BMI Accused of Multiple Instances of ‘Casual Racism’ by Employees, Musicians

Jem Aswad
·6-min read

UPDATED: Senior executives at BMI, one of the two major U.S. performing rights organizations, have been accused of “casual racism” and a “toxic” work environment by more than 15 current and former employees and musicians in an extensive report published by Rolling Stone.

At the center of the accusations is a Facebook post from last March by former VP of creative relations Doreen Ringer-Ross, who posted a picture of a crowded swimming pool in China on Facebook. “Couldn’t deal with it then,” Ringer-Ross wrote in the caption. “Now just makes me scream and recoil.”

Gingger Shankar, a composer who had worked with Ringer-Ross responded, “There is so much violence happening against Asian Americans right now. Please don’t post things like this.”

The employees and musicians Rolling Stone spoke with claim the action was “part of a larger pattern of racist statements and alleged racist behavior in recent years by multiple BMI executives. The incident contradicts the historic stance on BMI, which was created in 1940 as an anti-monopololistic counter to ASCAP; ASCAP also had been accused of excluding minorities or less-genteel musicians, and over the years BMI has been seen as a stronghold of Black music.

A BMI representative told Rolling Stone that any “personnel matters” are treated as confidential and “it would have been inappropriate to make a companywide statement.” However, while BMI CEO Mike O’Neill acknowledged the incidents in a memo send to the organization’s staff obtained by Variety, he did take issue with several aspects of the article.

“Today Rolling Stone magazine published a negative and disturbing article about BMI, accusing the company of fostering an overall toxic environment and condoning casual racism, mainly in our LA office,” the memo reads in part. “This was a very difficult story to learn about and to read, because I absolutely believe that this is not at the core of who we are. While I’m proud of the progress we have made in our commitment to becoming more inclusive and diverse, we still have work to do.

“The majority of the story focuses on the statements and social media posts of two BMI employees. Let me be very clear – when behavior violates our core values, it is addressed. I believe that when people make mistakes and take ownership for them, they deserve the opportunity to correct them. It is how people learn and grow. But when they continue to make those mistakes, we will hold them accountable, and that is exactly what happened here.

“While I know some of you may ask why these matters weren’t addressed in a more public manner at the time (something this story also raised), I would stress that we treat all personnel matters with complete confidentiality out of respect for our employees’ privacy. Just because there is no public announcement does not mean there was no disciplinary action taken. While we understand that may be frustrating for some, it remains our policy and that will not change.

“Please also know that we provided Rolling Stone with a number of important facts and statistics that were counter to the narrative of this story. They were not included, for reasons that I can’t say. What I can say is that I believe we are on the right path forward and that the changes we have already started will continue for the better. As you know we are currently recruiting for a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Social Responsibility Officer, reporting directly to me, one of many steps we have already taken. We will continue to address these issues head on and work hard to ensure a diverse and equitable culture. This has been and will continue to be my top priority.”

However, the organization’s senior management is primarily white, which president Mike O’Neill acknowledged at a companywide town hall during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests and the related music industry self-examination in June. “One only has to look at me and my direct leadership team to see that we are not where we need to be,” he told employees, stressing the company’s efforts to diversify its staff. “Is it progress?” he asked. “Yes. Is it slow? Yes. Is it enough? No.”

“At BMI, we work every day to create a culture that embraces diversity of talent, ideas, and backgrounds, and celebrates a spirit of inclusivity, and we emphatically disagree that the company actively fosters a culture of intolerance,” a company representative said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “That said, no company is perfect, and we recognize there is always more work to be done. It is a key priority for us, and one that we will continue to address now and long into the future.”

The article also references a 2016 lawsuit brought by two BMI employees, Marlene Meraz and Sasha Pisterman, against the company and three BMI executives in the corporate communications and human resources departments, alleging that BMI “has produced a culture of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation,” which is “especially intense and harshly directed toward Latinos.”

While the suit was dismissed after being settled in 2019, in his memo, O’Neill strongly disputed Rolling Stone’s characterization of it. “There is also reference to a lawsuit with two former employees,” he wrote. “We investigated this and found it to be completely without merit. We also shared with Rolling Stone, which they failed to include, that the lawsuit actually cut-and-pasted complaints made against other companies and non-BMI employees and then left those other names in the complaint against BMI. We absolutely disagreed with the allegations raised in the lawsuit, as well as the comments about it. As for why we settled? Litigation is expensive and a distraction from day-to-day work. While an unfortunate reality, sometimes it is more pragmatic to settle. In hindsight, perhaps we should have made a different decision.”

The article also references longtime BMI executive Barbara Cane as shocking a number of employees by “publicly expressing a preference for white doctors” in 2018.

A BMI representative says Cane’s comments led to an internal investigation of the executive, though the company declined to comment on any specific actions taken. “I made a very unfortunate statement several years ago that I have regretted deeply ever since,” Cane told Rolling Stone via a company representative. Last year, Cane was recognized by the National Music Publishers Association for lifetime service.

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