By Leslie Buttonow
International House of Blues Foundation was first established in 1993 as a charitable arm of the House of Blues that could be used to bring the arts to schools and communities through programs that promoted cultural understanding, encouraged creative expression, and manifested their core belief of Unity In Diversity.
More than 25 year later, and now known as the House of Blues Music Forward Foundation, they’ve impacted over 1,000,000 young lives and invested $25 million towards transformational music opportunities for youth from under-represented communities, to create a more vibrant and diverse music industry.
The foundation and its initiatives are currently being propelled by executive director Nurit Smith, who draws upon her unique combination of experience as a performer and creator as well as two decades of involvement within organizations such as Blue Man Group, SAG-AFTRA Foundation and Grand Performances in Los Angeles.
Music Forward also worked closely with The WiMN this past spring to create an exciting panel and mixer at Live Nation that brought together powerful industry leaders to provide valuable insights for women in the music industry. Below, Smith shares some of her own insights and aspirations for women in music, and how Music Forward is helping to make them a reality for many young women with similar aspirations.
The WiMN: You have formal training in theater and dance. How did those skills and your love of the performing arts influence and benefit you as you advanced your career in entertainment with organizations such as Blue Man Group, SAG-AFTRA Foundation and Grand Performances?
NS: It took a while for me to see how much my artistic upbringing has influenced my organizational practice. But once I made the connection, there were direct lines with how I shape live performances and how I shape organizations. Rolling up my sleeves, creating something from nothing with an ensemble, and ensuring that everyone’s voice is included in the process is linked to my belief in shared leadership and my understanding of the generative nature of progress.
Also, the arts are increasingly acknowledged as a key force in developing the capacity for human connection. A desire to connect with the people and world around us drives much of my work. And I hope it has made me a more empathetic and engaged leader. I feel very fortunate to be involved in the arts!
The WiMN: And presumably, those experiences also helped prepare you for your current role with Music Forward. What aspect of your current role would you say you most enjoy?
NS: I have been moved by the young people I have met who are determined to influence their lives and ours. I am inspired by them, their stories and their sense of hope. It’s so easy to be cynical these days, right? Knowing that Music Forward is making a direct impact on the next generation helps turn thoughts of futility into inspiration.
The WiMN: Music Forward creates opportunities for disadvantaged young people to connect with industry insiders and showcase their talents, through programs such as Bringing Down the House. Any particular stories stand out in your mind of a young musician this program really impacted?
NS: Kayla, 18, is an alumna of Music Forward’s emerging artist program “Bringing Down the House” in Las Vegas. She just graduated from High School. Born in Wisconsin, 10-year-old Kayla and her mother moved to Las Vegas after her father was incarcerated for drug dealing. Shortly thereafter, Kayla’s mother and her new stepdad succumbed to drug addiction and Kayla was placed in the foster care system. This began a journey of multiple foster homes and ultimately, homelessness. During this time, Kayla found music and Music Forward. She was accepted into our 2017 Bringing Down the House class. Kayla says it changed her life. She learned how to network, build confidence and understand the business of music. She was accepted to and is attending Berklee School of Music this fall to continue studying music!
The WiMN: Your foundation, in partnership with Live Nation, is also getting ready to announce the three winners of the Live Nation US Concerts scholarship Program for your fall 2019 semester. How are programs such as this helping young women, in particular, to advance their music & entertainment careers?
NS: Music is a powerful force in people’s lives – a universal language that influences everyone. That’s why it’s so important to make sure all viewpoints are represented in its creation and dissemination. Understanding this well, Music Forward invites and empowers young people from around the country to follow their dreams into the music industry, enrich it with their diverse voices and perspectives, and ultimately change it for the better.
Music Forward is dedicated to providing both educational and experiential programs to support young people from all backgrounds interested in music industry careers. 83% of our participants in 2018 identified as youth of color and 50% were young women. One scholarship, the Tiffany Green Operator Scholarship, was established to support women pursuing careers in live entertainment. This is the second year that the US Concerts Scholarship has been awarded to a young woman. We see all our programs as a hand up into the industry.
The WiMN: In general, have you seen more opportunities or success stories for women in music over the years?
NS: Over time the trend is positive in certain sectors of the music industry where more women are finding success. There are many more models now for our young women to see pathways for themselves and intentionality in accelerating opportunities for women. But there is still much more to be done. Why is it still newsworthy when a female producer is nominated or a female executive reaches the top office? Salary parity is still a challenge and systemic in nature. Music Forward is dedicated to championing a more inclusive music industry and helping create spaces for industry leaders to work with the next generation and experience first-hand the impact of their guidance.
The WiMN: Any tools, tips, or advice you’d share with women looking to make a move to either jump-start or advance their career in some aspect of the music industry?
NS: Don’t hesitate. Find mentors and grow your network. Meet people. Young adults who are at-risk for going down the wrong path but have access to a mentor are 130% more likely to hold leadership positions.
The WiMN: How can our readers become involved with Music Forward as a donor, volunteer or other opportunities?
NS: Yes, all of that! You know that mentor thing I keep mentioning? Join us on a panel, at workshops and events to inspire the next generation. And join the Music Forward Alliance! Our membership group offers a way to stay close to the youth we serve and their stories that are inspiring us. Alliance members help us envision and create a brighter future for thousands of young people while at the same time evolving an industry.
I encourage The WiMN readers to join the movement; get involved and donate at hobmusicforward.org.