Swimming with Sharks: Sexual Predators in the Music Industry
I thought getting a job in music meant sitting in the boardroom of Columbia with Beyonce. What I encountered was much darker.
Image by Julia Kuo
I first started working in music when I was 19. When I was younger, I had an idealistic vision of what it would be like: Everyone was in it for the right reasons, my opinions would be valued, and I would be sitting at the head of a long meeting room table at Columbia with Beyonce, telling her what song should make the final cut of her new album.
In all of my pre-and-post-pubescent naivety (which I'm glad I briefly got to enjoy), I never once thought about the stark gender divide in the music industry. I knew it existed—according to a recent Creative & Cultural Skills report, there is a 67.8 percent to 32.2 percent male-female ratio across all music jobs in the UK—but I never anticipated what I would encounter in the business, all because of my gender.
Pitchfork senior editor Jessica Hopper highlighted this with her Twitter call for female and marginalized colleagues to recount their "1st brush (in music industry, journalism, scene) w/ idea that you didn't 'count'," prompting tales of blatant sexism and misogyny. There has been a longstanding tradition of taking advantage of women in the business—sometimes even to a physical degree. Casual sexism has morphed into a bigger, more insidious unspoken problem: The sexual harassment, abuse, and assault of women in the music industry.
A year and a half after my first job in music, I was attacked in a taxi after a work concert by the owner of a well-known PR company based in London. He had been buying me and a colleague drinks all night on his company card, and when the night was dwindling to its end, he suggested we split a taxi home because we lived fairly close to each other. As soon as we started to drive through Hackney, he inched closer and closer to me, all whilst telling me how much he liked that I was a "bitch," and how much "better" I was than my colleague.
I grew increasingly uncomfortable, but I didn't anticipate what would happen next: All of the sudden, he slid his hand up my skirt and yanked on my tights while attempting to kiss my neck. I told him to get off me, but he was belligerently drunk and only cared about what he wanted. I yelled at the taxi driver to let me out of the car, and after tuning out my cries to Kiss FM for five entire minutes, the cabbie finally let me out. As I opened the car door, bent over, the PR slapped me really hard on the ass. Not in a way that was just sexual, but in a way that made his intentions very clear: He was trying to hurt me.
The next day, he sent me a dismissive apology for being a "stupid drunk horny boy" via his work email, and continued his life and career like nothing happened.
There are playground whispers of inappropriate things going on in music, but it's never openly spoken about. Being successful in the music industry doesn't just rely on sales or a notable campaign—this is an industry that heavily relies on reputation, and if you've got a good reputation, there's not much that can bring you down. I worried that no one would believe me if I spoke out about it. Who would people be more inclined to believe, the 21-year-old new girl in the industry, or the man in his 30s with an established and successful company?
I looked to all the women I knew in the industry and soon realized I didn't have to search far for solidarity. In fact, I learned that this happens more often than not. Every single woman I encountered had her own experience of sexual assault and harassment, all on various degrees of the abuse spectrum.
Sarah*, a music and fashion publicist, recently plummeted into a deep depression because of her sexual assault. Her boyfriend, who works at a big booking agency, is friends with the lead talent booker of one of the UK's biggest music festivals. "I know him because he's friends with my boyfriend and they work together," she told me. After constantly bumping into each other at different venues, they developed a friendly relationship.
I don't remember anything else, and next thing I knew, I woke up naked in his bed and just started crying.
A week later, Sarah's boyfriend broke up with her after an argument. The booker invited her to Shoreditch House because she "should get her mind off of everything," which, up until this point, seems like rational advice. "I started crying over my boyfriend and he started buying me double shots," she said. "I don't remember anything else, and next thing I knew, I woke up naked in his bed and just started crying. I was wondering where the fuck my clothes were because I didn't remember anything. He said he had to go to work and we simply left his house in silence."
Following this, she got back together with her boyfriend. A few days later, Sarah approached the booker to talk about what happened that night. "I asked him if he fucked me and he said yes. He said nothing else at the time. I was in denial and horrified and blocked it out—I wanted to forget the fact I'd been taken advantage of. He hasn't said anything since."
Sarah told her boyfriend what happened, and that's when things took an even more poisonous turn—her boyfriend accused her of lying and "trying to ruin a man's career." In fact, a 2013 Ministry of Justice report from the UK stated that only 15 percent of victims of the most serious sexual offences (which covers rape, attempted rape and sexual assault) report it to the police, suggesting that there are far more women living with assault in secret than lying about it.
"If a stranger raped me in an alley way, I would've reported him and ruined his fucking life," Sarah said. "But because I'm scared of ruining a relationship with a top festival booker, I've now had to let it slide. I blamed myself and I still kind of blame myself."
I spoke with Courtney, a freelance events promoter who was part of a music apprenticeship scheme that was supported by her college. When she was 18, she began working for Jake*, the head of a one-man music company. It was just them two in the office, 40 hours a week. "With the nature of the industry, it's expected to have a nine-to-five day then go to gigs at night—even at the weekends," she told me, almost a year on. "I was spending more time with him than I was with my family, friends, and boyfriend."
She began to realize that he would find an excuse to be in every minute of her life. "I started to noticed how he associated me with the company as his personal assistant and then as his business partner—when in fact I was his apprenticeship student."
During the investigation, the school discovered that he had lied about booking separate rooms for SXSW. He had, in fact, only booked one double room for both of them.
One day after a particularly stressful week, he suggested they go for lunch together. The pair were spending at least 12 hours a day working on a proposal to host an artist showcase at SXSW. Their project had just been approved, and Jake was planning to fly her out to Austin with him. "As he ordered the bill, he asked me if he could ask me a question—and for some reason, I just fucking knew what was coming. He asked me, 'If we didn't work together and I asked you on a date, would you?' I was mortified. I pointed out that he was my boss and I was a student, but he was quick to dismiss it and said our unrealistic 10-year age gap doesn't matter."
After that lunch, Courtney decided to never see him again. She told her family, and her dad contacted her college explaining the situation. The school took immediate action and launched an investigation in which he was found guilty of gross misconduct and was expelled from the program, with all funding cut immediately.
During the investigation, the school discovered that he had lied about booking separate rooms for SXSW. He had, in fact, only booked one double room for both of them. This unfolded just two days after he had delivered a speech on how to be a music executive to students in her class; he had been grooming their 18-year-old classmate the whole time.
Abuse and manipulation doesn't just exist among music industry types—it also happens between musicians. I spoke to Zara*, who used to front a noise-indie-pop band. She used to date a male musician, Jordan*, who was in the same musical and social circles and had introduced her to her old bandmates.
"All he ever did was say over and over that he was the only reason I was in my band, so I thought, Okay, yeah you are. I didn't know any of them before I joined the band and I was very scared as I had never done anything like that before. I was new and needed support."
"One day after a show at the Shacklewell Arms, he spat in my face in front of everyone. When asked why he did it, he said, 'Because I can.'"
One night he fucked me whilst I laid there silent and crying. After he came, he took the condom off and slapped me in the face with it.
Still feeling like she owed him her musical career, she continued to date him—until one night, when his abuse became physical. "One night he fucked me whilst I laid there silent and crying. After he came, he took the condom off and slapped me in the face with it. I didn't sleep the whole night. I felt like if I ever told anyone what was happening, everyone that he introduced me to—including my bandmates—would hate me."
After my assault, I started to question myself: Why did this happen to me? Do I project the "wrong image?" Like many survivors of assault, I began to spiral down a well of doubt. In reality, it was never my fault. This behavior shouldn't have happened in the first place. If someone is insidiously manipulating you, you won't be thinking rationally. You think about the potential harm it could cause to your career—and even social life—and you suffer in silence.
"It's taken me two years and lots of therapy to understand that I was being abused," Zara told me. "I didn't want to ruin this guy's life—I still don't want people to not book his band because I'm good friends with his bandmate who isn't at fault."
People get away with taking advantage of women because of a pseudo-fear of career rejection. Just like Sarah's music industry boyfriend did, the male-dominated industry blames women for accusing their counterparts. After my assault, many people turned a blind eye to the actions of my assailant—despite knowing what he'd done—simply saying "I don't like him" or "I just can't work with him," instead of calling him out.
"I can't believe how many women I reached out to after told me it's 'normal' in this industry and even to get used to it," Courtney said of her experience. "Why the fuck should I? Why should having a vagina be a hurdle in my career?"
While the attack in a cab was my worst experience, there have been countless, less extreme others. On one hand, I was assaulted. On the other, I've had to gently let down a well-known music manager's advances—consisting of guestlist invites, shitty mixtapes and inappropriate offers to repair my MacBook—because of his industry position. All of these incidents stand under the umbrella of sexual harassment and abuse. Some are just subtler than others.
As it stands, there is one thing that can be done to help prevent this: A deconstruction of the fear of powerful men. Stories need to be told and people need to be called out if someone has destroyed another person's life. A man having a big job at a festival shouldn't take priority over the emotional and mental stability of another human.
This can't exist in a space that is dominated by men. Music needs women whether it wants it or not. If this abuse continues, it will drive women even further away from an already-exclusive industry. You have to protect yourself and your career by protecting the man, and I'm fucking sick of doing that.
* Names have been changed