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MUSIC HELPED ME FIND MY VOICE: AN INDUSTRY ROUNDTABLE

On June 28, 1969, a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York City sparked a spontaneous protest by members of the LGBTQ+ community against police violence, and in the process ignited the modern-day gay-rights movement. And as music attorney Dina LaPolt has astutely observed, “The gay-rights movement has been the fastest-growing civil-rights movement in the history of the United States—incredibly, over the past 25 to 30 years we’ve seen most of our rights protected under the law.” 

We assembled a diverse set of music executives who graciously agreed to share their experiences in the industry as members of the LGBTQ+ community, perhaps mistaking us for a more reputable publication. The participants are Joey Arbagey, EVP of A&R, Epic Records; Jen Bontusa, VP Label and Artist Partnerships, Nashville, Ingrooves Music Group; Larry Flick, broadcaster and journalist; Bryan Kehn, Senior Director of Media, Republic Records; Lucas Keller, President and Founder, Milk & Honey Music + Sports; Thomas Krottinger, Director, A&R, Sony Music Publishing; Dina LaPolt, Founder/Owner LaPolt Law, P.C.; Eric MacKay, EVP, Global Digital Strategy, Warner Chappell Music; Mario Vazquez, Director of Top 40 Promotion, Republic Records; Ramon Villa, COO/Partner, Primary Wave; Toni Wallace, Co-Head, Global Music Brand Partnerships, UTA.

When and how did you start your career in the music industry?
Joey Arbagey: I started by interning for Hosh Gureli and Keith Naftaly at KMEL in 1991. 

Jen Bontusa: I’ve been working at Ingrooves since 2005. 

Larry Flick: I was an intern for Danny Goldberg and Gold Mountain Records back in 1984.

Bryan Kehn: I started in 2008 as a publicity assistant at EMI Records, where I received a master class in music PR from Darren Baber and Angelica Cob-Baehler.

Lucas Keller: I moved to Los Angeles in 2009 as The Collective [a management company and creative-content studio] was being formed.

Thomas Krottinger: When I was in school, I interned for everybody, which led me to CAA in 2012.

Dina LaPolt: In 1990 I worked part-time for Eric Carr, the drummer for KISS.

Eric Mackay: I got into the music industry in 2000 when I was living in the U.K.

Mario Vazquez: In 2012 I was hired as a promotion and programming assistant at KIIS-FM Los Angeles.

Ramon Villa: I started in ’94 with Larry Mestel and Chris Blackwell at Island. The first thing I worked on was the Bob Marley publishing catalog. 

Toni Wallace: I’ve been in the entertainment business and technology space for the past 15 years.

What was the climate like for LGBTQ+ people when you were starting out?
Flick: The first year I was Dance Music Editor for Billboard, I fell into this queer subculture of the dance-music world. In the early ’90s, Pride Month was gathering steam, and I wanted to write about all the gay executives in the dance-music business. I set out to interview my friends, and not one of them would talk for fear of retribution. There were also countless gay men in promotion in country music who would not come out. 

Keller: I was having a conversation with a friend the other day who had a prominent job working for the head of a music-business company who’d let somebody go because they were gay. He said, “Man, that stuff just pushes you deeper into the closet.” You’d think, “Oh God, I’m never telling anyone.” If you go back 10 to 15 years or certainly more, there’s all kinds of homophobia. There’s still some of it out there but drastically less than 15 years ago. 

Mackay: My first job was working for a band that had a big gay following; their core fanbase was gay, which seemed natural, but in terms of the climate in the U.K. at the time… I think Section 28 still existed, which meant there was a ban on talking about [what Margaret Thatcher’s government called “promoting”] homosexuality in schools.

Vazquez: Growing up in L.A., which was very progressive, people were much more accepting of the LGBTQ+ community. 

How do you feel the music business has measured up as compared to the general public?
Bontusa: It’s a creative and progressive industry, so it does better than a lot of others. I’m part of a diversity group we created last year. With any underrepresented group, we can do better at trying to lift up voices and make sure people feel comfortable sharing their opinions and know they’ll be listened to. 

Keller: There’s a lot of progress being made, but there’s still a long way to go. Justin Tranter made this really great comment, which I’m going to misquote, but it was something like, “People are less homophobic now than they are femme-phobic. Maybe we’ll let a gay artist through the gate, but if they’re too feminine, we have an issue.” That’s fucked up. There are things like that that still need to be addressed. 

Krottinger: Music helped me find my voice as a gay man. I’ve always felt it was a little step ahead. That being said, when I first started in the business, there seemed to be a chasm between the executives and the creatives. That has changed rapidly, especially at SMP. When I first started, there was a hetero-normative work environment, and that has shifted over the last 10 years. 

Vazquez: In the past decade, the music business has become one of the industries that leads the way on LGBTQ+ initiatives. I work within our action committee—R2AC—helping promote inclusivity, respect and support at our company and in the world.

Villa: Because we’re connected to artists and art—and a lot of the best art has come from people who’ve been marginalized and have something to say—it kind of pushes industry people along the path of acceptance. Compared to other industries, yes, we’re definitely ahead of the curve. I have friends from various walks of life and even today, when they’re in their 50s, they aren’t comfortable being themselves in their work environment.

What has struck you as particularly significant or game-changing in the gay-rights movement?
Arbagey: A pivotal point was in 1995 when Eazy-E died of AIDS. People in the music industry especially had to figure it out then. I worked for an Urban station, and there was a lot of judgment but also acceptance, where people started feeling more empathetic about anyone who had AIDS.

Kehn: Activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera leading Stonewall in 1969, the National March on Washington [for Lesbian and Gay Rights] in 1979, lifelong activists for marriage equality seeing the White House lit in rainbow for our victory in 2015—all these events are inspiring, but we still have so much work to do for global LGBTQ+ equality, like getting the Equality Act passed by the U.S. Senate to secure protections for the community.

What do you think is the single biggest difference between someone entering the music business today vs. when you were coming up?
Arbagey: Back then there was much more judgment; nobody is making snide comments now. There’s more art coming out of the gay community, more movies, more music, more people who aren’t afraid of who they are. Back when I first started doing A&R and people came to see me who I knew were gay; they pretended they weren’t. Today they’ll come in and be as gay as they want, and they’re proud.

Kehn: The music industry is tough to break into and always has been. I grew up a closeted kid in the middle of Texas, singing along to The Spice Girls and NSYNC and dreaming of one day working in the music business. I don’t think I would have made it without embracing myself and finding the LGBTQ+ community. That’s when everything fell into place. My advice to queer kids struggling to get into the music business is: Trust yourself and the answers to your questions will come to you when you aren’t even looking. 

Keller: In 2002, I had real fear about how I might be perceived; in 2021, I wonder what it would be like now if I were out and in my early 20s. What we want is for everything to be leveled out and normalized so that everyone has equal opportunity. I think we’re headed in that direction. 

LaPolt: Now, because of Gen Z and Millennials, being gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual—it’s all accepted; it’s not a thing. Back when I grew up, it was a thing; you did not want people knowing you were gay, because you could be kicked out of places. There’s so much more acceptance now.

How important is representation within the music business to effecting positive social change?
Mackay: We need to fix the diversity problem our industry has across the board. That’s the key to the future of the business—we can only continue to grow if we embrace the diversity of who we are as people. 

Villa: I didn’t have any mentors who were out and talked about their lives in a natural, comfortable way. It wasn’t until my early 40s that I knew certain executives at bigger labels were gay. It wasn’t a topic of conversation. This is part of the changes that are needed. It’s more about mentoring, more examples of people out at all levels. It’s when we’re hiring, actively looking at people everywhere. 

Wallace: In my early years, there weren’t a lot of female LGBTQ+ executives to look up to. Even if there were, they weren’t out. I remember when Lady Gaga started her Little Monsters campaign and how it was about addressing homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth. I said, “You know what? I haven’t had people to look up to, but I have a personal responsibility to make sure I’m using my voice.” I wanted people who were younger than me, in college or just starting out in their careers, to have people around them who were out and open.

What do you think the music business can do to improve on equality, inclusion and overall support of the LGBTQ+ community?
Arbagey: Sony is supportive of everything; Black Lives Matter, gay rights, Asian rights, across the board, they’re very involved and they have all these support systems that help. I think more of that is needed. Whether you’re gay, straight, Black, white or whatever you are, we should all be accepted. And there should be no judgment. We should all feel wonderful about who we are, especially when we go to work. 

Bontusa: The queer community is itself a diverse community. Our teams should be representative of the diversity out there in the real world. Create a welcoming space where everyone feels comfortable.

Kehn: Artists like Kim Petras are paving the way for trans musicians, and I want to see more of that. And I want to see trans executives! 

Krottinger: It’s important to nurture gay executives. We have this pretty awesome responsibility with who we’re signing, who we’re developing. We get to amplify voices in a very unique way. If we don’t have executives with this point of view, how are they going to find and work with the creatives who change the culture? 

LaPolt: The music industry needs to pull its act together as far as systemic racism. I know you want to talk about gay rights, but I see this as an even bigger problem. Nothing is going to change until we have Black people as the chairmen of these companies. Put Black people in charge. We had a Black president—it’s time.

Wallace: We must have representation across the board in everything we do. That’s my responsibility as an executive. We have an incredible organization, UTA Proud, focused on the LGBTQ+ community. I think representation is about making sure it’s always part of your conversation and at the forefront of any organizational structure or policy.

Flick: I think if the business can look beyond stereotypes and understand that queer people make great country music, make great rock ’n’ roll, make beautiful classical pieces… There has to be room for that gay kid—or lesbian kid or non-binary kid—in Indiana who fucking hates disco, who doesn’t give a shit about Madonna and just wants to fucking crank his guitar. 

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