In this article I will be sharing some thoughts on working safely within local music communities and also sexual harassment. I’m not saying that I know everything, but wanted to share some things I’ve learned from the past 14 years of working in music. This is all about not only helping ourselves, but supporting our friends and colleagues who encounter bad situations. The main aim of this is to help you make decisions and build your career so that you feel safe and in control. Whether you are a musician, a promoter, a writer, a manager, you work behind the bar, attend lots of gigs, this is for you. If you are reading this, you are an important part of the local music scene.
This ended up being a lot longer than expected, but I felt a lot of the points around protecting ourselves were also vital from the wider perspective of career development. If anyone has difficulty reading it and would like me to record it on to Souncloud, let me know (EDIT: it’s now on Soundcloud, embedded just below).
I’ve opened up the comments section on this post, in order for you to share any other useful information that you feel I may have missed. My email is also at the bottom for anyone that needs support.
Have I been a victim of sexual harassment?
Have you been made to feel uncomfortable or even humiliated due to someone’s behaviour that was of a sexual nature? This can be blatant or subtle. It may have resulted in you feeling that you are in a hostile or unsafe environment. That is sexual harassment. The majority of us have a tendency to underplay situations, mostly in order to not cause trouble or if we’re scared we’ll lose an opportunity and not get another one. With this article I’d like to slightly deconstruct the local music scene, give some advice on how best to navigate it, avoiding harassment situations and unfair shifts of power, but also give us some points that we all need to work on to help cultivate a supportive and ethical industry around ourselves. I’d also like to offer some advice and resources if those harassment situations do unfortunately arise, but ultimately, further advice needs to be sought if situations become untenable from legal and industry bodies.
In 2019 the Musician’s Union surveyed its members about sexual harassment and abuse. Almost 50% of those who took part said that they’d experienced harassment, discrimination and abuse of power. More than four in five of the victims said that they did not report the incidents as they were concerned their voices would not be heard or they would not be believed. On a local level, if this is the case then it will ultimately have a very detrimental effect on the music scene and the amazing individuals that make it what it is.
A local music scene does not have an HR Department. There is no big boss overseeing it all. In a local music scene it is the responsibility of all participants to look out for one another, to support and protect each other and to eradicate bad behaviour. It is our responsibility to share experience, information and education. To reward good practice and to call out bad.
Working in the creative sector generally means not being part of a normal hierarchical work structure. We are in an industry built on freelancers, built on people who are good at a weird variety of things that all come together to make them unique and useful forces in our local music scene. Even those employed by record labels, publishers, venues (particularly locally) are doing other bits and bobs on a day to day basis. Often this type of work is quite all-encompassing and quite draining, but ultimately there are positives to working like this. I want to highlight this as it helps give us the tools to deal with difficult situations.
The main point I want to pull out from this article is the importance of the people you surround yourself with. I always talk about shared values as a key decider for shaping the team of an artist or for selecting jobs as an industry professional, it applies in this situation so much. Surround yourself with individuals who either have core values that you have, or core values that you aspire to have. Morals, ambition, kindness, work ethic, and much more. Let this lead your decisions rather than gravitating towards those who you just think can help you get where you want to be. It’s more beneficial in the long-term to build a community of talented people who share their successes and their failings than to skip past them towards the bright lights, because often those lights aren’t real.
The importance of community is immense. It takes time and it takes energy. It takes mavericks and innovators. The independent sector of the music industry was built on a shared belief that music is not a commodity, that creativity should be nurtured and that those benefitting from that creativity are not more important than the creator and therefore should not be rewarded as such. This was seen as a maverick attitude in the late 70s. Independent label bosses that put everything on the line for the success of their artists have built legacies around the community spirit that they created. Celebrating successes together and pulling through difficult times together.
Can you be that maverick? You don’t have to be but think about those people in your local scene that stand out in this way. Think about the people you have met, the times you’ve been sat having a drink before a gig, the conversations you’ve had over random emails. Who has demonstrated their passion for music along with decency and fairness. Who has made things happen and created a magical space that you still talk about to this day. Who are the innovators, the ones that can’t help but look at how to do things differently. These are the people we need to lift, these people we need to stick with and celebrate because they celebrate everyone else. These are the people we need to give the power to, as they are least likely to abuse it.
As individuals working in the music industry we are very often given the opportunity to choose our colleagues. To recommend great people to decent companies, to create projects out of nothing with the best people we know, to reward those people we admire, those people who share our values.
Abuse of Power
A common reason for victims not reporting sexual harassment or assault, or for those being accused of abhorrent behaviour not being held accountable is this idea of power. In a local music scene this is something that I find quite difficult to get my head around. It’s easy for me to say as someone who has worked nationally and internationally, but to put undeserving people on these pedestals at a local level is just silly to me.
A frequent conversation I’ve had with young artists who aren’t represented by management is around doing gigs for free or for very low fees. They feel it’s easy for me to request a higher payment as I’m a manager and that they’re not entitled to do that as an artist, they fear it could result in them losing the offer, looking ungrateful and ultimately looking difficult to work with. This demonstrates the power that some people in local music scenes are automatically given. This power is not earned, it’s not even real. If this fake power is automatically given to someone who then exploits it, this leaves many at risk.
These people are often built up as gatekeepers, but really, where are they stopping you from going? Most are only known at a local level. If you were to ask many of their counterparts operating at national or international levels, they will have very little, if anything, to say about them.
Those working nationally and internationally will be more interested in the noise you can create through the amazing community that you build around yourself than the words of a supposed local gatekeeper. Believe me. Put the power in your own hands and those that have earned it, rather than giving it to someone who simply doesn’t deserve it.
Developing Your Gut Instinct
When working with people who are new to the music scene I used to tell them to follow their gut instinct. It took me a good while to realise that gut instinct is something you need to develop through experience and confidence. If you put a contract in front of a new artist, their gut tells them to sign it. If someone trying to break into an industry is offered experience, they will take the opportunity. It’s like common sense. I always think common sense is a really strange concept. Our decisions and actions are based on our own experience, not a common sense. We ask our friends and families for their opinions because they are ultimately going to be looking at the situation based on their own experiences and knowledge. It’s almost never common sense. By broadening the people we have around us in our local music scene, we get a wealth of knowledge and experience. It’s important to think about this when we’re trying to build experience in any industry. Who are you discussing your issues with at the moment? Who do you trust? Are you on your own? Who do you help? Strength in numbers is very important. Not just from a skillset perspective, but from a safety perspective, too.
We all make mistakes. We can be blind in seeing faults in people or thinking that those we work with have our best interests at heart and then feel let down by them. Often we take this personally, we see it as a flaw in our own judgement. That we some how deserved to be let down for being so stupid to think that they were good people. When I first decided I was going to try and infiltrate the music industry and make it my career I worked in a pub that was a real music hub with lots of gigs and brilliant DJ sets. It was a real community of misfits. A special place at a special time and a very inspiring place to work for someone trying to work out their place within everything. I found that I’d meet people that I would instantly put on a pedestal, I would give them this holy glow based on them having worked on certain projects or being involved in certain scenes. Often these people were very guarded, they weren’t very nice. I was left wondering if I’d ever be allowed in. One night after work I was sat having a drink looking at the rota with my colleague and an older friend of hers. I’d literally just started “managing” a friend’s band and I highlighted the day they were playing London and asked her to mark it off. Her friend immediately went “oh you manage a band! How great. How long have you managed them for?” I very hesitantly told him I’d been managing them a week, expecting him to laugh his head off, but his response surprised me so much, he went “Great! How has your first week been?” Turns out this friend of my colleagues was Simon White, who at the time managed amazing acts like Phoenix and Bloc Party. We sat chatting for a while and he gave me some great advice. This was the start of my realisation that in the music industry the talented, experienced people want to share their knowledge and help those starting out. Those that don’t have anything worth sharing will keep everything to themselves – they’re not team players, that’s why they don’t have anything worth sharing. I stand by this a decade later.
I have a kind of moto for navigating the music industry, it’s also the title of the debut album by a band called Okkervil River – it’s ‘Don’t Fall in Love With Everyone You See’. I think that’s something we all do. We are very quick to trust people and turn them into allies, when perhaps we need to slow down and let them earn it.
We see the best in all situations in front of us and don’t listen to those alarm bells. We put up with bad behaviour because we think it’s not intended in that way, we dismiss harmful comments, we tell ourselves that the person pressing themselves against us to get past even when they don’t need to didn’t do it on purpose, we give excuses to people for treating us badly, we normalise situations that just would not be allowed in any other industry.
We need to speak out to our community, to share experiences, to create safe spaces to discuss what constitutes going too far, to appreciate that we all have different thresholds and something you might brush off as banter might make someone else really uncomfortable. It is only when we build up this experience, this look at living life from different sides (male, female, ethnic minorities, trans, different sexualities, disabilities – our experience of day to day life is unique), wearing the shoes of our friends and colleagues can help us build up better instincts for when situations go too far. But what happens when those alarm bells ring?
If a friend warns you about problematic behaviour from an individual or an organisation, it’s up to you how you act on that information. If the friend has experienced it first hand, then this must be treated as reliable information straight from the source. It is important to ask the friend if it was reported and if it was, what were the repercussions. This is the important bit, if it was reported and there were no actions as a result, then this not only implicates the individual but also the organisation. This is a wider issue and gives you a real understanding of what to expect from the parties involved. If your friend does share a bad story, support them. If they didn’t report it, why not. Delve into it together, show them that they are not on their own and that type of behaviour is totally unacceptable.
If a friend tells you someone else’s story, this isn’t as clear cut. Before making a decision about whether or not to work with this individual or organisation, you should reach out to your community for further information, further experiences. If more stories are shared or more concerns are voiced, this gives you guidance to act on. If this second-hand story is the only incident then it is up to you if you wish to proceed with caution.
If you enter into work with these alarm bells ringing then think about why you are doing so. If it feels like this opportunity is the only option for you at that moment make sure you have clearly assessed what you can gain from working with them. Often we look at an opportunity as a possibility for progress and there’s actually not that much to gain from taking part. If it’s a gig with no fee, will there be an audience or are you being encouraged to invite as many friends as you can. If it’s work experience, do you actually think you are going to learn from anyone and will it lead to more opportunities? Are there people that you know who have done it before? What kind of time did they have? Arm yourself with as much information as possible before entering in to anything. I can guarantee that your safety is much more important than any opportunity provided by problematic people. Have strength, courage and confidence to turn things down if you are unsure. There will be other opportunities and they will be better opportunities.
In The Moment
If someone begins to make you feel uncomfortable, take a moment to voice your concerns with the people you trust around you. Do this even if you think you are overreacting, it’s better to have a friend or colleague in on your concern, even if nothing further happens. If your friend tells you that someone is making them uncomfortable, do not dismiss this, instead set your head to high alert so you can pick up on bad behaviour and also in order to be a reliable witness and supportive ally. Become a human barrier. Make sure they’re not left on their own and if you are present when anything inappropriate is said or they inappropriately touch your friend you need to create a diversion. Get your friend out of that situation. There will be times when it is appropriate to call the culprit out on their behaviour in order to put a stop to it there and then, but your main priority is the welfare of your friend. Be super careful not to make that situation feel worse to them. It’s often more appropriate to pull the culprit aside and tell them it’s not acceptable, or to speak to a colleague/member of staff/rep. Keep your friend out of danger at all times, I’ll repeat this, don’t dismiss their concerns, it’ll make them feel even smaller then they’ve already been made to feel and will also make them feel that they have no back up.
If you are on your own and someone harasses you your main priority is to get yourself out of the situation. Not feeling in control is horrible and can feel debilitating. If there is someone nearby that you can tell (security, a member of the bar team, the manager, the sound tech, the show rep) then do so. If you are dismissed, then try and tell someone else. It is important that this is reported on the night. If you cannot bring yourself to do this, that is totally understandable, there are further steps.
If you have been harassed, as soon as you get home you need to write a detailed account of what happened. If you’re drunk, do not feel that this invalidates your experience or that you are in anyway responsible, you are not. When you get up in the morning and you feel awake, maybe have a decent coffee first, re-visit your account and add any further details, take out any bad language. Anything you write in the heat of the moment is absolutely fine and can be quite therapeutic but at this point you want to be incredibly measured, detailed and informative. Once you are happy with what you’ve written, share it with a friend who was there and ask if there’s anything they witnessed that needs to be added. Once you have this account you need to structure it into an email and send to those relevant that need to see it, depending on the situation. This initial email should go to those close to the action. The manager of the person, their boss, the person that has hired them to do the job they were supposed to be doing. If you don’t know who that is, ring the venue/company and ask – if you don’t feel up to this, ask a friend to do it. If the person that harassed you is a member of the public or is the boss of their company (so there isn’t a manager or line manager responsible for them), then you need to send this email to the place where this harassment took place and if you have a different contact if it’s a gig or event, then to them, too.
If you have been assaulted, then you need to contact the police.
Refrain from publicly posting on social media unless it is an incident that had many witnesses. This is to protect you, not them. If your friend is the victim, be mindful about sharing someone else’s story. This may end up putting a very damaging spotlight on your friend and could badly effect their mental health. Also, if your friend is not emotionally ready to share the details of what has happened, support them until they are ready – do not force them in to a situation that they are not capable of dealing with yet. You may be outraged and activated, but they could be quite damaged by what has happened to them and need help to heal themselves, first.
If you are sharing anything publicly it is important that it is not a direct accusation. This would put you in a legal tight spot and could also discredit evidence in any cases brought against the harasser. I’ve seen it done many times where a band has said something along the lines of “at our gig last night a member of our team was subject to sexual harassment. We reported this immediately and have followed up this morning to the relevant parties and would like to make it clear that we believe that our gigs should be safe spaces for everyone and that no one should be made to feel uncomfortable. We hope that swift action is taken to stop this from happening again.” – by acting on this in a very swift and professional way it puts pressure on those who are in a position to deal with this correctly. It also shows your stance as a band/professional. Another example is if you’re hired to be a photographer capturing a gig and someone harasses you “I was hired to capture the …… gig last night at ……, whilst working I was subjected to sexual harassment. I reported this immediately and followed up this morning. No one should have to suffer any kind of harassment when they are at work.” That kind of thing. You can also do this to highlight when an incident of sexual harassment has been dealt with very well. We should applaud good practice and showcase those with good morals, make them stand out. These type of posts also encourage others to report harassment and assault.
If you have been harassed whilst fulfilling a role for a separate organisation/company, contact them first as they will put the complaint in on your behalf and don’t post anything on social media without discussing it first.
What if I can’t report it at the time?
It is still super important that this is reported retrospectively. It’s easy for us to build things up in our head and then to not do it. We tell ourselves there is no point. There is every point. If it is your friend who is battling this, help them do it. An email is a log that you have raised this issue and can also be used at a later date if a further situation escalates.
What if I contact the organisation that have hired my harasser and they do not take any action?
It is very important that your statement to the organisation gives them enough information to be able to raise this as sexual harassment, so even though it is difficult, providing detail is essential. All complaints of sexual harassment should be taken very seriously and for the most part, they are.
If you lose work due to reporting sexual harassment then this is discrimination and is unlawful so you could take action under the Equalities Act. This is where Unions are incredibly useful, in any situation like this, always seek Union advice. If you are a musician and a member of The Musicians Union you can get free legal advice on this. If not, you can seek legal advice, but often a threat of this is quite effective.
If no action is taken and the culprit is still in the position to do this to others, it may feel the only course of action is to go public. This should be a last resort as there are serious legal implications if the organisation decides to sue to protect themselves. Seek legal advice before doing anything publicly. Start by sharing your story with your community and encouraging those you care about to not work with this individual/organisation.
If you are unhappy with the response from the person you contact, see if you can go higher. If it is a venue, is it part of a bigger group, if it is a publication, do they have a publisher. If it’s someone from a record label and their label boss doesn’t do anything, are they part of a wider company.
Unfortunately more incidents are likely to happen if this person is still in position. support each other and come together. If more incidents do happen, encourage victims to directly report the harassment. One incident may result in a slap on the wrist, but if more are reported, then it is more likely to result in more severe penalties. If it continues and still no action is taken, work as a team privately. Gather up as many first hand accounts as possible, compliment them with witness accounts that back up those statements and seek legal advice. Support each other and help each other source work and opportunities with other organisations and individuals. Promote best practice, promote ethical values and work together to provide safe spaces. Share experiences, make it clear that it is not acceptable and show others that no one should endure harassment and empower one another.
It is important that you have people around you that you trust, that give you guidance and that can support you and if needed give you a bigger voice in your local music scene. This is an important part of the community you build, that there is room for mentors, that can help you dispel myths, can look at opportunities you are offered for their true value and can advise you on making decisions and dealing with difficult situations.
Reward those that do things properly and boycott those that don’t.
This is your music scene, you have more power than you think.
I hope this has been helpful.