This article is part of Open Secrets, a collaboration between gal-dem and VICE that explores abusive behaviour in the music industry – and how it has been left unchecked for too long. Read gal-dem’s Open Secrets articles here, and read VICE’s Open Secrets articles here.
Abuse in the music industry is pervasive. Almost half of all musicians in the UK say they’ve experienced sexual harassment at work and citing the culture of the industry, only one in five of them felt that they were able to report it. Only a handful of people in the music industry say that their contracts don’t have any mention of policies or procedures in place to deal with any incidents of sexual harassment, according to the Musicians’ Union.
When the #MeToo movement went viral in 2017, highlighting allegations of abuse in Hollywood, conversations about when the music industry would have its own reckoning started shortly after.
In April, multiple women came forward in a joint investigation between the Guardian and the BBC to accuse former Radio 1 presenter Tim Westwood of sexual misconduct, including groping and predatory behaviour. Another woman subsequently came forward to allege that he had sex with her when she was only 14.
In 2021, BBC documentary Music's Dirty Secrets: Women Fight Back shone a light on the abuse faced by women at the hands of those at every level from artists to senior executives. In 2020, documentary On the Record exposed the sexual abuse and harassment allegations against Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons, showing how misogynoir has kept Black women in the industry silent for decades. Both Simmons and Westwood have denied all accusations.
There is an undeniable problem. But without a clear path to justice, many survivors have instead used social media to speak out; posting photos or video evidence and detailing horrific events, often prompting others to come forward. However, even with the support they receive online, there are still roadblocks when it comes to accusing high-profile figures of abuse. In the UK, strict libel laws mean that speaking out on your own experiences can lead to defamation suits, silencing victims once again.
So while it’s known that abuse is rife within the industry, it can be difficult to see a clear route out. So we spoke to women currently working across different sectors – from singers and DJs to managers and promoters – about the state of the music industry and how they’d like to see accusations of abuse handled in the future. – Nana Baah
‘Just because someone is talented doesn't mean you can allow them to treat people like that’
I've been in the music industry for five years now, and initially I was so excited, but the longer you're in it, the more you start to notice things. I've heard countless stories from women who have been in situations that they are scared to talk about, because they’re worried about their future in the industry. You don't want to face any repercussions when it's not you that’s done anything wrong. Usually, saying something could be to your own detriment because people are either going to question you or make it seem like you're making it up.
From the get go, I could tell it was a boys club. There are women there, but sometimes it feels like they just have to just put up with it so that they can progress. There are a lot of men with really big egos and they're all bouncing off each other and it's easier for them to survive when everyone thinks the same. It’s everyone – from managers to artists – who people put on such a high pedestal so that you have to treat them like the gods, but just because someone is talented doesn't mean you can allow them to treat people like that.
It makes me even more upset that people aren’t shocked when they hear about allegations. If someone’s big enough it’s still kind of swept under the rug and no one talks about it. They try to keep it hush hush and have an NDA signed. It makes them as if they’re untouchable.
It really made me re-evaluate whether I wanted to pursue a career, because at the time I didn't feel very optimistic about change. I just thought, it's very likely that I'm going to have to come into contact with these people on a daily or weekly basis. It's sad because that's not what music is about and I think it's a shame that people are getting their dreams and aspirations cut short. It’s putting off talented young women from actually pursuing their dreams and being an important part of the music industry. We have so much to offer perspective wise and just can’t because of selfishness.
There's been more awareness and I do see the beginnings of change. Maybe smaller, newer labels with open minds will make a difference but it’s really important to actually hold people accountable. You know, really naming and shaming people. - Robyn James, international marketing at Universal
‘Everyone on social media will be like, ‘We need to protect women!’ but then another big story comes up and everyone forgets’
When I first came into the industry, around four years ago, I found myself being quite anxious in these spaces. I felt like I didn’t have enough experience, which made me feel uncomfortable, so I would always blame myself rather than the actual environment. Over time though, I’ve been making a network of people and realising that they have similar experiences to me, so it wasn't just me, or just my personality. It’s that these environments really aren’t welcoming to women, especially Black women.
There was a point where I did have second thoughts about being in the industry. I used to work at Radar Radio and, after that happened, I pretty much just dropped out of working in music for a good year because I thought maybe the industry isn't for me. I tried to work a “regular” job and I realised that actually I really do love music.
People are definitely trying, now that conversations like this one are being had. People definitely do want change, it’s just got to come quicker. It’s not a priority for people and it's hard to watch. Most people just forget unless something big has happened, then everyone on social media will be like, ‘We need to protect women!’, and it will go on for a little while, but then another big story about something else comes up and everyone forgets. I think people just need to be a bit more compassionate. Maybe this exists somewhere already but forums and safe spaces for people who work in music to get legal advice would help because that can be so expensive. - Jess Ajose, content producer & DJ
‘Abuse thrives when the consequences of the abuse are perceived to be greater than the abuse itself’
My first real taste of the music industry was sexual assault. After a work gig, a well-known music PR forced himself on me in the back of a cab when I was 20 – he was more than ten years my senior. I swallowed it for a long time, partly because I invalidated the attack to myself (“well, at least I wasn’t actually raped”) but mostly because I was scared to challenge someone who wielded far more power than me. Working in music journalism was my dream job and I was terrified of losing the progress I’d made, so I simply shut up. As I got older I became more confident and learned not to tolerate bullshit, which eventually led me to publicly speak out about my own experience, as well as the wider on-goings of abuse in the music industry.
Abuse thrives when the consequences of the abuse are perceived to be greater than the abuse itself, so victims are encouraged to stay quiet for the greater good. Usually that greater good is a man’s career, keeping up company appearances, or avoiding the nuisance that is formal reporting. The latter often brands you as difficult to work with, a risky hire, or a plain liar. The first way the music industry silences women is by gatekeeping men’s roles, regardless of their competence or behaviour. The second is by creating the illusion that we should be thankful to even be here.
Blaming the “culture” of the music industry is the biggest deception of them all. Informal work environments shouldn’t be breeding grounds for inappropriate behaviour; partying with someone doesn’t invite sexual misconduct. Alcohol doesn’t assault women – people do. The problem isn’t our behaviour but the fantasy men project onto it. Going to a club show and accepting a drink from a male colleague doesn’t mean we want to sleep with you. It means we would like a drink.
Another big problem is that a lot of music-adjacent companies don’t have an HR representative, let alone HR departments. This often leads to women colleagues counselling and supporting each other through abusive situations while the perpetrator continues unchallenged or unaware.
Until there are more women in positions of power and companies investing in unbiased HR teams, nothing will change. Until abuse is challenged professionally, financially and legally – the only way men learn – nothing will change. It’s not enough to just have a woman sitting at the table. - Rachel Grace Almeida, deputy editor of Crack Magazine
‘The biggest misconception is that it’s really easy to come forward’
Maybe this is controversial to say but very often when men are in power, which is 99.9999 percent of the time in this business, those men turn a blind eye [to abusive behaviour]. I’ve heard so many firsthand experiences where friends have gone to their bosses to talk about incidents and their claims are totally minimised. Many of us know people who have been accused of abuse and their bosses have punished them with silly things like taking away a ticket to a show or putting them on leave for a month. but then they’re right back there in their job again. Music industry veterans need training on how to handle certain subjects, because they can’t keep laughing it off.
I work for myself so there’s no protocol to speaking up, but that makes it even scarier. I don’t have any kind of safety net to fall back on, and if I did become some kind of pariah then it’s completely detrimental to my career. But I do think now that I’ve spoken about the abuse I encountered very early on, which I did recently about two and a half years later, I feel a bit more comfortable being outspoken about the subject.
The biggest misconception is that it’s really easy to come forward. People think ‘this person did you wrong so why wouldn’t you just tell everyone?’ But we’re made to feel like our claims aren’t going to be listened to or welcomed and that’s when most people keep quiet. And then keeping quiet just enables more and more abuse and it’s this vicious cycle.
When I eventually reported the abuse I experienced to the boss of my abuser, I had to go through a very long and traumatic process of reliving every second of it, and was made to tell the story more than once. I had to deal with the boss telling me he’d never been through anything like this before and how hard he was finding it. He would also say things like “I’ve never known this person to be like this” or “I’ve been on holiday with him” and “I’ve seen how he acts around women, I just can’t believe it”.
That made it so much harder than it needed to be and there were so many points when I was ready to just stop. Halfway through I thought about dropping all the claims because at this point it’s affecting my work and my wellbeing.
I don’t know how it would work in practice but I think that label, publishing, management and employment contracts should all have abuse clauses in them. So if someone comes forward with a claim of abuse towards the artist, and to an extent it can be verified because we know it’s often hard to prove abuse, then I think that the person should be automatically dropped, and any royalties should go towards an appropriate charity. - Phoebe Gold, artist management
‘My social media was trailed through to bring up examples of why I may have been “lying”’
Abuse of power is a really big issue within the industry. People think they can use the power that they have in order to gain things immorally or take advantage of people or manipulate people.
There’s a power imbalance between old, straight, white men at the top who protect each other and the toxic culture that they’ve created, and the women and young people that they hire. I think when there are women who are eager to get into the industry, to work, to apply themselves to the job – those same men at the top of the food chain take complete advantage of them. There’s just this protection of abusive men across the board. It can be the artist, managers, producers, anybody. And I think it’s actually a wider societal problem to solve. We need to be teaching men how to be and how to respect women, rather than teaching women how to navigate an industry where this toxic, completely inappropriate and sometimes abusive culture has been cultivated.
I have spoken out in the past, and I know a lot of others who have too – but I felt completely gaslit and threatened, especially legally. As a result I would say I was also targeted. My social media was trailed through to bring up examples of why I may have been “lying”. I also know others who have brought things up and it’s been buried in paperwork, hidden behind contracts or they’ve straight-up not been believed, especially when it comes to sexual or physical abuse.
I think people believe that the music industry is a democracy: one big club where everybody who works in it, especially at big companies, is on the same level. So everyone’s in on this conspiracy to protect people who are abusive, as long as they’re making us money. But what people don’t necessarily understand is the hierarchy, the structures and the politics that exists within that are what prevent people at the ‘bottom’ from really making changes.
We need to subvert the current power dynamic and put more women, more nonbinary people, more Black and Brown people in positions of power – but representation alone doesn’t automatically solve the issue. They have to be people who have worked and shown merit and are about protecting everyone. I would also put in place a structure where, if you call something out, the right protocol is taken. The music industry has this vibe of “we’re all creative, we’re all friends, we’re like a family”, and I think that’s actually a really toxic trait because it stops people from speaking out because they’re seen as disloyal. That’s a gaslighting technique in itself. - Parris OH, artist partnerships manager
‘There’s this false narrative that you have to put up with it because “that’s just the way things are”’
Abusive behaviour is such a huge issue in the music industry because it’s such an issue in everyday life. I also think certain behaviours have been practiced for so long that they’ve become the norm and it’s a cycle that has to be broken. It can be anything from manipulation to harassment and beyond. The [gender] power imbalance is something that’s been swept under the rug, but it’s so obvious and hard to deny. Also historically, people who have spoken out about abuse and the things that they have suffered have been silenced for so many reasons: embarrassment, shame, lack of support, lack of accountability from the perpetrators. Having procedures in place to help deal with when abusive situations are uncovered is one thing, but following through and supporting survivors and making sure incidents are dealt with accordingly is a whole different ball game – which is why I completely understand the apprehensions women have when it comes to speaking up, because sometimes it doesn’t feel safe. While there are positive stories where people have spoken up and perpetrators have been dealt with those stories are grossly outweighed by the more unfortunate narratives.
Based on my experiences and those of people I’ve confided in and spoken to over the years, I can confidently say that most of us have had horror stories of being targeted, gaslit, threatened and more negative experiences when it comes to speaking out against aggravated behaviour. There’s this false narrative that you have to put up with it because ‘that’s just the way things are’. No. You do not have to put up with it. There are organisations who specifically dedicate their time to making the industry a safer place and they will just continue to grow. We’re now seeing repercussions such as [artists’] catalogues being removed from streaming services, people being demonetised, being dropped from their labels – and while I still think there’s quite a long way to go, I do believe that we’re on the right road.
I think the biggest problem is a lack of education and understanding when it comes to abuse. The mental, emotional and physical journey that one goes through is completely unimaginable, and I think that’s something that holds us back. A lot of people fundamentally just do not understand what a survivor has gone through. Whether that be harassment or a situation where they were physically or emotionally harmed, there’s just such a lack of education around what that actually means.
If I could change three things tomorrow, first I’d change the criminal justice system. I think it’s incredibly flawed and has let victims down time and time again. I’d also create more safe spaces and support systems for people to speak up against their abusers. And I’d implement a mandatory education [industry-wide] of what constitutes ‘abuse’, because even to this day I see people in real life and online speaking about situations that they don’t think are “that deep”, but they absolutely are. - Alexandra Ampofo, live music promoter
‘If money is involved, who do you think will be protected? The victim or the person who makes bank?’
Sadly I know of those who have been abused by people in the industry, which can range from being felt up by a colleague at a party to rape. I wouldn’t say I feel empowered at all about knowing what to do, as all I can do is decline working with an abuser, inform my colleagues about what I know, and then end up watching a different company work with them as they either don’t know or don’t care. It isn’t my place to warn everyone I know when it didn’t happen to me, and I don’t feel comfortable sharing a trauma that isn’t mine. Womxn I know shrug off half the stuff that has happened to them – I certainly have!
Abuse gets covered up because the person that did it is seen as some bigshot, whose life could be ruined because they “got too drunk” one night or “were going through a really hard time” or whatever bullshit excuse there is. If money is involved, who do you think will be protected? The victim or the person who makes bank?
I could say mandatory education, hire more women, and an immediate firing to any person that is accused for sexual harassment, but there will be people who spend those training sessions on their phone, there will be women who think they’re there for men’s pleasure, and there will be people who will lie.
The attitude of people being untouchable needs to change – some feel they can do anything they want because they have never faced any consequences. If people had something to lose, they might think differently on how they behave. We’re all human, yet there are those who think they’re gods.
Octavian was the first time I've seen a credible accusation of abuse and the artist get dropped by everyone immediately… He’s still on streaming platforms with fans still listening daily, but people will jump on them like influencers going to Dubai. There can always be a price to compromise someone’s morals, but I think people are caring way more about looking like a shit so are watching what they say or do thanks to social media being the mass word of mouth it is. - Amy Azarinejad, senior publicist
‘There’s a mob mentality coming from the fans and supporters of these people who will help to put question marks over you’
When I wrote my piece for VICE, I was wondering why these things keep happening and then women are silenced and don’t get a moment to share their truth without repercussions. The music industry itself is fairly male dominated which means it becomes a breeding ground for many of the toxic, archaic and misogynistic views that still exist. And because there are so many men, they exist quite loudly. When I shared my article, I had people reaching out to me and sharing their stories. That domino effect certainly helps people in feeling empowered.
Speaking up certainly does come with a backlash though. There’s a collection of people who will always think there’s justification as to why it’s happened to that woman and they’ll try to project it on them. There’s a mob mentality coming from the fans and supporters of these people who will help to put question marks over you.
I think it’s positive that we’re seeing more young women get those top positions within the industry, whether that’s at major labels or in PR. We can then start to question the infrastructure and policies in place and whether they’re fit for purpose. Another problem is that when people aren’t prosecuted for their actions, the validity of the claims are questioned and people feel like ‘oh, well we can’t really do anything’.
We should be working towards a time in which women, if they’re working at labels or PR companies or whatever it might be, are aware of policies in place that protect them and people they can go to if they need help. It would be great to hear about some long-term initiatives that have actually been put in place to help women. It should be part of your induction. You want to know your company would support you when it comes to mental health, this should be the same in that you can actually report issues and you will be supported.
Things become political very quickly – you might have heard something about someone but you don’t feel you want to say anything because you’re concerned about your position or how it would affect you. It should never be like that. We should be making an absolute priority of women’s health and safety. - Amber Smith, radio presenter
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
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