MUSIC IN THE AGE OF #METOO
Kieran Yates investigates the #MeToo movement in the music industry
It was a movement that rocked Hollywood and beyond, laying bare the imbalance of power. But how far has the music industry come in facing up to its own reckoning? Kieran Yates tunes in
AT A PERFORMANCE AT SYDNEY’S
“I WAS PROCESSING ABUSE AND RAPE and I WAS DEBATING HOW to EXPOSE MY EXPERIENCES ”
Marquee Club last year, Drake, the biggest rapper in the world, interrupted his own set after he noticed a man in the crowd. ‘Yo, stop that sh*t,’ he shouted. ‘If you don’t stop touching girls, I will come out there and f*ck you up.’ It was a moment that went viral. A man groping a woman at a gig? Not surprising. A man publicly interjecting to stop it? So rare that people are still discussing it, a year later.
While Hollywood is reeling from the aftermath of the Me Too movement, the music industry finds itself at a crossroads, slowly waking up to a new reality. It’s not only Drake who is speaking up, calling people out and making headlines by doing so. This past year has seen artists including Lily Allen, Taylor Swift and Björk publicly describe experiences of sexual harassment, while music executives, label promoters and DJs are being more vocal about issues of abuse and an imbalance of power in a way that hasn’t been discussed before. At this turning point, where the long-discussed boys’ clubs of music boardrooms and basement nightclubs are being taken to task, the industry is being forced to look at itself in sharp focus and is starting to realise that the culture will need to shift to survive.
For each female artist who is starting to speak out, there are key women behind the scenes who are driving change. Vanessa Reed is the CEO of PRS Foundation, a company that works to secure fair payment for artists’ work. This year, she hosted the PRS Foundation’s Keychange initiative, which encouraged 1OO festivals worldwide, including The Great Escape in the UK, to commit to a 5O/5O gender balance by 2O22 across live line-ups, conferences and commissions. In 2O17, 84% of headline acts at UK festivals were male, compared to the 3% of female-led acts*. And while festival line-ups are only one part of the industry, they reflect the wider problem in a very public way. For Reed, populating boardrooms with more women and reclaiming real, physical space is an imperative step to reclaiming voices that might have been silenced. Female-led workforces will be well placed to guarantee better equality of rights.
“I WAS ASKED if I WANTED to PLAY CHRIS BROWN and
LIL DICKY. I JUST SAID,
‘I’M NOT PLAYING IT’”
‘The pledge was needed because the gender gap in music has been there for so long,’ she says. ‘Little has changed. High-profile, concrete action that raises awareness, creates a movement and stimulates debate makes it harder for people to justify old routines and formats.’
Singer Lily Allen has been a prominent voice in revealing her own experiences of what it’s like to be at the mercy of old routines and a traditional power structure. ‘I’ve had things happen that I would feel uncomfortable talking about because they’re linked with lots of people I work with. People who are in control of things that affect me,’ she told i News earlier this year. ‘But like Rose McGowan [one of the first actors to speak out against film producer Harvey Weinstein], I reported it to people around me – women! – and no one did anything.’
The singer has also questioned why the music industry is yet to have its own Hollywood-scale Me Too moment: ‘In film and TV, you can choose not to work with any of those people again. You can move country, move out of London to LA. You can’t do that in music. It’s the same bunch of people on both sides of the Atlantic, and it’s inescapable because it’s 15-year-long [artist] contracts.’
It’s a damning summation of what it feels like to be front and centre in an industry that generates $16.1 billion a year. And Allen isn’t alone in highlighting failings from the inside. Back In 2O14, before the words ‘Me Too’ had been uttered on a public stage, a high-profile case shook the music industry. American singer Kesha made allegations of sexual abuse and it opened the floodgates for other women in music to share experiences of harassment. The world watched as the names rolled in.
And earlier this year, the former girlfriend of R Kelly, Kitti Jones, spoke about the sexual and physical abuse she suffered while dating the singer from 2O11 to 2O13, including acts that took place in an alleged ‘sex dungeon’. Public allegations have also been made against prominent figures such as Chris Brown and the DJ David Mueller – who was sued by singer Taylor Swift for groping her at a meet and greet before a concert in 2O13. Both continue to have careers; when Mueller got another job in radio earlier this year, there was a Twitter backlash among Swift’s fans.
So why hasn’t the music world had its Harvey Weinstein moment? It might be the shortage of women at each level who are able to flex their muscles enough to disrupt the status quo: statistics show that only 28% of the music workforce are women, while from 2O13 to 2O18, women made up only 9.3% of Grammy nominees. The link is made, you might assume, by this logic: if women’s contributions to the industry are consistently overlooked, it affects how much power they feel they have in a room. It’s really as simple as that. If we normalise the idea that women in music hold no real power, then how much of this becomes internalised when it comes to speaking up? And how does this affect the actions of men?
The activism spearheaded by women in music, such as Reed, not only pushes men to challenge what they see and speak out, but enables women to drive this discussion further, and redress the balance of other marginalised communities. Women of colour, and those from the LGBTQ+ community, are still depressingly invisible. ‘The conversations that we’re having now aren’t new, but have been heightened by Me Too and a wider acceptance that change is way overdue,’ says Reed. ‘The lack of women at the top of the industry’s existing power structures [including in the boardroom] remains one of the biggest challenges.’
In this light, redressing the power balance becomes crucial. And there are women in positions of authority who are slowly challenging the traditional power dynamic and opening up about their own stories and experiences. Radio 1 DJ and presenter Clara Amfo tells me about a recent example. ‘I was asked if I wanted to play Chris Brown and Lil Dicky, and I politely declined. I just said, “I’m not playing it.” And they were like, “OK, fair enough.”’
Talking about her own experiences of toxic environments and how a new generation of women is changing the narrative, she recalls an encounter early on in her career when she was approached by ‘an older white gentleman’ photographer who had a fascination with ‘photographing black girls’. ‘At the time, I remember thinking he was creepy, and the whole thing being very strange. I don’t think I said “no” outright, but I didn’t end up being involved. Later, I heard allegations that he’d been inappropriate with girls and I was
“PEOPLE MIGHT NOT KNOW HOW to ARTICULATE ABUSE. BUT
ME TOO GIVES THEM a SHORTHAND ”
“NOW, I WOULD HAVE SAID NO STRAIGHT AWAY.
I WANTED to THEN, BUT WAS
so YOUNG, I JUST DIDN’T KNOW the LANGUAGE”
like, “Yes! I knew it.” I went with my gut. Now, I would have said no straight away, and I wanted to then, but was so young in my career I just didn’t know the language.”
Amfo recognises how the vocabulary of the Me Too movement has been an aid for young women in the music industry, too. ‘We like to label things to be able to give them clout,’ she says. ‘So people might not know how to articulate abuse, but Me Too gives them a shorthand.’
Having mentors like Amfo who can advise a new generation as to what is and isn’t acceptable is a powerful force for change, and this kind of solidarity is already happening underground. Earlier this year, Radar Radio, an east London station, was hailed as the future of music broadcasting, and a place that you might hear Drake, Giggs and Katy Perry alongside hilarious takedowns of artists and mixes by the likes of DJ Snoochie Shy and others. These were personalities destined to do big things, and a company destined to challenge big competitors.
Now, Radar Radio has stopped broadcasting. The silence is the result of a mass walkout back in April thanks, largely, to a blog post by Ashtart Al-Hurra, an ex-producer at the station who alleged that she experienced sexual harassment, bullying and intimidation. It’s a notable precedent to set, watching the actions of a music community collectively bring down an institution that enables harassment. It’s refreshing, too – after all, what’s the point of the ‘underground’ if it only replicates the abusive power structures of the mainstream elite?
The downfall of Radio Radar was ultimately caused by the kind of behaviour seen in ‘old, white male boardrooms’, says Al-Hurra. But, she adds, no one is free from being publicly held to account in a post-Me Too world. ‘I was processing abuse and rape and I was debating how to expose my experiences for two months,’ she says. ‘I got to a point where I saw that others had spoken out and so I spoke out, too.’
The radio station’s protests were a start for Al-Hurra. ‘I want this to be the beginning,’ she says. ‘That women like me won’t be quiet and everyone has to recognise that now, even if it’s uncomfortable.’
It’s clear that women won’t be silenced anymore, but what about after they’ve spoken up? Yasmin Lajoie is an artist manager and A&R consultant who is part of Stop 2O18, a campaign to encourage women to speak up and out against sexual assault in the music industry. She says, ‘Sexual misconduct is endemic within the music industry, and vulnerable young people hungry for success, whether as artists and songwriters or behind the scenes, are exploited by predatory older men – and women.’
On the subject of Spotify’s Hateful Conduct policy, a pledge by the company this year to take certain artists off playlists, including accused abusers, in order to avoid being seen as amplifying their conduct (a decision which has since been reversed; the company later decided it didn’t want to play ‘judge and jury’), Lajoie says she’s adamant there are other ways that music companies can take on the labour of care. I ask her if there should be measures in place – like therapy, for example – which could act as a longer-term solution for women who have spoken out.
‘Labels are businesses at the end of the day, and their bottom line is everything. In order to incentivise labels to provide therapy, we need to demonstrate how poor mental health directly affects their profit margin. Therapy for artists and employees is an investment,’ she says.
Music is evolving, thanks to a mix of increasingly woke execs, women at the top, and allies in culture challenging the establishment. The way this might look in the future is through labels providing emotional support for artists who have experienced abuse, men calling out behaviour, or even just encouraging your partner, husband, friend or son to be angered enough to demand support for women in music – even if it means turning off that Chris Brown song you like.
And while more women in the industry are speaking out, and supporting others who do so, moments like Drake’s threat at the Marquee Club represent one facet of the future of music – one where solidarity from men will help trump the old world order that artists such as Lily Allen have endured. Yet as the deafening silence of those failing to get on board gets louder, so too do the voices of women empowered by individuals to speak up. For anyone clinging on to the old world – well, their time might really be up.
“I WANT THIS
to BE THE BEGINNING. WOMEN LIKE ME WON’T be QUIET AND EVERYONE
HAS to RECOGNISE THAT NOW ”
CLOCKWISE Björk, Kesha, Lily Allen, Clara Amfo, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry are taking on the music industry’s boys’ club