The music industry’s gender dynamic appears to be broken. Not only is sexism the status quo, that status quo is protected by those who rely on it to retain power. Ironically, the music industry has often been perceived as a place of creativity and liberal thinking, whereas this has proven to be, in many instances, untrue. This week, the music industry’s improper treatment of women has come under the spotlight once again, with the Dirty Projectors’ front woman Amber Coffman outing (now former) Life or Death PR’s CEO Heathcliff Berru for his sexual misconduct. Her story, and the ones that have followed in its wake, expose how the music industry can be a hostile place for women, from simple professional biases to outright sexual violence, and where working with men can often mean being a victim of their perceived entitlement over you.
On Monday night, Coffman tweeted: “Was just re-telling/re-remembering a story abt (sic) how a very popular music publicist RUBBED my ass and BIT my hair at a bar a couple years ago.” She didn’t hesitate in identifying the music publicist as Berru, and went on to say “I’ve been told many women have had scary stories about him for years but are scared to speak up. And dudes overlook it and keep hiring him.” Since then, others in the industry have come out detailing the many abuses perpetrated by Berru. Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino called Berru a “scumbag”, saying she “was too freaked out to ever say anything” about his behaviour. Beth Martinez, music publicist at Danger Village PR, detailed how Berru harassed her on twitter and how she was “too ashamed to tell anyone for years”. Musician Roxy Lange told Brooklyn Magazine about how Berru assaulted her, but she “assumed that I brought this upon myself because I was very drunk that evening but that’s not the case at all.” Yasmine Kittles, from the band Tearist, was also assaulted by Berru and didn’t speak out because she was “scared of the backlash, seeming like a victim, of defending myself and having to relive it.”
Was just re-telling/re-remembering a story abt how a very popular music publicist RUBBED my ass and BIT my hair at a bar a couple years ago— Amber Coffman (@Amber_Coffman) January 19, 2016
One thing these stories have in common – other than the crimes of Heathcliff Berru – is that they expose the culture of intimidation imposed upon women in the industry. All of the women victimized by Berru felt either shame or fear of speaking out, an indication of the “boy’s club” mentality that exists which disenfranchises women from exercising their rights, or even the simple act of protecting their dignity. Coffman’ exposure of Berru, fortunately, has incited many others to rally with their cause. The band Wavves left LoD, along with DIIV, Kelela, Speedy Ortiz, Beach Fossils, Mixpak and D’Angelo. Meanwhile, Nick Dierl, president of LoD, has announced that he and the rest of LoD’s staff will be leaving the company. So while Coffman’s bravery has been galvanizing for the music industry’s female community, her words have also forced those around them to take action against LoD and Berru. This, of course, is not always the case.
Just wanna say I stand with all the women who are courageously speaking out.💪🏾👊🏾 I am no longer a client of @LifeorDeathPR/heathcliff— Kelela (@kelelam) January 20, 2016
There is, undeniably, a culture of complicity in the music industry when it comes to covering up violence and protecting offenders. Judy Silverman of Motormouth Media expressed this on twitter, commenting: “everyone is all 'I knew he was a creep but wow' you know, you still hired him and you still supported him and some of you worked for him.” It can be as cloak-and-dagger as in Berru’s case, with people knowing how problematic his behaviour was towards the women he worked with, and continuing to support him anyway. Or it can be full on and in your face. If we can learn anything from the performance of female abuse in the music industry, it’s that no one is immune.
Evidence is not hard to find. Let’s not forget, for instance, that only four years ago, a crowd of prominent members of the industry gave Chris Brown a standing ovation for his performance at the Grammy’s, only three years after he’d violently assaulted then-girlfriend Rihanna – he hadn’t even completed the term of his suspended sentence when he performed. Meanwhile, in 2014, Lady Gaga spoke about how she’d been raped as a 19-year-old by a record executive in an interview on the Howard Stern show. Lauren Mayberry of Cvrches has been publically battling sexist trolls threatening her with rape online. And over the past year, singer Kesha has become embroiled in a legal battle over contracts after accusing her producer, Dr. Luke, of sexually harrassing her. In Kesha’s case, speaking out cost her the ability to work, with Dr. Luke and their label, Sony, wrapping her up in so much red tape and contractual jargon her career is all but over (the short story is that while Kesha is under contract to Sony she can’t make music elsewhere, and Sony is currently not working with her due to the legal action, leaving her in purgatory). Meanwhile, Dr. Luke continues working and earning, unhindered by, and still not having to answer to, the sexual harassment charges being brought against him.
All of these cases, and the countless more not enumerated here, signal a perverse model for power and ownership in the music industry, where men attempt to strip women of their autonomy. Grimes, for instance, felt so uncomfortable by the patriarchal culture of the industry that she made the decision to extricate herself from men almost entirely. Hats off to Grimes for her valiant, proactive stand. But women shouldn’t have to be segregated in order to feel safe in their chosen profession. What we need to work towards is a community that values women and protects their interests – and we, as an audience, can start by holding the would-be patriarchs of the music industry accountable. It might sound like a tall order, but it’s not. Accountability can be as simple as not streaming, buying, following or promoting artists and other music industry professionals who are abusers or complicit in nurturing a culture of abuse. If anything can be learned from the Coffman-Berru case, it’s that activism – even on social media – can work.
“Coffman’s mobilization of twitter to expose abuse is an example of the noise and solidarity we need to inspire change”
Following on from Coffman’s claims, Berru has come forth with something of a half-baked apology. While his statement seems to play down the suffering of his victims while exacerbating his own struggles, it is, regardless, a pointed response to the accusations. Coffman’s mobilization of twitter to expose abuse is an example of the noise and solidarity we need to inspire change. And while this particular case had a somewhat gratifying outcome, it’s not likely to change such a deeply institutionalized problem. As of writing, there’s nothing suggesting that Berru will face legal action for his crimes – indicative that even though his behaviour is being taken “seriously”, it’s not being taken that seriously. Nor is there a suggestion that sexism in the music industry will suddenly disappear, or that those complicit in nurturing that sexism have learned their lesson.
It’s important to remember that not all accusations against offenders have such positive results and that, moreover, women are often deterred from even speaking out at all. If you’re a disruptive woman in the music industry, trolls will find you and abuse you on twitter, like Mayberry. Your label might even snatch your livelihood away, like Kesha. People might celebrate the men who hurt you, like Chris Brown. And even if you are successful in your campaign for your rights, there will be an excuse, or a justification, like Berru’s addiction problems, to belittle your attack and inspire empathy in your assailant. These are the messages we’re sending women who work in music, and by connotation, all women. And the only way to get around it is to keep getting mad. To keep standing together. To keep shouting out and zealously magnifying these injustices when we see them. To stop making ourselves complicit with silence.
Follow Kat George on Twitter here @kat_george