and supporting long term partnerships for positive change. We strive to add value to all our partnerships that goes beyond just the financial transaction, so we discuss during the application process what other support might be helpful from Sony Music UK for the organisation.

If they are approved, we then match a Sony ambassador to them, who might be the employee who nominated them or someone who has a particular affinity for that cause. Their ambassador is committed to helping them access other Sony resources, which could include securing volunteers, mentors, technical support or other specialist knowledge – and even artist involvement.

Of course, we also use our reach and channels to spread the word about our amazing partners too so more people can find out about the work they are doing.

Assessing the wider impact

Consider the 3T course we launched. It’s a free and comprehensive twelve-week programme designed to provide a wide array of technical touring skills and to create opportunities for a new generation of black women in live music. It received more than 500 applications from black British women in less than eight hours upon opening last year. Modules including lighting design, computer programming and audio engineering could be studied by the participants.

In October 2020 the chosen ten applicants became the first cohort of students to graduate. Students ranged from 21-38 years old and had musical and technical backgrounds, with a shared enthusiasm to learn.

The first year of this course was a huge success and the class of 2020 proved every bit as talented as expected. Everyone involved in teaching the course believe we have the next generation of top-class touring professionals within the group.

It is early days in terms of gathering data on our impact, however, we can already see the incredible work our partners are doing and things they’re able to expand on with our support. Our funded programmes give opportunities to those who might not otherwise have had them – be that giving young black musicians access to a scholarship at The Royal Academy of Music, or a safe space for young black women and girls to overcome trauma and connect with inspirational mentors.

We also hope to challenge the ongoing perceptions of people of colour across the UK. An example of this is a unique initiative called Flock Together, which focuses on bringing POC together and tackling mental health through bird watching. In such a stereotypically white space they are, and I quote, ‘changing the colour of the outdoors’. This reimagining of the black experience has been echoed throughout music – we’ve dropped the use of the word ‘urban’ in the UK – and we will continue to research and reappraise the language and terminology we use.

Broader access to programmes like this will help us, over time, breakthrough stereotypes and clichés that have been placed on black communities.  Another initiative, the Sony Blue Plaque scheme, will highlight remarkable figures of colour in the UK who haven’t had the recognition they deserve.

Globally, Sony Music has also invested a significant amount in rehabilitation programmes, which have been hugely successful in bringing down reoffending rates and providing job opportunities for ex-offenders. We have seen tangible results from the criminal justice work we’ve been doing in the UK too, through partners like Key4Life.

The overall fund has contributed to more than 300 worldwide organisations to the tune of around $25 million, and this continues apace as we match need with the right organisations that fit the parameters of this fund. It will continue long into the future, too. The response to the fund has been positive.

In terms of specific outcomes, the 2020 programme we launched with the Young Urban Arts Foundation resulted in:

  •  100% of participants felt taking part had definitely made them feel good.
  •  94% felt they had ‘definitely’ learnt new skills and were interested in learning more.
  •  94% felt they had made new friends or connections through the project.
  •  78% felt more able to cope with current challenges.
  •  89% felt more confident as a result of taking part.

What the future has in store

Social justice – and racial justice – are big topics and there are myriad organisations working towards a better-balanced society. We have funded a broad range of organisations but to take it to the next level we want to build proper partnerships for long-term change.

We do not currently accept unsolicited applications because we’ve had so many nominations from employees. We want to ensure we are capturing all the right data to measure and track our impact so we can share our results after year one of being operational and look at how we take those learnings into year two.

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