News & Views: Why #MeToo hasn't taken off in the music industry
Three women have accused hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of rape.
The #MeToo movement is transforming the entertainment industry.
Yet, for all the big-name Hollywood players whose alleged misconduct has been recently exposed — Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Dustin Hoffman, Louis C.K. — the number of popular music industry figures is a fraction of that list. And while actresses such as Rose McGowan, Salma Hayek and Ashley Judd have become outspoken proponents of the #MeToo movement, pop music A-listers haven't been as vocal.
It's not that sexual misconduct doesn't exist within pop music: More than a dozen women are accusing music mogul Russell Simmons of rape and harassment, and the singer Seal is newly under investigation for alleged sexual battery. But the sexual harassment reckoning currently empowering women and men to speak up isn't as loud in pop music.
Experts say this could be due to several factors. Among them: The music industry's history of sordid behavior characterized by the slogan "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll"; the sexualization of females entering the industry; the competitive nature of pop music; and a lack of females in leadership/mentoring positions.
"The film industry appears to have numerous monsters within, but in the music industry, the problem may be more systemic," says Alan Williams, associate professor and coordinator of the music business program at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. "It can be harder to identify specific villains when the very act of aspiring to a musical career requires numerous small acts of compromise and acquiescence."
Just as Hollywood’s notorious “casting couch” perpetuated the idea that misogyny and misconduct were standard behavior in the movie and TV industries, popular music is characterized by its culture of living dangerously.
“The music business was built on that old notion of sex, drugs and rock and roll,” says Monika Tashman, a partner at New York law firm Fox Rothschild who began her career working for record labels. “And although neither sex nor drugs and rock and roll are as prominent anymore, that was how the business was historically built. Think about the excesses of the '70s and '80s. That was very much the thing.”
"Part of the issue is that the music industry has for well over a century been in the business of exploiting musicians," says Williams. "In the world of publishing, that term is used explicitly — 'exploiting' a copyright. Thus, musicians of any gender start from a place of disempowerment."
The situation gets more challenging for women navigating the industry, Williams says, with their experiences "exacerbated by conceptions of 'stardom' that are sexualized from the outset. How many girls dreamed of becoming Britney Spears, and emulated that model without fully being aware of how that look and physical representation served to devalue women as creative and intellectual equals to men?"
According to Kristen Houser, the chief public affairs officer of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, the fact that bad behavior is synonymous with the industry’s history may be discouraging for people, particularly young artists who may have less power within the system, to come forward with allegations of misconduct.
“If you're working in an environment that is already rife with sexism, you have to recognize that these (toxic) behaviors are the manifestation of those beliefs,” she says. “So if sexism is the prevailing environment, then the risk of being mistreated, being harassed, being overlooked and being at a disadvantaged position, no matter what it is you're doing, really ups the ante.”
For Tashman, speaking about her own experience within the music industry, the lack of other female decision-makers at the industry's higher levels made the business' climate discouraging.
"(Me Too) came out of sexual assault and really terrible working conditions," she says, and there "weren't a lot of role models" during her time working in music. "But it's morphing from a movement to a phenomenon that can make real and sustaining positive change."
"Most women have navigated the music industry without female mentors and advisors," Williams adds. "And in the pop mainstream, long-term careers for most musicians are exceedingly rare, which means most women find their careers over before they have enough cachet to speak up and be heard."
Those sentiments rang true with MILCK, the Los Angeles singer-songwriter whose breakout hit Quiet became the unofficial anthem of the 2017 Women’s March. MILCK (real name: Connie Lim) has performed as an independent musician for nearly a decade, and discussed the obstacle course of misogyny she had to navigate during her first few years as a singer in Los Angeles.
As she began playing regular gigs, “There would be different people who would say, ‘Oh yeah, I want to take a meeting with you,' ” she says, describing one dinner that crossed the line. “This dinner meeting was not a meeting for my career. I would quickly realize that I was being courted to be dated. ... It was a really weird situation where I'm a younger woman in my early 20s in this new industry, and I was really discouraged.”
Lim described an industry that’s particularly punishing to young female artists, who are pitted against one another within the label system. “ ‘Who wants to hear an old lady singing?’ is basically this type of mentality that is pervasive amongst a bunch of young artists,” she says, explaining how the system discourages artists intent on building a career from reporting allegations of misconduct. “(Since) there's a timeline, there's a sense of desperation, that, ‘OK, well whatever I need to do in order to get it in this time.' ”
For Lim, those compromises also included enduring male collaborators’ inappropriate behavior, “It is a male dominated industry, and I do remember the days where I was collaborating with a group of guys who would say really gross jokes. I dealt with it, (because) guy talk is not my favorite, but I was just going to let it happen because I wanted to play my songs.”
And when female artists do achieve fame, they can feel discouraged from coming forward about instances of misconduct for fear of hurting not only their careers, but also those of their collaborators. Jack Off Jill singer Jessicka Addams, who accused Marilyn Manson bassist Twiggy Ramirez of rape last year in a Facebook post, described her label threatening to blackball her band if she went public about her assault, which prompted Manson to dismiss Ramirez from his band.
Music scenes can be “tight-knit,” Houser says, “and depending on where you are in your career path, you could face additional barriers” in coming forward. “So if you are starting out or on the verge of a big break, retaliation or retribution can happen in ways in which it's not just about you, but could be railroading everybody's career and everybody's dreams and everybody's achievements.”
Whether the music industry will tackle its harassment issues in 2018 remains to be seen. For Julie Greenwald, the chairman/COO of Atlantic Records, it's the industry's responsibility to empower survivors to speak up, as she wrote in a letter to friends and colleagues in November.
"I am also proud to be running a music company full of strong women," she wrote. "But I know it’s not easy being a woman in the entertainment business. It never has been, and we have to have each other’s backs as we gain strength through our collective voice. This is not a time for quiet … it is a time to speak out."
For Tashman, the "real triumph" of Me Too would be if "the movement has such a profound chilling effect on bad behavior that a working women’s protest isn’t even necessary — because crimes and indecent proposals are verboten."
Yet, Lim still sees many changes that need to happen within the music industry for the business to become empowering. .
"I can only imagine if a female singer is having this moment of doubt (about coming forward) and she's surrounded by people in a boys' club," Lim says. "I see how a lot of these stories are not getting shared. Because I have experienced the boys' club, and I know what it feels like. And it's an unfortunate thing."