Ep. 18: Speaking Truth to Power in the Music Industry


9 min read

Speaker 1: Welcome to the Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon, future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.


Toby Mildon: Hello, and welcome to this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. I'm Toby Mildon, and today I'm joined by a brilliant guest. His name is Ammo Talwar, MBE. He is the Founder of Punch Records, which was started in 1997. And since then, he has taken on a new role as Chair of the UK Diversity Task Force for the music industry. Ammo, welcome to the show.


Ammo Talwar: Thanks. Thanks, Toby. Much appreciated. God, that makes me feel really old... 1997, God. Going back a bit, isn't it? [chuckle]


Toby Mildon: So, how did you start your business back in 1997 and what does your business look like now? 


Ammo Talwar: So, I actually shouldn't be working in the music industry. I actually graduated as a civil engineer, and as a youngster I wanted to build roads and bridges, connecting communities. However, my brother used to manage an artist in the early '90s called Apache Indian. He had a few famous tracks, "Boom Shack-a-Lak" was one. And I just saw what my brother was doing and I... So, I graduated and I was designing doors for prisons and hospitals, and he was flying to Japan and Jamaica as part of big, large-scale reggae festivals. And I was just like, I wanna do something like that. I didn't know what, though. And it got to a stage where I was getting a little bit frustrated and I thought, wow, what should I do? I'll tell you what I'll do. I'm a good Indian boy, I'm gonna open up a shop. How about that? But it wasn't a traditional corner shop or Asian shop. It was a record store. And for the first year, two years to be fair, did I really know what I was doing? No. Did I have a lot of help from colleagues and friends and community and DJs? Yes.


Ammo Talwar: So we set up a shop and it became... It was a record store and we used to sell everything. We used to sell Beethoven, Oasis, Public Enemy, and it got to a stage within year one, Toby, where we couldn't compete with Our Price... Now we're going back now. We couldn't compete with Power Records. We just didn't have that competitive edge, the global edge that we really thought. So we reduced our shop into something that was more specialist and it became very DJ-focused and it became focused around black music... A lot of reggae, a lot of funk, a lot of jazz, a lot of hip-hop, a lot of soul. And the shop was the shop in the mid to late '90s. We were also fortunate enough to realize that music was changing in that time. It was very much... Kids were making records on Sony PlayStation, so we started doing quite a lot work in schools whilst we had the record store. Post-millennium, there was a thing called Napster.


Toby Mildon: Yeah.


Ammo Talwar: I don't know if that's ever come into your public realm, but just after the millennium, a lot people were downloading for free, and ultimately, I think it was the demise of a lot of traditional record stores nationally, but also the opening up of the digital era. We were lucky enough to have almost pivoted our business in 2003-2004 to also do work in schools, colleges, hospitals, prisons, looking at youth, looking at music, looking at curriculum. And so, the doors closed in 2004 of the record store. We pivoted our business and we started doing quite a lot work, working with music teachers, working with secondary schools, predominantly Key Stage 3 and helping to devise what the new music curriculum would look like. And I suppose the business changed and morphed into something else. We also realized... We're based in Birmingham, and Birmingham is quite a diverse city, we're 43% non-White from the latest statistics.


Ammo Talwar: So we were really energized by the notion that some of the arts venues, some of the music venues weren't necessarily reflecting the new sounds of contemporary Britain. And so we set up a festival in 2006, and in 2008, 2009 we started looking at commissioning work, working across the city. So the business now is a bit of a hodgepodge between... We run a festival one area... One department of the company runs a festival, one department looks at national touring, and the other side looks at engagement and music and curriculum. So it's a hodgepodge between all of those things. But the realm of making sure things are fair and people have access to the things that are exciting and making sure we're reflective of the societies and the areas that we live in has always been a bit of a rod that flows through the company.


Toby Mildon: Yeah, I really like how your business is really purpose-driven from pretty much early days when you started your business. And I was just wondering if you had any run-ins with Richard Branson and Virgin Records in the past and... But you're right, the music industry has really shifted because stores like Our Price aren't around anymore, people are downloading. I get all my music on Spotify, so that kind of thing.


Ammo Talwar: Yeah, it's... Things have always changed and we believe the evolution of music will move on to something else soon. And we have to be reflective of modern society. We have to move with tech, we have to move with new communities, we have to move with new systems, and that's not to negate things that have not happened. It's just looking at things from a broad perspective and say, "Well, what do people in this area need right here, right now?" Or, "What are we working on? And what's our values?" And hopefully being reflective of those that are really important. Yeah.


Toby Mildon: So the other role that you play is chairing the UK Diversity Task Force. Can you tell me a bit more about that and what the task force is setting out to achieve? 


Ammo Talwar: Sure, so the task force is... So UK Music is an organization that not many people have probably heard of. It's the umbrella organization that talks to government on behalf of the UK music industry. We have a number of 11 trade bodies, and some you'll know of, some you won't, so unions like Musicians' Union, people who collect royalties, PRS, PPL. We represent the larger labels through the BPI and they're the guys that run the BRITs. And then we represent small labels, and then music managers and... So it's the broad range of the music ecosystem, and UK Music represents them and talks to government and looks at changing things like policy and innovation and all the things that are quite important. And the Diversity Task Force has been set up primarily to look at what are we doing to make sure that diversity sits center, middle, and top across the trade bodies, but also how do we help develop and shape policy that would become sharper, that sits within the sort of legislation of equalities.


Ammo Talwar: And so we work across all the protected characteristics. I sit on the main UK Music board with all the chairmen and all the CEOs of the trade bodies. And then also I have my own task force that's co-chaired with a lovely lady called Paulette Long. And we... There's a group of us that really want to create not just a fairer society, but we want to make sure that we put systems and legislation, and we implement procedures, policies and frameworks, so people feel that music and the music industry can be for them.


Toby Mildon: I think that's really good. So what are some of the challenges that you're seeing within the music industry in trying to get more diverse and more inclusive? 


Ammo Talwar: The music industry generally thinks it's quite diverse. And from a workforce perspective, it's got some work to do. And so the challenges are around understanding... So there's a few things that we, I suppose, could look at straight away. Where does accountability and responsibility sit? I think that... That's a key component. Often diversity in big companies is kind of devolved to the head of diversity or department or something that is over there and we wanna make sure that there is a real sense of accountability. We want to make sure that this real, well thought out strategy that often needs to be owned by someone and some resources. And so some of the problems are things like gender and ethnic pay gap that we are looking to sort of work with. And that's a long-term change. You're not gonna... Government legislation at the moment says only the companies that employ more than 250 people need to openly show... Talk to the government about gender and race pay gap, but we wanna reduce that to 50. We want more people to be open and transparent about, gender pay gap. We know there's not enough diverse voices at senior and exec level. And in the boardroom we know that there is an echo chamber and unfortunately, it tends to be white, middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied, if I can be so blunt.


Ammo Talwar: And so what we are trying to do is we're not saying these individuals are bad people, or they do not want to change policy, we're saying often there is an echo chamber in most boardrooms. What we want to do is dismantle that in an authentic, respectful way so the new voices can be heard. So you can see why... You can look at it from a regional perspective, so it is not all about London. It's about Sunderland. It's about Burnley. It's about Bristol. You can look at it from a gender perspective. You can look at from a disability perspective. And that broad discourse is always, I think... The evidence shows you that having more women round the top table helps with the bottom line. The evidence shows you having more diverse voices helps with the bottom line. We don't need to evidence the value of having diversity sitting right at the top table. What we need to do is support companies or organizations that need that support.


Ammo Talwar: It's very much a sort of nudge and nurture procedure from us. But we want to make sure that if there is bias in organizations, you have training, you understand your bias. We want to make sure that you know words are important. So... In the music industry, urban means nothing. So we wanna make sure that we eradicate words like that. We wanna make sure that you support the talent already within your organizations, especially if you know this hole is us [13:20] ____. A lot of it comes down to truth, really. Toby, I think we wanna make sure that there's a real sense of honesty and truth in the trade bodies in the music industry, in the music sector.


Toby Mildon: That's very clear. How do you think people, senior people in the industry, should be taking more responsibility for this? Because I've had this with some of my clients that I work with, where you have a chief executive who says all the right things about diversity and inclusion but then immediately passes the responsibility down to a HR director or in some cases they might employ a Diversity and Inclusion Manager for the organization. But I think that the chief executive needs to be walking the talk when it comes to inclusivity but... How do you get chief executives to take on that responsibility, because they've got so much other stuff on their plate, especially in the current times with having to navigate businesses through the choppy waters of Coronavirus. But, yeah, what are your thoughts on that? 


Ammo Talwar: Well, I agree, but you're not a CEO unless you can handle some pressure. That's the first thing. Secondly, I come back down to the first point that I mentioned, we have to identify who's accountable. It cannot be the... It has to sit at the top table, it has to be the chairman, it has to be the board of governors, it has to be the CEO. If there's problems... So, for instance, people may go, "Well, it's the board." But the board is not gonna change. Then we need to look at Articles of Association, we need radical change. So it has to sit with the CEO. Accountability has to sit with the boss. It's really simple. Responsibility can be devolved, but if accountability doesn't sit with the CEO amongst all the other responsibilities, then it won't work.


Toby Mildon: Yeah, I agree with you. Because when I wrote my book, the first chapter is called 'Clarity' and it's all about understanding why diversity and inclusion is important to the growth of an organization. One of the things is [15:33] ____. When I wrote it, I thought, "Oh, this is such kind of basic Business 101," but I talked about the RACI index. And this is something I used to do as a project manager. So RACI stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted with and kept Informed or Informed. And when I was writing it, I was thinking, this is so simple. But when I started showing people, they were like, "Actually, no, we need to go back to the basic sometimes." We need to understand what the difference is between being accountable for something, which is what the chief execs should be doing, and then who's responsible for the delivery, which could be... You do employ a Diversity and Inclusion Manager, and they're responsible for delivering various initiatives or change programs and that kind of thing, but the accountability sits elsewhere.


Ammo Talwar: Exactly. And also, so there's a tiered system, and what you have to do is you have to get through a few hoops; otherwise, there's no point in talking about diversity. So the first hoop is responsibility, accountability. That's my first hoop. If you can't get past that, it's not gonna work. My second hoop is strategy. Unfortunately, strategy means time, resources and energy, and that often means money. Now, if you have accountability and resources, we can talk about diversity; if you don't, what happens is it'll get devolved into something that's so small and nothing will change. We're talking about systemic change, we're talking about system change, we're not talking about a kind of micro-movement around what's going on.


Ammo Talwar: And let me explain what I mean when I say systemic, 'cause I think this is really important because the word's being used quite a lot. For me, systemic is... It sits into four characteristics. Institutional. So what things have reinforced racist or biased agenda standards. So that's the institution, that's the company that you work for. Structural. So this is layers, these are multiple indexes of companies that are collectively triangulating the problem. I'll use the home office and the police as an example, and the Windrush scandal as a structural, systematic problem. It goes further, it goes into the kind of interpersonal. So, "Hey... " And what I'm talking about here is things like microaggressions, Toby. So I'm thinking like, "Hey, Toby, make sure your wheelchair is clean when you're coming in 'cause it [18:21] ____... " And you could say, "Well, what the hell are you talking about?"


Toby Mildon: Yeah, yeah.


Ammo Talwar: Microaggressions. "Hey, your beard looks a little bit scruffy, can you change your dreadlocks and just put them up?" Microaggressions. That's interpersonal. And then the thing that no one talks about, which I think is the hidden thing, is the internalized, the reinforced, the unconscious. So if I say a word to you, "What's the first thing that comes up in your head?" Unconscious. So when people talk about systemic issues, people said there was institutional racism with the Macpherson report. Systemic is institutional, structural, interpersonal and internalized, and that, in a round circle cog, is some of the issues we have across all the protected characteristics. But it just so happens that obviously race is right at the top of the agenda right now with everything that's happened in Minneapolis, the Black Lives Matter uprising, and all the campaigning that's happening, which has brought race right to the forefront.


Toby Mildon: Yeah. No, so I'm really glad that you've covered it looking at those four kind of different angles and in a very cyclical way as well, because people have said to me, "Well, we've put on loads of unconscious bias training for our employees. We've ticked that box." And I'm like, "Mmm, yeah, that's not gonna really help."


Ammo Talwar: No. And also that, for me, that's not acceptable anymore. And anybody who comes into my domain, I will just say, "Well, you reek of privilege when you say that." So, for me, that's not acceptable, I will say no to that.


Toby Mildon: Yeah, yeah, 'cause I think unconscious bias is a thing. We know that it's the way that our brains are wired and through social conditioning, but I would rather look at bias within processes and systems. So for example, if you have a very rigid recruitment process, that you insist on meeting people face-to-face for an interview, that could prevent, say, somebody who's autistic from having an interview, who might struggle with that kind of process, and there could be other ways of assessing somebody for the job. Being more flexible in your recruitment would help get greater diversity of talent through the door.


Ammo Talwar: Absolutely. And the whole thing is, we can support training for a range of issues that individuals have, but I like to start off with something that's even simpler. I like to start off with truth. I like to start off with privilege. What types of privilege do we have? I have privilege. I'm a man. So I'll just start, I'll say now, "I'm an able-bodied man. That's my privilege."


Toby Mildon: Yeah.


Ammo Talwar: Welcome to my world. Now we can have a conversation. I've said it. We can have a conversation. Most people can't have that conversation. That's the problem.


Toby Mildon: Yeah, privilege seems to be one of those topics that people struggle to talk about. I think a couple of responses happen. Some people feel guilty about their privileges, and some people are in denial that they've got any privileges, but like you say, we need to talk truth to power, really, don't we, and sort of say privilege is a thing. We've got earned privileges and we've got unearned privileges.


Ammo Talwar: Absolutely. We've got geographical privileges. So my colleagues that live in Middlesbrough, they laugh at me when I talk to them, because I've got... You don't even realize what you've got. They're white working class friends of mine who live on estates just outside the city center in Middlesbrough, so my point is truth underpins a lot of the work we want, if we want a better, more just, more equitable society. And there is nothing wrong... There's a phrase, it's not where you're from, it's where you're at. It's really simple. I don't care if you're white, black, Asian, Chinese, gay, disabled, it doesn't bother me. I don't care whether you're rich, poor... It's where are you at mentally? What are you doing and thinking, so you don't have to hide your privilege or... 'cause that doesn't, privilege doesn't bother me much. The thing that bothers me is truth.


Ammo Talwar: And I think that's really, really important, and also we mustn't negate that in every single protected characteristic, there's privilege. So, a lot of my gay colleagues, there's a kind of weird ranking order of who's the most privileged in the gay community. I love it because I'm a heterosexual man and, so my view is great. I can say what I want, and they always go, all of this is... And so we have to just be upfront and seek the truth, and once we have a safe space to be who we are and say the things that we care about, then we can move forward. I also think it's really up to CEOs and senior execs to set culture. Because if you set that culture of we are fair, if we're not, we're gonna protect you, you can go and see HR. There's the whistle-blowing policies of a firm, people feel... I think there's something magical about getting the best out of individuals rather than trying to control the individual, and I think... I think we move... I'm hoping we're moving more towards getting the best out of citizens rather than putting pressure on them.


Toby Mildon: Yeah, and that's very much my kind of line of thinking in the inclusion world. It's all about allowing people to come to work, be themselves, so that they can do their best work possible. And then that enables businesses to grow, which leads me onto my next question, really, which is what does inclusive growth mean for you? 


Ammo Talwar: So the notion of inclusive... It's quite a fashionable term, inclusive growth 'cause everybody wants growth, but now what the government is saying is you have to really look at... It can't be for the 5%, the corporate sector. So inclusive growth means looking at the broader church of the society that you live in. It could be a city, it could be a village, it could be a town. So if we grow, and growth is measured in different things. So some people measure it in wealth, some people measure it in space, some people measure it in just... There's different denominators on how you measure it. I think there's something about saying "Well, collectively, we want to grow together, so the ecosystem doesn't feel too skewed." So we're including multiple sectors, multiple communities, multiple spaces, and we take people along with us on the journey of growth, so if you look at a city, for instance, I'll use Birmingham as an example, 'cause I live here. We have 1.1 million people. The financial sector is based in the city center.


Ammo Talwar: And so inclusive growth for a city like Birmingham means making sure that the financial sector understands the industrial bout, the ring, the inner city and the outer city. And so if we grow, it's not just the city center and the bankers that grow. It's the citizens, the people that pay their taxes that grow with it, and that's for me what inclusive growth means. We try to look at inclusive growth in our own company. We get some things right and we get a few things wrong but I think if you believe in... God, I'm gonna sound like a hippie now. If you believe in people, you believe in inclusive growth. So yeah, that's my feelings towards it.


Toby Mildon: Brilliant. If somebody wants to get in touch with you and to follow along with the work that you're doing, what's the best way of doing that? 


Ammo Talwar: So just email us at ammo@punch-records.co.uk. You could tweet us @punchrecords. I'm on LinkedIn, Ammo Talwar. Please get in contact. I always respond. I always take, I don't take more than two days to respond even if it means I'm gonna take another two days, but I do respond, and I think I want people to really get involved in the notion of inclusive growth.


Toby Mildon: Brilliant. Ammo, I thank you ever so much for joining me on the show today. I've thoroughly enjoyed chatting with you and good luck with the work that you're doing. It's... You're doing some brilliant stuff, and thank you for listening to this episode of The Inclusive Growth show. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Ammo today, and I hope to see you on the next episode. If you know somebody who's interested in diversity and inclusion, feel free to share this podcast with them, and until then, I look forward to seeing you on the next episode.


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Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to the Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at mildon.co.uk.