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.
When DJ Rebekah read about the allegations of sexual assault surrounding fellow DJs Erick Morillo and Derrick May in 2020, she saw the same instances of sexism and harassment that she experienced early in her career. “I just realised shit, this stuff hasn't changed,” Rebekah told me. “I've been around this industry for over 20 years and nothing's changed.”
As a survivor of sexual abuse in the industry herself, Rebekah set up #ForTheMusic, a campaign to expose the music industry’s sinister underbelly and was inundated with stories from people who left the industry. “I've had many women contact me and say their experience has pushed them out and they've lost so much confidence,” says Rebekah. “There's cases of women DJs having residences in clubs and bars and suffering from harassment, and then they've just stopped their residences.”
The cases Rebekah found align with industry reporting that points to an alarmingly widespread issue that has yet to be fully dealt with. In a 2019 report, the Musicians’ Union, which represents 31,000 musicians in the UK, found that 48 percent of respondents said they had experienced workplace harassment, and the union were aware of cases where artists left the industry completely after experiencing sexism or abuse. The prevalence of abuse in the industry was so widespread that according to John Shortell, Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at Musicians’ Union, many people saw sexual harassment as an “occupational hazard” that was “part and parcel of the job”.
Many in the industry believe these figures are a lowball estimate. “I think it's higher,” says Sarah Hildering, the Director of Dance & Electronic at Ingrooves Music Group. In 2020, she helped write the code of conduct on sexual harassment for the Association for Electronic Music. “Women discount sexual harassment for themselves, because they know there will be repercussions.”
Over the last few years, music fans have had to come to terms with allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse directed at some of the biggest names in the industry. These include the late Morillo, who was accused of sexual assault by numerous women; techno DJ May, who was accused of assault by four women and Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons, who has numerous allegations of sexual misconduct against him detailed in the HBO Max documentary On The Record. In 2021, actor Evan Rachel Wood and four other women named Marilyn Manson as their abuser; in 2022, multiple women came forward to accuse former BBC Radio 1 DJ Tim Westwood of sexual misconduct. Westwood, Manson, Simmons and May have all denied the allegations against them.
Women may be starting to come forward, but the music industry still seems behind the times when it comes to tackling abuse. Why are people leaving the industry and what can be done to stop this exodus?
Stories of artists who quit music after being harassed are commonplace at Good Night Out, an organisation that helps bars and venues better respond to sexual harassment – so much so that many have questioned the mark such a loss has made on the industry. “You mourn the lost potential of the survivors who've been harmed to the extent that their creativity just ended there,” says Kai Stone, the head of communications and partnerships at Good Night Out. “All of those records and gigs that didn't happen because of somebody else's abusive choices and us not having the set up in place to either prevent that or respond to that.”
Many see the problem of abuse in the music industry as a gendered issue. Shortell tells me anecdotally that around 95 percent of reports of harassment or abuse to the Musicians’ Union are from women. Calls for more women in leadership positions have been touted as a key way to end this toxic work culture, but the experiences of some show how important it is to view the issue through an intersectional framework.
When former musician and gig promoter Alex spoke about an assault they experienced at a venue, they were expelled by their community and their identity as a queer, non able-bodied person made them feel even more of a target. Their name has been changed to protect their identity. “All these people that I was involved with were cis, able-bodied white people. I'm not cis or able-bodied. There were all these guys against me, telling everyone that I was crazy now.”
Louise, a woman of colour who has worked in music PR since she was 21, describes the toxicity of the industry as “like high school” and stressed that racism, along with sexism, played a huge part in the abuse she received in her job. Like Alex, she is speaking anonymously to protect her identity. “One thing I've really experienced is abuse from white women,” she tells me. “That translates into repetitive personal attacks, bullying, and gaslighting. Every person of colour that works in my sector of the industry has mental health problems and that's exacerbated by all these various types of abuse.”
This environment can become even more toxic for young people, who are often forced by the higher ups at their workplace into uncomfortable situations with older male artists that they are unable to cope with. “There's been experiences where I have been put into really precarious negative situations,” Louise explains. “I've been abused myself by people in the industry, and you don't even feel like you can tell anyone about it, because people make you feel that it's your fault.”
Even those who weren’t on the end of abuse were often pushed out if they didn’t fall in line. George, who is also speaking anonymously, worked in dance music for ten years but left after growing tired of the toxic environment. “I always tried to say something if I wasn't comfortable, or if I saw something that I didn't like, but a lot of the time when I did that, I was gaslit. I was kind of worked out of situations because people would just gloss over stuff.”
The industry’s culture of silence has been named by many of my sources as one of numerous reasons why abusers are never outed. “People rally around artists who don't even make that much money because they're on a certain roster,” George tells me. “If you get onto those big agencies, you'll have protection no matter what.”
This issue was highlighted in a 2021 BBC Three documentary Music’s Dirty Secrets: Women Fight Back, when the ex-girlfriend of London rapper Octavian alleged that she was offered £20,000 to sign a non-disclosure agreement to keep quiet about the abuse she suffered in their relationship. Octavian has denied all allegations, telling the BBC the accusations were “only one – grossly distorted – side of a troubled relationship”.
There are renewed calls to curtail the spread of abuse in the industry. The Musicians’ Union are calling for stronger protections for freelancers under the Equality Act and better HR practices. “Just as we do health and safety assessments, we can build sexual harassment risk assessments, so looking at things like who's worked with who, when are they working together, is alcohol going to be consumed, to minimise those risks,” says Shortell.
For Stone and her team at Good Night Out, their focus on educating industry workers on how to tackle harassment has been positive. “We've been quite buoyed by the response from venues who have still sought our training, which has moved online, despite going through such a horrible financial time,” she continued. “If everyone had a similar standard of what is acceptable and what's not acceptable, then hopefully there would be a lot less instances of harassment and violence.”
Along with re-educating individuals on what sexual harassment is, Hildering believes a direct and aggressive campaign of accountability is the best way to get through. “At AFEM I sent them this idea that we should put a super strong PR campaign like what a Fairtrade brand has, and just promote the shit out of it so that every company that doesn't get that stamp from us, you automatically start to doubt the company or have questions.”
The work that still needs to be done is intense and arduous, but opening up the conversation has allowed some survivors to embark on a well-overdue path towards healing. For Rebekah, the reception to #ForTheMusic has shown her the value of giving survivors room to talk. “I had one girl come up to me at a venue in Berlin, and she sat down and said, ‘I'm one of the girls that wrote the testimonials’ and just thanked me and obviously that broke me. I know that it's making a difference to these women's lives and to the victims lives.
“It'd be easier for me not to do this and to keep my mouth shut – like I've been doing for the last 20 odd years – but I can't pretend anymore. I can't turn a blind eye anymore.”
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