The Dollars and Desperation Silencing #MeToo in Music
Sexual misconduct is built into the foundation of the music industry. Our data and the stories of over two dozen women show how culture and labor conditions create a perfect storm for abuse.
Illustration by Meaghan Garvey
This piece carries a content warning for descriptions of sexual harassment and assault.
Claire had been working at a record label for just a few months when she went to a show with a senior colleague. She wasn’t keen to drink, she says, but her coworker insisted—just like he had repeatedly asked her to hang out until she agreed for this show. As a young employee, Claire (who asked not to use her real name) worried she couldn’t afford to offend him or seem disinterested, lest she hurt her standing at the company.
Claire doesn’t remember how much she drank that night, and doesn’t know why he then drove them to his house instead of meeting up with their coworkers as planned. She does remember her face pressed up against the car window as he tried to kiss her. Claire says she told her coworker no and pushed him away. But once again, she says, he insisted.
Sluggish and nauseous, she asked to use the bathroom in order to get away. Once inside, Claire says, her coworker sexually assaulted her. Afterwards, she was panicked and frightened—not only of her coworker, but of how the incident might affect her career.
“I didn’t want to be ‘sexual harassment girl,’” she told me. “I thought people wouldn’t want to hire me because they wouldn’t understand, and think I’m being over-sensitive to something that was just normal in the music industry.”
Stories like Claire’s are now being re-examined in light of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, which have affected hundreds of workplaces, including VICE. Over the past two years, I spoke to more than two dozen women in the music industry about their experiences with sexual harassment and misconduct over the course of their careers. They are artists and publicists, assistants and executives, spanning both the major-label and independent music worlds, and across multiple genres. Some have publicly come forward with accusations, while many spoke to me on condition of anonymity, citing fear of retaliation or of damaging their careers. (Other women declined to talk to me altogether, citing non-disclosure agreements.) Taken together, their accounts indicate how deeply the problem is embedded in the music industry, thanks not only to workplace cultures and attitudes but also the labor conditions on which the business is built.
The women who spoke to me described working in a boys’ club where deals are sealed over late-night drinks and at backstage parties. They told stories of powerful men who took advantage of their positions, and explained the risks inherent in speaking out against them. They detailed an industry beset by financial pressure and fierce competition, increasingly reliant on a freelance workforce vulnerable to gaps in labor protections. Music’s misconduct problem doesn't stem from any one of these factors alone—it's a perfect storm that clears a path for sexual abuse to continue unabated. Blocking that path will require reckoning with the very nature of music and the industry and cultures that surround it.
“I didn’t want to be ‘sexual harassment girl,’” Claire said. “I thought people wouldn’t want to hire me because they wouldn’t understand, and think I’m being over-sensitive to something that was just normal in the music industry.”
Throughout pop music history, victims of sexual misconduct and abuse, many of them young women and girls, have often been overlooked by fans, executives, and the media, their stories dismissed amidst, and even canonized as, rock star behavior. When David Bowie died in 2016, he was alternately eulogized as an “icon for sexual liberation” and decried as a statutory rapist for sleeping with underage fans.
Even in the post-#MeToo era, fans and industry professionals have continued to support and elevate the careers of men who are accused of harassment, assault, and abuse. Two weeks after the Weinstein scandal erupted, Caroline, a Capitol Music Group subsidiary, signed a reported $6 million deal with the rapper XXXTentacion, who had been charged with allegedly attacking and strangling his then-pregnant girlfriend in 2016. (When contacted by Noisey late last year, a publicist for XXXTentacion confirmed the deal was on but said the amount was undisclosed.) He pleaded not guilty in December, and is still awaiting trial; his second album, ?, featuring Joey Bada$$ and Travis Barker, comes out Friday. Another rapper, 6ix9ine, continued his rise in the charts even as Jezebel confirmed in December that he pleaded guilty to the use of a child in a sexual performance in 2015. His sentencing hearing has been pushed back multiple times and is now scheduled for April 10; meanwhile, his debut album reached No. 4 on the Billboard 200 this month. A jury ruled last summer that radio DJ David Mueller had groped Taylor Swift in 2013; by January, he had a new job at a country music station in Mississippi, whose CEO said he "tend[ed] to believe" Mueller, not Swift.
The music world continues to project expectations that women are valued primarily as objects, not human beings: Hit music videos still feature women as little more than sexual accoutrements for their male stars, and female artists’ appearances remain a disproportionate focus of critical essays and reviews. Behind the scenes, especially when it comes to the power brokers who actually control the industry, music is still overwhelmingly a boys’ club, too.
Every woman I spoke with described working in a male-dominated environment at some point in her career.
“You have to be one of the guys,” said Claire. “I once had a boss tell me that I should learn golf and watch The Sopranos, because that’s what the men in the industry did. He wasn’t wrong. It’s all men for the most part, and I have to be able to hang with them.”
Little consolidated data is available about the gender breakdown of the American music industry, but Census Bureau data points to an imbalance: within the sound recording industry, for example, which includes record labels and publishing groups, women make up 28 percent of the workforce. The workforce tends to skew even more male at the highest levels. Recent reports from the UK and Australia found that women remain underrepresented there; according to a 2016 survey by the UK Music Diversity Taskforce, women occupy 30 percent of senior executive positions and 40 percent of senior management positions, despite comprising more than half of entry-level roles.
Of the 20 executives on the board of the Recording Industry Association of America, four are women. The 2017 Billboard Power 100 List, which ranks the most influential members of the music business, includes just eight women. The publication continues to publish a separate annual list highlighting female power players, though there is no list distinctly for men. And a new report from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that from 2013 to 2018, women made up only 9.3 percent of Grammy nominees.
“You have to be one of the guys,” Claire says. “I once had a boss tell me that I should learn golf and watch The Sopranos, because that’s what the men in the industry did. He wasn’t wrong. It’s all men for the most part, and I have to be able to hang with them.”
All these numbers have real-world implications for women in music. A 2016 report from a US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission task force identified a number of risk factors for workplace harassment, including a lack of diversity and significant power disparities. Other studies have have found that both women and men are more likely to be targeted in male-dominated environments that emphasize traditional gender roles.
Women just starting out in a male-dominated industry like music may find their career advancement at the mercy of the men in charge—a situation some of those men take advantage of.
“In music, oftentimes you have women who are working closely with a producer or manager or someone who has a lot of control over their careers, so they don’t necessarily have options of not working close to them or not responding to advances,” said Ginger Clark, a psychology professor at USC’s Rossier School of Education who specializes in women’s issues and trauma like sexual abuse. “So it creates the perfect environment for this sort of thing to take place.”
Careers in music, by their nature, demand a mix of business and pleasure, marked by an often all-consuming lifestyle where days at the office can give way to late nights going to shows, working events, and schmoozing over drinks.
“The morning banter would be, ‘Oh, I was so hungover—I was out till whenever partying with an artist or client,’” said a former music licensing assistant for an independent record company. “That’s how you get ahead, that’s how you bond: Because you were drunk till 2 AM. That’s the witching hour when the deals are sealed. If you’re the lame-o who goes home at 10 when the show ends and don’t go backstage and hang out, then you’re not in the inner circle.” The employee, who requested anonymity because she still works in the music industry and didn’t want to harm her career, said she was sexually assaulted by a coworker on one such night.
The blurring of work and partying can breed opportunities for misconduct—alcohol use in particular is a much studied and discussed component in many cases of sexual assault, and another risk factor cited in the EEOC report about harassment—but the culture is hard to change overnight.
“You come from a college environment where the way that you socialized is drinking, and then it carries into your work environment,” the former licensing assistant said. “It doesn’t stop at a certain age in music. It’s an island of lost boys where everybody is the same age forever.”
Early in her career as an A&R scout, Eve, who requested a pseudonym for fear of harm to her career, says she was taken under the wing of a powerful executive at a large company where she one day hoped to work. She says they would often meet for dinner at his hotel, and then spend time talking on the roof, and then his room. Eve says that such hotel room meetings were common in the A&R world, but at the end of one such night, the executive—who was married—expressed his desire to kiss her.
“I just sat still like, ‘If I don’t move, no one can see me,’” Eve recalled. Unsure how to respond, she says she played the comment off as a compliment and excused herself. “From there, I knew that that dynamic was included in the relationship.”
Her mentor continued sending her flirtatious texts and inviting her to spend time alone at hotels. Though their relationship never crossed the line into physical intimacy, Eve says she felt she had to tolerate his open displays of attraction, flirting back and putting up with his inappropriate comments and behavior for fear of losing the knowledge and opportunities he afforded her.
“There was an innate feeling that if I were to tell him that I was offended, or set a boundary, that he would never call me again and just disappear back into the ether of the inner circle, and I would never see it again,” she said. “He had big power in that job to change my life. I don't even know if I'd be where I am right now if I didn't have what he showed me.”
But after several months, Eve felt the dynamic had become too complicated. When she called him to confront him about her discomfort and the inappropriate nature of the relationship, she says he became withdrawn and didn’t want to discuss it. They stopped speaking shortly thereafter.
“It doesn’t stop at a certain age in music," said a former licensing assistant. "It’s an island of lost boys where everybody is the same age forever.”
A majority of the women who spoke to me described feeling like they needed to put up with harassment in order to keep their jobs or further their careers. And all of the women who said they chose to report misconduct, either through formal or informal channels, told me that doing so had little effect.
“These men have created a myth that they're the only ones that can do this,” industry veteran Dorothy Carvello told me. “So if you have a guy running a company, [for] example, and he's created an enormous amount of revenue, the corporate people feel like, ‘Oh this guy's delivering for us. So what, he does a few things. It's cheaper in the long run to keep him. We need him. Who else are we gonna get?’"
Carvello said she was hired at age 24 as secretary to Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun in 1987; after helping sign heavy metal band Skid Row, she said she became the first woman in the label’s A&R department the following year. In a guest column for Variety last fall, Carvello alleged that Ertegun sexually assaulted her in 1988, and that when she informally complained about the incident to two senior execs, they told her she was “free to leave.” (Atlantic’s parent company, Warner Music, declined to comment about the allegation, but directed me to a recent Billboard article addressing the company’s HR policy and plans.) Carvello plans to share her story in a forthcoming book, Anything For A Hit: An A&R Woman’s Story of Surviving the Music Industry, out in September 2018 via Chicago Review Press.
According to the EEOC task force, so-called “superstar” harassers can tempt companies to ignore misconduct because they believe losing the employee—such as a powerful executive or chart-topping artist—would be too costly. Employers, its report said, “may wager that the likelihood or cost of a complaint of misbehavior is relatively low and outweighed by the superstar's productivity.”
That gamble may look more even more enticing in an industry that has undergone an extraordinary amount of upheaval in the past 20 years. Following a series of mergers dating back to 1998, the “Big Six” major labels that once ruled the industry—Warner Music Group, EMI, PolyGram, Sony Music, MCA, and BMG—are today the “Big Three”: Sony BMG, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group. Between 1999 and 2009, total revenue from US recorded music sales fell by 50 percent, which forced companies to diversify their income streams with sources like streaming services and music licensing deals, while navigating the simultaneous growth of the live event business, which now accounts for more than half of the industry's overall revenue. With the help of streaming and other digital services, the record industry has recovered, bringing in an overall revenue of $7.7 billion in 2016—its highest earnings since 2009—but that’s still little more than one-third of its inflation-adjusted peak of $21 billion in 1999.
“When your business is relationships, there are so many gray areas,” said a former label publicist. “We know what the obvious things are, but what are the not obvious things? When does flirtation become harassment? There is no road map.”
In such a hyper-competitive, financially precarious environment, speaking out can be perceived by victims as too risky.
“[The music industry] is all about who you know and reputation. That's how you stay in the business,” the former licensing assistant told me. Having witnessed layoffs in the wake of mergers and the recession, she added, “You can have a job in music one day, and you don’t the next day. It's hard to find a new one after you're fired from the industry, because it's really that small.”
While the industry has consolidated—the major labels hold an estimated 69 percent of the $15.7 billion global recorded music market—the music business at large is also distinctly fragmented, a decentralized constellation of artists, labels, publishers, managers, and promoters, that amounts to an expanding network of peer relationships. There is no single governing body to set industry-wide standards or codes of conduct. Women I interviewed said that this lack of a centralized authority can make it difficult to know where they should turn when faced with workplace harassment.
“When your business is relationships, there are so many gray areas,” said a former label publicist who asked to remain anonymous due to privacy concerns. “We know what the obvious things are, but what are the not obvious things? When does flirtation become harassment? There is no road map.”
There are federal protections against workplace sexual harassment under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, race, and other factors, but an individual is generally only protected if she or he is considered an employee, rather than a contractor or partner, at the time any alleged discrimination takes place. Many men and women in the music business don’t fall under that umbrella.
Additionally, many of the peer relationships common in the music industry—like a booking agent and a manager, or a journalist and a publicist—don’t necessarily meet the federal criteria for “employer-employee” relationships, leaving a gap in coverage for freelancers and staffers alike (some state legislatures—like in California, where much of the music industry is concentrated—have instituted additional protections).
“If there’s no employer-employee relationship between the worker and the publicist, or the worker and the artist for whom the publicist works, or if a person is a freelancer for their publication, it’s not clear if they have any recourse,” said Corbett Anderson, assistant legal counsel for the EEOC.
Independent (meaning self-employed or freelance) workers have long been a part of the music industry—the term “gig economy” is thought to be borrowed from musicians—but their share of the workforce is growing considerably. From 2007 to 2017, the number of self-employed and freelance jobs among musical groups, artists, and related workers rose by 112 percent, while salaried employee jobs dropped by 11 percent, according to government data compiled for Noisey by Emsi, a labor market analysis firm. In the same time period, freelance jobs in the sound recording industries sector, which includes record labels, publishers, and studios, increased by 30 percent, while employee positions decreased by 22 percent.
“The music industry, like the rest of the economy, has seen rapid growth in contract workers and freelancers in recent decades,” said Alan Kreuger, a Princeton economist and co-founder of the Music Industry Research Association. “[First,] record companies have been under intense competitive pressure to reduce costs because rampant piracy and file-sharing cut into revenues; and second, technology has made it easier for parts of music jobs to be outsourced and carried out remotely.”
Of the women I interviewed, those who experienced harassment as freelancers or by third parties they encountered in the course of their work spoke about not knowing where to turn for help, or if doing so was an option.
"There's a lot of confusion over what is the boundary and with whom. If I go out to [a drink meeting] with a publicist or a manager and he sexually harasses me, who do I tell?" — Rebecca Haithcoat
This includes freelance reporters tasked with covering the industry. Contracts for freelance reporters may offer the freelancer company support services such as HR, but music journalists I spoke to said it's not always clear what support is available if they experience harassment, how to access it, or who to talk to if they're working for multiple companies at once. And if a reporter is doing work without a contract in place—meeting an industry source, building relationships, or while doing the research necessary to get a story in the first place—they're likely on their own.
"There's a lot of confusion over what is the boundary and with whom," said Rebecca Haithcoat, a freelance music journalist, who has contributed to Noisey. "If I go out to [a drink meeting] with a publicist or a manager and he sexually harasses me, who do I tell?"
Others I spoke with said the insecure nature of freelancing makes speaking out too great a risk, particularly among younger workers who may rely on such work as an entry point into the industry.
Kate, a former freelance music writer who now works in A&R and asked to use a pseudonym, says the precarious nature of freelance work made her afraid to speak out when a well-known musician pressured her to have sex with him before an interview. She was 21 at the time. Kate says she excused herself to the restroom and left. Though she eventually told the festival publicist who had invited her to the event about what happened, she never told her editor.
“This was my main source of income, and the reason I was able to meet people and get assignments—I didn’t want people to think I was difficult. You can easily feel isolated. I was scared that [the musician] was gonna take some revenge on me, or publicly discount everything that I said in order to save his career.”
Even full-time employees may be reluctant to come forward with claims, although that’s not unique to the music industry. According to studies cited in the 2016 EEOC report, at least one in four women say they have experienced workplace sexual harassment, but only around 30 percent of those people will talk to a supervisor, manager, or union representative. Even fewer—between 6 and 13 percent—ever make a formal complaint.
Most large businesses and organizations in the music industry—including the Big Three—have sexual harassment policies in place, but how strongly those policies are enforced has been called into question. A 2016 employee sexual harassment lawsuit against Sony Music Holdings, Inc. for example, claimed that “the Company’s failure to address Plaintiff’s complaint of harassment is consistent with its lackadaisical approach to human resources generally.” The case was settled out of court in February last year.
Workers in the music industry told me that some smaller companies and labels they'd worked for did not have policies or resources in place specifically to address sexual misconduct. Title VII protections only extend to businesses with 15 employees or more, and don’t require businesses to have a sexual harassment policy (though some states have their own policies).
Of course, with sexual assault, a crime has been committed, regardless of company policy or employment status. Even so, women often don’t press criminal charges: between 2005–10, 64 percent of rape and sexual assault victims in the US didn’t go to the police, according to the Justice Department, and more than a third of those women cited either fear of retaliation or the belief that the police can’t or won’t help them as the primary reason.
Multiple women I interviewed mentioned that they believed that taking action meant risking their own careers. Some said they’ve declined to report misconduct because they feared losing opportunities or being blacklisted.
“Coming forward, you think that HR is gonna take care of you. I learned that really, they just don’t want to get sued,” Claire said. “He was the type of guy who would cause trouble a lot. Me, I’m a young girl. They thought, She’s not gonna sue us.”
Claire, the woman who says she was assaulted by a senior colleague at the now-defunct label, told me that she initially declined to report the incident because she feared that it would affect her reputation. When she eventually did go to HR, she says she was faced with questioning and skepticism rather than support.
“I was like, why am I being questioned?” she said. “They said our stories didn’t match up—‘We can’t do anything about it. We don’t have any proof.’” Even after a third person came forward and corroborated details of her story, Claire says HR dismissed the story as unreliable. Her coworker continued to work at the company, Claire says, although he was required to undergo sexual harassment training.
“I just remember feeling like, I don’t even know what I could do to get them to believe me. At one point, I got so upset that I said I didn’t know if I wanted to work there, and they said, ‘Yeah, that would probably be best.’”
Claire says the experience of reporting the assault was almost as traumatic as the assault itself. “Coming forward, you think that HR is gonna take care of you. I learned that really, they just don’t want to get sued,” she said. “He was the type of guy who would cause trouble a lot. Me, I’m a young girl. They thought, She’s not gonna sue us.”
They were right: Claire stayed on with the company for another year, at which point the company closed. She says the industry’s culture of toxicity and secrecy eventually led her to leave the business altogether, which was not unique among the women I spoke to.
Stories like Claire’s have continued to emerge in the music industry, and will likely continue to do so. Speaking out may be a critical first step toward instilling change, as evidenced by the global groundswell of the #MeToo movement and sweeping anti-harassment action plan put forth this month by more than 300 female members of the entertainment industry.
Experts say that the wider and more frequent that these conversations become, the more likely they are to reshape behaviors.
“On a psychological level, collective outcry—whether online or in real life—changes deeply ingrained ways of thinking on the individual level,” said Karen North, a psychologist and director of USC Annenberg's Digital Social Media program.
“By engaging with social media’s presentation of an opinion, even if it's just a ‘like’ or share, you are taking a baby step toward convincing yourself that you feel the same way, or that you feel more strongly than you thought you did.”
But after decades of intermittent attention and allegations that have emerged only to be forgotten, the recent public outcry drives home an uncomfortable truth for the business: Those in power need to be doing more.
“Grassroots activism is great, but if the people that actually hold power don’t care, or don’t take you seriously, or don’t listen to you, then the ways that sexism gets upheld don’t change,” said Shawna Potter, vocalist for feminist punk outfit War on Women and co-founder of Safer Scenes, which distributed information about bystander intervention tactics at last summer’s Vans Warped Tour to help combat harassment at music venues and events. The tour is also partnered with the sexual abuse non-profit A Voice for the Innocent, which provides a platform for victims to share stories and connect with local support resources.
Warped Tour has been embroiled in its own sexual misconduct controversies, though founder Kevin Lyman denies that they contributed to last year’s announcement that the tour will see its final run in 2018. “We address things the best way we possibly can as a tour that is not part of these bands’ lives all the time—they come together with us for eight weeks a year,” Lyman told Noisey about the challenges of confronting a problem as culturally widespread as sexual abuse.
“Grassroots activism is great, but if the people that actually hold power don’t care, or don’t take you seriously, or don’t listen to you, then the ways that sexism gets upheld don’t change." — Shawna Potter
Warped Tour, alongside Chicago’s Riot Fest and Coachella collaborators Do LaB, are among the organizations and festivals taking measures to fight sexual misconduct by teaming up with harm reduction groups like Safer Scenes, Between Friends, and Rape Victim Advocates. Together, they’ve worked to equip fans, artists, and staff with counseling, bystander intervention workshops, and codes of conduct.
“You need clear policies in place from the get-go that everyone can point to, and there should also be a channel to report instances of gender-based harassment and violence that is unrelated to the person in charge,” Potter said. “If someone complains, you need to already have clear steps [about] what to do after that. That’s gonna be different for different arenas, but it means actually following through and taking it seriously.”
Preventing sexual harassment and assault is also good for business: Loss of productivity, absenteeism, and an increased likelihood of turnover are among the economic costs cited in a 2007 meta-analysis of data from workplace sexual harassment studies. The report estimates that sexual harassment costs organizations $22,500 a year in lost productivity for every worker affected, not even taking into account any lawyer fees or settlements.
In the long term, combating sexual abuse and harassment in the music industry requires preventing it from happening in the first place. This means making a healthy, respectful working environment a business priority through stronger leadership, increased diversity, and greater accountability. Above all, it requires fostering workplace cultures that support the people, and not just the dollars, that define the American music industry.
Andrea Domanick is Noisey's West Coast editor. Follow her on Twitter. If you have witnessed or experienced misconduct in music and want to share your story, e-mail her confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- sexual assault
- sexual harassment
- women in music
- music industry
- record labels
- music business
- sexual misconduct