Image: Nick Castle
Image: Nick Castle

MUSIC

Sexism, drugs and rock ’n’ roll – when will the music industry finally wake up to #MeToo?

While Hollywood has seen a wave of exposure, the louder, brasher, more open music industry has been comparatively silent. It’s time that changed, says Eve Barlow

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By Eve Barlow on

In Hollywood, I interview a lot of actors. Most of them are dull. Interviewing actors is not as you might expect, because actors have nothing to say. They are professional to a fault, finely tuned to unveil little of their personality. Most of that has to do with jeopardising future work. The slightest of controversies can do that. So they keep shtum. Until you tell them that, outside of this specific encounter, you're actually a full-time music journalist…

“Whoa! That is SO cool,” they say, abandoning script. “You must have so many stories! Have you been on a tour bus? Have you been onstage?! Do you know where I can score better weed?” I try to slip in the fact early because, once it's known, the exchange turns into a conversation and it becomes more about them trying to impress me than the other way around. It substantiates my theory that actors are all wannabe rockstars, but they were too square to see it through. As soon as they know they're talking to their interpretation of whatever a “rock journalist” is (ie Lester Bangs, Creem Magazine, the 1970s), it's their moment to realise that dream – to be the mythological frontperson.

In the post-Weinstein Hollywood we live in, this reaction still serves and it says a lot about why the music industry hasn't seen as rapid a fallout from the controversy as the film industry. At the start of February, Uma Thurman was the latest actress to speak out against Weinstein's sexual misconduct in the wake of the #MeToo movement, one that followed reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey's staunch work for The New York Times, last October, in breaking the allegations.

While Tinseltown has seen a wave of exposure (Ashley Judd, Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Salma Hayek are a few who shared their experiences), the louder, brasher, more open music industry has been comparatively silent. There have been some forthright voices on the fringes. Alice Glass spoke out against her former Crystal Castles bandmate Ethan Kath, who allegedly groomed her from the age of 15 and subjected her to a decade's worth of abuse. Amber Coffman (formerly of the Dirty Projectors) took to Twitter to accuse a prominent publicist of sexual assault two years ago. Pop star Kesha, who has been in an ongoing legal battle to free her from her recording contract with her alleged abuser, Dr Luke, remains the defiant face of the movement. She's on an island of her own making, one that's almost become a warning sign to other potential victims as to the triggering effects of having to endlessly relive your abuse if you do take legal action.

While Tinseltown has seen a wave of exposure, the louder, brasher, more open music industry has been comparatively silent

Kesha became the Grammys’ tool this year to – for want of another word – deal with the issue, following the Golden Globes' own Times Up appeal. She was hurled out to perform her song Praying. As moving as it was (and I will fight for Kesha), was it truly about her emancipation or was it victim gore? I'm still unsure as to who really benefits from seeing one woman's pain over and over again, a woman who we put in a position of vulnerability by championing her for being the drunk girl at the party. Kesha aside, you may be asking: "Why is the music industry not seeing equal levels of backlash?"

I'm not. It comes as little surprise to me. Rock ’n’ roll behaviour necessitates entry into the music industry and the culture couldn't be more different. How can you regulate an industry that lives and dies upon the idea that it defies regulations? You can’t.

In September 2012, a dream came true and I was hired as the deputy editor of NME. News this week that NME – a rock ’n’ roll institution – has stopped its print edition is a total heartbreaker. But that doesn't rewrite its often-troubled history. In my tenure, it was a pressurised environment where the energy was largely masculine, adopted by both men and women.

During that era, the boys' club always won – despite appearances. Outwardly, you looked at the staff make-up and it was impressively balanced, but it's not enough to put women in seats – you have to empower them. “Oh, is this part of your feminist agenda again?” was a regular rebuttal whenever we called to put more female artists on the cover, or have more female representation at the NME Awards, or play songs we loved on the stereo. Somehow, every woman at NME had to report to a male superior and most were undermined. The worst part of it was that the men didn't recognise their actions. NME – at least a few years ago – was not an empowering place to be a woman.

In Hollywood, the criticism is that women aren't just the victims in the #MeToo movement, they are also doing all the work. The same can be said of the male-dominated music industry. However, some men have seen the move as an opportunity for self-imposing white-knight status upon themselves, without actually acting like white knights. That further harms women's confidence to come forward. This is why, when the Brit Awards invited guests to wear white flowers as a show of #MeToo solidarity, I shuddered. I thought about all the “woke" men in that room who remained oblivious to the toxicity they've brought and who'd inevitably wear flowers themselves. It's a good look. Owning up to a mistake, however, is a far more admirable look.

The abuse is at every level, whether you're a small artist starting out or a big label. I don't think anybody's quite comprehended how widespread it is yet

Chlöe Howl, a former major-label teen popstar, now aged 22 and independent, was an instigator of the Stop 2018 campaign at the start of this year – a call to end misogyny, bullying and harassment in the British music industry. “Initially, I was quite scared to talk but then I thought, 'Do you know what? Somebody needs to do it,'” she says. “I know so many other artists who are scared to tell their stories because these people who are abusing them make them feel like their career is in their hands.” Howl agrees that the music industry is a whole different kettle of fish to Hollywood. “Everybody is expected to display this rock ’n’ roll behaviour where everyone's young, wild and free. You leave your morals at the door.” The normalisation of consequence-free behaviour came up in a recent interview I did with Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson, who said, “We're rule breakers and provocateurs. Sex is used willingly and wilfully. Women are sometimes unsure of ourselves. We know what's wrong, but we're scared to be seen as prudes."

Beyond the 24-hour, party-people culture, Howl recognises the unique solitude of being an individual entity in a music world that is fractured, tight-knit and constantly experiencing turnover. Not only does it make it riskier to come forward, it also renders it harder to know when you're being mistreated. “Every artist is their own mini business, so each corruption is personal to each individual and everything's really impermanent. There isn't one big company. Artists, publicists, writers, journalists… everyone's on their own separate endeavour. In Hollywood, there are big companies where lots of people have worked. In music, everyone's on their own path. The abuse is at every level, whether you're a small artist starting out or a big label. I don't think anybody's quite comprehended how widespread it is yet.”

Speaking with Laura Snapes, formerly of NME and now of The Guardian, she adds to this point. “Although there are a few powerful figures in the music industry, the paths to mainstream success aren't quite as narrow as they are in film, where a few powerful distributors and producers can make or break your career,” she says. “This is obviously a good thing for musicians' careers, but it means that there inevitably won't be one major, glamorous figure brought down to precipitate a similar domino effect.” There have been individual stories in music, but they reveal themselves in a far smaller capacity and are largely contained within self-policing DIY and punk scenes.

Taking the institutional factors away, the psyche of being an actor is also very different from musicians. Actors play characters, sometimes more than one at once. When they leave their set to go home in the evening, they resume normality. Musicians, however, have no “off” button. For Howl, that means that stars are expected to act up to the glitzy tropes 24/7 and brush off whatever ensues with nonchalance. For Snapes, it's even more nuanced. “When you're a musician, you're selling you,” she add. “You can understand why someone wouldn't want their experiences with sexual assault to colour that. No profile of Rihanna can be written without mentioning how Chris Brown assaulted her. It's obviously not as oppressive as violence or abuse, but it's another form of limiting these women's potential.”

When she was younger, Howl was encouraged to flirt with male producers in order to secure another session. “It starts with small things,” she says. “When you're young, it takes you a long time to realise that being told stuff like that is not right. It affects your psychology in terms of how you think you're meant to be treated or how you should be acting. You question yourself. 'If I don't want to, does that mean I don't want my dream enough?' That's at the bottom of the pyramid. Those little things go unchecked and feed into the abusers who think, 'What else can I get away with?'”

Everybody is expected to display this rock ’n’ roll behaviour where everyone's young, wild and free. You leave your morals at the door

Pop star Kate Nash, now 30, is even more candid in her descriptions after a decade's experience. “Music is the worst industry,” she says. “There's no HR department, there's no SAG, there's no one. And it all takes place in the most unprofessional circumstances. There are obviously terrible things that have happened in Hollywood. But in the music industry, there's no one to tell apart from a journalist. We don't have anyone to go to. Women haven't even opened up to women. It's been a very lonely journey of: 'What is this? Is this OK?' Your lifestyle's a constant party in a bar where everyone's fucked, then you're on a tour bus and you're staying in travel lodges and sleeping on people's floors… It's still a fucking boys' club, isn't it?”

I have a version of the hotel-room story, but that involved a publicist. I've never outed him because the world still feels too small. You have to understand something about the music business: it's the Wild West, everyone's a cowboy and the self-policing leaves a lot to be desired.

When a very famous white rockstar called two female staffers at the NME offices and hurled abuse at them, the concern was not with their wellbeing but with contacting the publicist to ensure he'd continue having a relationship with the mag. Damage limitation trumps human decency. There are countless stories I could tell you like this and they span most music magazines I've worked for. The protection of these sacred cows explains why the likes of Chris Brown (who assaulted his then-girlfriend Rihanna) and R Kelly (who has repeatedly been accused of sexual misconduct towards women and minors) still have thriving careers. It's not just the fans who refuse to square up to the truth – it's them. How can you assume responsibility when people are hired to clean your mess?

Howl offers that the way in which women have been taught to compete with each other has previously made them less inclined to seek solace in one another. “But now there's a revolution happening where we're like, 'No, this is how you want us to feel about each other.’” It's awfully convenient for the men who seek to take all the power to cajole women into fearing one another.

It's ironic that the music industry, with its volume and its openness and its total annihilation of authority, is deafeningly silent, and Hollywood, with its protections and professionalism and closed doors, is growing louder. Ironic, but not a shock. The white flowers are hollow. They were worn on the most debauched night out of the British music industry's year, when everyone was likely praying that the victims didn't ruin the fun for everybody else.

For years, Lauren Mayberry – lead singer of the band Chvrches – has publicly spoken about her horrid experience of sexual misconduct via internet trolling. She penned an op-ed for The Guardian about it as far back as 2013. While she believes that speaking in itself has created a wave of progressive discussion, she, too, has reservations for the future. In an interview with Pitchfork last week, she said: “We have to hope that symbolic gestures like wearing white roses on red carpets will translate into actual action. Will the Grammys actually look around the room, at the people and companies they represent and how they treat people? I don’t know. It has to be more than lip service.” Maybe it’s time the music industry accepted that you don’t have to act rock ’n’ roll to be rock ’n’ roll.

@Eve_Barlow

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Image: Nick Castle
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Music
sexual harassment
#MeToo
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