Late last year, a group of women in the Australian music industry banded together to stamp out assault and sexism in music. In an open letter titled #meNOmore – inspired by a similar document created by women in the Swedish music industry – a single, potent demand was made: the group wanted “zero tolerance for sexual harassment, violence, objectification and sexist behaviours.” The letter was published on industry news website The Industry Observer, and arrived signed by more than a thousand women working in music, ranging from artists including Courtney Barnett and Tina Arena to journalists, publicists, managers, sound engineers, and workers from every other facet of the industry. The letter was not insignificant; it was an antipodean extension of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, and promised a similar outcome: no more systemic abuse.
In the months since #meNOmore, the conversation around gender equality in the music industry has continued. But women remain relegated to the small print on festival bills, and there’s still uncertainty as to how we should be dealing with abusers, as was proven last week when Sydney band Sticky Fingers, who had taken an indefinite hiatus after being accused of threatening and verbally abusing other musicians, returned to the spotlight. In light of the band’s (mostly) unquestioned comeback, questions have been raised: Was #meNOmore just a list? Or is real cultural change coming?
#meNOmore felt sorely needed. Over the course of 2016 and 2017, two very public accusations of assault forced musicians, industry workers and fans to consider the way the industry treated women. In mid-2017, accusations of assault were levelled towards Ruby Markwell, lead singer of Melbourne folk-punk band The Football Club. Markwell denied the accusations, but the band’s career quickly unravelled anyway, with promoters dropping the group from bills and the band’s guitarist choosing to leave the group. Occurring months prior to Harvey Weinstein’s outing, the accusations towards Markwell left industry practitioners uneasy as to the right course of action; the unofficial #MeToo mantra of ‘believe all women’ hadn’t yet been popularised, and many wanted some kind of ‘proof’ from accusers. It was a messy, heated saga that was never really resolved; many wanted accountability from Markwell, but didn’t know how this should look.
The firestorm over the accusations against Markwell wasn’t the first occasion in which fans and practitioners were divided over allegations of assault. In late 2016, news broke that the frontman of Northern Beaches band Sticky Fingers, Dylan Frost, had allegedly committed acts of racially motivated violence and harassment against two Indigenous musicians.
The band didn’t comment on the accusations at the time, but shortly after the incident, Sticky Fingers announced they would be going on a hiatus to deal with their “internal issues.” Frost also made a separate post stating that he was “incredibly sorry” about the hurt he had caused to individuals over the years, without making specific mention of which individuals he was referring to. In the post, he also made note of the fact that he was struggling with alcohol abuse, and had recently been diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia.
Over the course of 2017 not much was heard from Sticky Fingers, but last Friday, at Sydney’s Bad Friday festival, the band made their live return. The band first announced their comeback with an Instagram post captioned “Look who’s back,” which was followed by photos of the members rehearsing for their eventual Bad Friday show. Once again, the band hadn’t addressed any allegations, and their 'comeback' post garnered over 100,000 likes.
The reaction to Sticky Fingers’ comeback raises serious questions about the legitimacy of #MeToo and #meNOmore in the industry. Aside from some dissent on social media, Sticky Fingers’ return has, by and large, been accepted without question by the Australian music industry. Bad Friday went ahead without a hitch; various music media outlets reported positively on the band’s comeback; and the band’s team, members of which are signatories on the #meNOmore letter, seemingly remains the same as when they went on hiatus more than a year ago.
If ‘zero tolerance’ is the #meNOmore mantra, why hasn’t it applied here? Sticky Fingers are a wildly popular band, whose treatment will undoubtedly set the precedent for future cases of abuse in the industry. In the US and UK, accusations against artists like PWR BTTM and Matt Mondanile have been believed with little question, their cases looked upon by the public with the broader idea that victims of assault and harassment should be inherently believed in. Meanwhile in Australia, such accusations tend to be critiqued, questioned and pulled apart – then forgotten or brushed aside. The difference is alarming. The Sticky Fingers situation is one of the Australian music industry’s most high profile cases of alleged abuse yet; if fans and workers alike choose to turn a blind eye to the allegations against Sticky Fingers, #meNOmore might not be able to fully take hold. It might fade away altogether.
Many have critiqued social media callouts as the online equivalent of a baseless witch hunt; but as The Preatures lead singer Isabella Manfredi says, there are reasons for social media callouts. “Nobody is talking about getting rid of due process, and call-out culture has a trial-by-media vibe, which degrades our community as a whole,” she tells Noisey. “But it’s important to understand why victims have turned to social media – because the law has failed them...I’m yet to hear a story from a victim that I can’t ‘substantiate’ by talking to her. The anxiety and fear about taking it any further is a pretty clear flag.”
Manfredi suggests that the music community needs to address accusations of assault and harassment, including those that traverse legal grey areas. “For serious cases of coercion, rape, groping and intimidation, we need to refer them where they belong: with the police,” she says. “But for other incidents, we need to be strong enough as a community to talk about the grey areas without succumbing to self-righteousness and defensiveness.”
Elly Scrine, coordinator of feminist music collective LISTEN and frontperson of electronic trio Huntly, believes the Sticky Fingers example will set the tone for how the industry deals with abusers in future. “For those of us working every day to try and enact cultural change in this space, this is disillusioning,” they say. “We need those who have been accused of hurt to realise that “sorry” doesn’t involve conflating your behaviour with substance abuse of mental illness.”
Scrine says victims need proof they won’t face retraumatisation when coming forward with allegations in order to create an environment safe enough for open discussion. “Standing by victims is crucial if we want to create a culture in which they actually feel safe to come forward,” says Scrine. “Experiencing the trauma of harassment or assault should never have to be layered with the trauma of having your experiences questioned.”
This aligns with the values of the #meNOmore letter: people who have been assaulted by others in the music industry should be given a “safe haven to share their stories and seek support around sexual harassment.”
Proper accountability and rehabilitation, the goal Sticky Fingers said they were working towards in their hiatus Facebook post, is the end goal of #MeToo and #meNOmore. But Sticky Fingers’ actions since their return have flown in the face of that. “Accountability is not about hiding away, it’s about actively working towards change and addressing problematic behaviours,” they say. “A very public announcement of a ‘comeback’ like this flies in the face of everything we know about accountability as a process, and restorative justice.”
A proper accountability process, according to Scrine, requires prioritisation of victims, rather than isolation of the perpetrator. “Accountability means genuinely admitting to and taking responsibility for poor behaviour and committing to addressing it,” they say. “It’s not about a big apology that wipes the slate clean, or excusing it and using mental health or substance abuse to explain it, or disappearing and announcing your return as some cute surprise. Accountability in the music industry means responding to survivors and using your platform to communicate to your fans that you don’t want them to defend your bad behaviour.”
Social media callouts can seem like trial-by-fire, but most of the time they’re calling for accountability and restorative justice, as opposed to ostracism or destroyed careers. The treatment of this situation shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how systems of accountability work; taking time for ‘rehabilitation’ without acknowledgement of the harm done doesn’t help the accused or the accusers.
#meNOmore and #MeToo aren’t witch hunts; they’re victim-led movements seeking long term, sustainable progress. “I believe people are absolutely capable of change, and I am willing to engage with people who have worked to address abusive behaviour,” says Scrine. “I just rarely see that happening.”
Debates about whether Sticky Fingers are ‘innocent’ or not aside, the allegations against them and the Australian music industry’s lack of inaction bring to light a broader issue: fans and industry workers alike aren’t following through on #meNOmore’s promise of holding the accused accountable and creating safety for victims. Sticky Fingers are working musicians. At some point, they'll release a new album and announce a new tour, and when that happens, there will inevitably be another firestorm over whether it’s ‘right’ to listen to their music and go to their shows. Here’s a real easy way to cut that discussion short: ask for restorative justice, and hold perpetrators accountable every step of the way.
Sticky Fingers declined Noisey's requests for comment.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article stated Isabella Manfredi declined to comment on any specific allegations of assault. Ms. Manfredi was not actually asked about any allegations. Noisey regrets the error.
Shaad D'Souza is Noisey's Australian Editor. Follow him on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey AU.