THanks to a joint investigation by BBC Three and the Guardian, allegations of sexual misconduct against the DJ Tim Westwood – claims he firmly denies – are finally being heard. As I listened to the testimony of the seven women who came forward, I had a strong sense of deja vu. Last year I spoke to women across the industry for another BBC Three film, Music’s Dirty Secretsand many stories mirrored those told by Westwood’s accusers.
What I learned from making my film, and in my research for a follow-up documentary, is that across the music industry, there is a problem with sexism, misogyny and sexual misconduct. It seems those at the top are only moved to act when there’s a major scandal (and therefore serious negative publicity) brewing. Part of the problem is that proving allegations of sexual misconduct is notoriously hard, especially if those accused are powerful and extremely litigious. Yet the #MeToo movement, which led to the downfall of the film producer Harvey Weinstein and other powerful figures, seems to have bypassed the music industry entirely, even though many people I’ve spoken to believe it is even worse than Hollywood.
why? The issue of industry gatekeepers came up with almost all the women I’ve spoken to within music – and I’ve spoken to scores, from interns right up to executives and managers of Grammy and Brit award-winning acts. For a long time, men have held the keys to the glamorous, fun and sexy world of music-making. Interested in developing a music act and becoming an A&R exec? Want to fly around the world promoting an artist’s work as a PR? More likely than not, you will have to demonstrate you’re good for a laugh, can schmooze with the best of them, can get on with the man who’s likely to be your boss – and, perhaps, turn a blind eye to any shenanigans .
In some offices, women say they have seen men watching porn on their computers, and openly discussing masturbation. There have been comments from bosses about the tightness of their tops; their backs have been stroked suggestively at gigs; they’ve had sexually suggestive comments whispered to them at awards parties. And the women, by and large, keep their heads down. They laugh it off. To do anything more could spell the end of a hard-fought-for career. They are made to feel that they’re dispensable, while the male exec, the manager, the artist – those who make the money or control it – are not.
One of the women interviewed in my first film was Kristen Knight, a DJ. She brought rape charges against the DJ and label owner Erick Morillo, and told me that she had initially reported what had happened to colleagues, but that many had shunned her rather than supporting her. Morillo was found dead of a drug overdose just days before he was due to face charges in court. Since his death, multiple women have come forward to make similar allegations.
In 2018 Lily Allen alleged in her book, My Thoughts Exactly, that she was the victim of a sexual assault by a music exec. Almost everybody who’s anybody in the industry thinks they know who Allen’s alleged assailant is, and that it’s someone still working in music. Even if they are wrong, the fact that so many people presume that there would have been no consequences for the accused following Allen’s allegation speaks volumes.
So what is the answer? After all, if it is right that people are innocent until proven guilty, then it follows that a person cannot have their livelihood destroyed on the basis of one allegation. It’s certainly tricky for a record label to sack them on that basis.
The problem is that many record labels do not even seem to try. If you are making your way into the industry, the likelihood is that you’ll work for an independent record label. If you’re assaulted by the owner of that company, or the artist, then who can you go to complain? There are often no HR structures in place, and even where they do exist, which HR person is going to scrutinize their boss, or the person upon whom a sizeable proportion of the business model relies? And it’s a small world. If you rock the boat, women have told me, you’re labeled a troublemaker, and you may even find yourself frozen out of jobs in other companies. This lack of internal recourse can leave women with only two options: calling out their abuser in public, with all the attached risks, or staying quiet.
The responsibility should be even greater for the major record labels and respected music bodies, where there are HR systems in place. But I’ve been told by dozens of women that when they have made complaints to HR staff, the response has ranged from being gaslit, ignored, threatened with lawsuits, required to sign NDAs or quietly let go. In one example, a junior member of staff told me she had revealed that she had been raped the night before by one of the bosses, and her response from her manager was brief sympathy, but nothing more. In another, an investigation was called after allegations of inappropriate touching. The man in question was quietly shuffled out of the building and given a glowing reference in the music press with best wishes for his future from him. The woman says she was forced to sign an NDA. And so the cycle continues.
It is worth highlighting that all seven of the women who came forward to make allegations about Tim Westwood are black. They allege he abused his position and power from him to prey upon them – in fact, the subtitle of the film is Abuse of Power. If a white woman feels a lack of support among her peers and seniors when making allegations of sexual misconduct, their testimony from her suggests the issue is compounded for black and brown women, who often have to work even harder to make it in the industry.
Music may not have had its #MeToo moment, but those in the industry are increasingly coming together to support one another. There are more female execs, more female-owned ventures, and greater awareness of what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. Last month, former Atlantic A&R executive Dorothy Carvello launched her foundation de ella, Face the Music Now, to provide a safe space for women to report their abuse and to help them find legal counsel. And it’s not just women. Many of the people I’ve spoken to are men fed up of seeing their colleagues experience abuse, only to then be minimized and dismissed.
The music industry has in its midst multiple artists, managers and execs who have been accused of sexual misconduct. It has the tools to investigate and take allegations seriously. It’s time to use them.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism