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Brand Woke: Smirnoff Sound Collective & Mixmag Take on Diversity in Music


My friend Todd and I were catching up at Wheelhouse, a bike-inspired café tucked in between industrial buildings and cement landscapes. It was open and airy with elements of wood and nature in the evolving downtown Los Angeles neighborhood; a place where locals convene away from the more packed-out, well-known coffee hangouts.

Along with chats about his plans for a mixed reality session in August and some women leaders I knew who could speak from the AR community, he invited me to the Mixmag Lab Smirnoff Sound Collective party that takes place weekly at the publisher’s LA office, which also houses iheartcomix and Mad Decent.

That night I meet Todd down an alley and we enter the already steaming room of the Mixmag LA HQ where Dutch DJ and producer, Afrojack, already had the crowd in a state of overflowing glee.

All eyes and cameras were on the man behind the mixer, from fans dancing and capturing an Insta-Story or Snap to the camera crew capturing different angles of the performance being streamed to Facebook Live.

Right off the bat, it brought me back to the days in San Francisco where dance music was in its rawest form: just the DJ and the dancers, that heat of bodies tucked up in an stark brick-based warehouse dancing our asses off for hours and into the wee morning. The early days of the Boiler Room, Come-Unity, Stompy, Wicked, OM Records, and F8. The only sponsor I can remember from that time may have been Blue Room speakers.


No bottle service. No massive lines to get in and pricey cover charges. No scary security dudes in CIA-esque get ups. No ‘dress to impress’ bullshit.

Just shiny, happy people living the PLUR lifestyle before it was eventually transformed into a multi-billion dollar industry.

Do I pine for those days? Sure, the genuine elements of them. But I’m also not a fan of living in the past or of resisting progress. I much prefer to embrace the now, and in the words of Mike Skinner, how to keep pushing things forward. To applaud brands like Smirnoff and Void Acoustics for investing their money and image over the years to make intimate dance events like Mixmag’s possible not only here in Los Angeles, but in New York City, London, and other Sound Collective invasions like at the recent Parklife Festival in Manchester that featured a stunning, booty-shaking set by Sam Divine.


The live stream at and Mixmag TV enables anyone to be part of the party and enjoy the likes of a super-star cast like Marques Wyatt, Doc Martin, and DJ Dan, or sets from Sita Abellán and Alison Wonderland, to Joe Goddard of Hot Chip and The Two Bears.

What’s really inspiring and progressive about Sound Collective is the array of talent that makes its way to the Lab’s decks and the mission behind this living and breathing branded initiative, which “aims to celebrate, promote and inspire diversity in the wide realm of electronic music across genders, races, sexualities and beyond. It’s a reaction to an industry that at times seems to have forgotten its roots as a place for outsiders to express themselves, with line-ups that are all too often dominated by the same faces from the same backgrounds — but the number one signifier here is genuine talent.

Another critical piece of the program is the element of mentorship and collaboration, to actually walk the unity walk, which has always been at the core of dance music; to bring all walks of life together to celebrate life itself and the love of music from across all spectrums.


Mixmag’s digital editor, Valarie Lee, wrote of these plans back in February in her first-hand coverage of a Mixmag and Smirnoff Sound Collective retreat in Joshua Tree. It brought together DJs and producers to collaborate and discuss the program, and to “connect and receive invaluable guidance from accomplished veterans of the scene and also share studio time with people they might never have otherwise crossed paths with. They’ll create inspiring new tunes that’ll later be released by the Smirnoff Sound Collective — and hopefully shift the dial of diversity in dance music.”

Every industry, but especially the technology and entertainment industries, has finally been forced to take a hard look at their lack of diversity, blatant levels of discrimination, misogyny, and racial and sexual bias. Shit is hitting the fan on a regular basis, but that’s the only way things are going to change for the better.

The music industry is still largely male driven even to this day when you look at corporate executive boards and gatekeepers, all the way to the festival headlining acts or the faces on the Vegas dance club billboards. And guess what, fans and some in the industry are pushing back.

Last week I met up with fellow women in music for the re-launch of Female Frequency Los Angeles at Resident. We each had our own stories to tell and passion to make an impact on our community, and left with a planned mission to collaborate and support female empowerment in music and in our respective fields, from producing and sound engineering, to songwriting and journalism.

Similar to the Catch-22 women experience in the film industry, one of the members, a sound engineer, told of her difficulty in getting projects because they look for a list of credits, which is difficult to obtain when the job opportunities are mostly skewed towards men.

In a New York Times piece, “When a Grip is a Woman,” Melena Ryzik wrote of the all-women crew for the film Band-Aid, led by working actress and writer, Zoe Lister-Jones, for her directorial debut. “In some cases, female crew members came with less experience, because they hadn’t been offered the same opportunities or encouraged as much as their male counterparts,” Ryzik stated, which is a cycle that Ms. Lister-Jones and other female directors highlighted in the piece, including Jessica M. Thompson, the writer-director of “The Light of the Moon,” Jill Soloway and Ava DuVernay “hope to break.”

So it is very exciting and encouraging to discover this empowerment program (why I didn’t know about it before is beyond me…thanks Todd for the intro) coming from a highly regarded media entity like Mixmag and legacy brand like Smirnoff.

This past week at Cannes Lion, Twitter hosted a conversation entitled, The Worldwide Movement is Happening Now, with a focus on clarity in messaging, “We strive to ‘do what’s right’, but don’t always ‘get it right’” when it comes to building “brands through authentic representations of the diverse customers we serve.”

Twitter invited influential African American creative leaders — Geoff Edwards, Co-head of Creative Artists Agency; Keith Cartwright, Executive Creative Director at Butler Shine Stern and Partners; and Jimmy Smith, Chairman, CEO and Chief Creative Officer at Amusement Park Entertainment — to share their thoughts on diversity from a brand and creative perspective, but also through their own personal stories.

Standing on stage but shadowed in front of the large, bright screen, Edwards spoke, “Creativity has the power to transform, has the power to change the way we feel and think. If it’s done in a way that’s positive, it has the power to do all those things.”

As an artist, Edwards would create black characters that reflected his own identity whenever he saw that a person like him was missing in the picture. He would craft these images into popular culture and art pieces, including a painting he did of ‘Brother Man’, a civil war hero that fought along side fellow soldiers “of all different backgrounds.” He also recalled the time he saw the first interracial television kiss between Captain James T. Kirk and Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on the infamous Star Trek episode, and the powerful, long-lasting impact that made on him.

At Cannes Lion and during similar advertising and digital conferences, agencies and brands alike share strategies and insights on how to overcome the growing upheaval of advertising, as ad blocking, skipping, and tuning out increases.

With every year and every Mary Meeker annual review, brands see that a growing number of consumers don’t care hear about how great your mop is, even if it features a Devo jingle, or your gross frozen pizza product, or being yelled at about your one-day white sale on towels. The old banner, pre-roll, and disruptive ad model has become much less effective in today’s mobile-driven, vMPVD, OTT streaming world.

What do they care about? To name just a few…


Human rights.

Animal rights.

Fair pay.


Freedom of speech.


The earth.

Music, art, and creativity.

The human spirit and human stories.

When brands and agencies start caring less about getting awards and giving themselves pat-on-the-back accolades, and start authentically caring more about real causes and real people out there in the world living their life, they’ll be more aware of how they can organically live right along side those people and their businesses will benefit.


Edelman, a public relations firm, just released their third Earned Brand report that surveyed 14,000 people from 14 different countries. The results showed 57 percent of consumers are more likely to buy from or boycott a brand because of its stance on a social or political issue, and are “30 percent more likely to make purchase decisions about a brand based on a brand’s beliefs than they were just three years ago,” as reported by AdWeek.

People really are buying on belief, and brands have a huge potential to gain if you do share your belief and act out on those beliefs,” said Mark Renshaw, global chair of brand at Edelman told AdWeek. “We really think this is an opportunity for brands, and it’s something that all brands should be looking at proactively versus reactively.”

Yes, act out on those beliefs. Proactively versus reactively.

Authenticity and true empathy in a brand-sponsored human story versus jumping on a cause bandwagon, throwing a dash of Kardashian and an off-the-shelf protest march together as a “we care about stuff” brand campaign, and then being surprised at the worldwide backlash.

During Cannes Lion, Twitter’s mission was to launch a “worldwide movement that will shift industry perceptions and impact how companies operate at every level, as well as influence the marketing messages we create.”

Let’s hope this resonated with any decision-makers in the audience.

Right now is seen as the Golden Age of Television as more entertainment content appears in our Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, and CBS All-Access feed every day.

I believe right now is also a time of golden opportunity for content creators in the music industry. To work along side aware and engaged brands in crafting authentic stories about creators and artists, how music and art play a part in moving the needle on diversity and other causes people care about. To share stories of compassion and human connection that resonate with a more aware and belief-driven audience.

For Smirnoff and Mixmag, Lee stated, “At a time when the dance music community has at last become aware of the inadequate representation of women, people of colour and LGBTQ identities. Smirnoff and Mixmag aim to shine some much-deserved light on our Smirnoff Sound Collective artists as they continue to blossom, sharing news about their upcoming releases, gigs and other adventures.”

Cheers to that!

To stay tuned into all the Mixmag Lab happenings at and here.

Kim Owens, editor Kaffeine Buzz, entertainment tech researcher, branding consultant, and content marketer.

Do you have an interesting branded entertainment, cause-related story waiting to be told? Email me or connect with me on LinkedIn.


This article was originally published on Kaffeine Buzz’s Medium profile.


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