Music venues shouldn’t be white spaces. Not even accidentally.

What is the responsibility of venue bookers, music promoters, club owners, and festival organizers to create a platform for artists of color? It’s a tricky conversation to introduce, because there are so many issues — ticket sales, popularity, potential tokenism — but I think it’s more important to have the conversation than to be graceful about it.

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Photo by Jorge Salgado from this year’s Neon Desert Festival

So I’ll start here: Asheville, where I live, is a predominantly white town with a nationally recognized music scene and a high per-capita number of excellent concert halls and listening rooms. But peruse the lineup of at least three of the most popular venues in town and you’re lucky to find one person-of-color-led act in any given month. I recently browsed the calendar for one such music hall that lists no artists of color from September through December.

At that point, it starts to look like those in charge of booking are actively, if unconsciously, only extending an invitation to white performers.

In this Americana, old-time, folk and jam-heavy region, it’s possible to attend several festivals throughout the summer months that include just the slimmest minority of artists of color on their rosters. Attendees seem to be fine with this: Ticket sales don’t suffer. Again, I don’t think most music enthusiasts or festivalgoers are deliberately seeking white-only spaces, but they also don’t recognize that such an event is segregated and exclusive.

Here’s the thing: To many of us white folks, all-white spaces are the norm. That’s how systemic racism works: It refuses access to minority groups while creating a sense of normalcy for majority groups so those who are allowed in never question why others are kept out. And after centuries of this behavior, we white folks have come to accept as status quo a landscape that is anything but equitable or authentic or just.

I’m talking about concerts, but I’m really talking about social justice, because one cannot be separated from the other. We think it’s simply entertainment. We think it’s supposed to be fun — not a tribulation. We think we should be able to escape the intensity and divisiveness of day-to-day life for a couple of hours — but that is privilege. To choose to shut down the conversation about exclusion and injustice is white privilege, afford us by a system that keeps those deemed “other” out so we can go to our fun, relaxing, happy place and not be bothered about our neighbors and coworkers and community members who have not been invited and, worse, might be barred by design, policy, intimidation or force.

Are we really allowing our communities to be separated by our artistic tastes? Are we using art as a means to exclude and farther marginalize creatives from communities of color?

I’m not in marketing, so it’s easy for me to say that money can’t be the answer. But it must not be allowed to be. Human creativity and ingenuity has to matter more than a financial bottom line, and so does the opportunity to hear voices that are different from our own, and that provide a wider range of experience and perspective. That’s what being alive is about. Those who just want to go to the same places, eat the same foods and have the same, safe conversations, day after day, probably don’t need art in their lives. (Or they really need it, but aren’t willing to engage with it.)

Those of us who do choose art must also choose multiplicity and all the elements of discovery, discomfort, challenge, and change that multiplicity unpacks.

And there’s this: When it comes to big-budget concert venues and festivals, there’s much more racial diversity than is seen in many small clubs and listening rooms. When Moogfest was held in Asheville, it brought in performers and thinkers from various walks of life. Asheville’s U.S. Cellular Center and Thomas Wolfe Auditorium — the city’s largest event spaces — also book nationally touring acts from across genres, as well as race, lifestyle and political view. And those shows sell well.

Is success the great equalizer? Do artists with a certain level of acclaim also achieve a measure of household acceptability? Are we tolerant on a national level but separationist on a local level? It seems the opposite should be true, yet our concert calendars suggest otherwise.

The unscientific data reveals that we, as a community, do not actively create space for diverse voices when it comes to our own neighbors. And if that’s true, what’s the hope for national unity or global peace?

If we can’t come together around art, then what?

And so I return to my initial query: What is the responsibility of venue bookers, music promoters, club owners, and festival organizers to create a platform for artists of color? I realize this is an essay with more questions than answers, but there’s an opportunity here to talk about our biases and blind spots, to initiate real change, and to make our communities better and stronger.

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