If the first half of 2016 has taught us anything about the music industry, it’s that it has a problem with sexual harassment. From the exposure of PR-man Heathcliff Berru as a serial abuser to the recent revelations that producers have demanded sex from Grimes, there’s been no shortage of stories about prominent male figures in the industry mistreating the women with whom they work. If nothing else, these unpleasant accounts bear witness to the stubborn, underlying streak of misogyny that continues to shame the music business, and that there’s much to be done before this business can truly lay claim to egalitarianism.
Yet rather than pointing only towards an isolated issue of acute sexism, this year’s procession of shame also alludes to a deeper malaise within the industry. That is, the accusations of abuse and rape aren’t just evidence of Jurassic-era attitudes towards women, but also of the fundamentally exploitative, corrupt, iniquitous and unmeritocratic nature of the music industry itself. They’re manifestations of how the business is often based around the exploitation and fleecing of musicians, and of how such exploitation is facilitated by and facilitates sexist misconduct.
In other words, recent events in the world of music attest to how sexual harassment is all-too frequently a weapon harnessed by the industry to keep female musicians in a weakened, deferential and pacified state. This is borne out by one very salient detail common to all of the cases reported so far in 2016, which is that almost every instance of sexual abuse or harassment was perpetrated by someone in a position of power over the individual they molested.
Power: Healthcliff Berru was the CEO of Life or Death PR, which represented several of the artists he manhandled. Power: Swans’ frontman Michael Gira is also the boss of Young God Records, where musician Larkin Grimm recorded music before being reportedly raped by Gira and then dropped by the label. Power: Grimes, as mentioned above, was inappropriately propositioned by producers, all of whom she depended on for realising her music. Power: Kesha accused her own producer — the self-christened Dr Luke — of mistreating and raping her across a period of ten years, an accusation that has put her career under serious jeopardy.
None of these were instances of musicians harassing musicians (even if Gira is also a musician), suggesting that it’s only those with leverage over performers who (think they) can get away with debasing them. That they do act to debase them is a symptom of just how unscrupulous, immoral and manipulative the music industry really is. Its basic logic is to get as much out of its employees/victims for as little as possible, and one way this is achieved is by treating them in such a way as to lower their confidence and self-worth.
But it’s also achieved in numerous other ways, all of which corroborate the idea that episodes of sexual harassment are, aside from being abhorrent in their own right, also a manifestation of the particularly exploitative constitution of the industry. For one, there is the recent proliferation of Multiple Rights Agreements, also known as 360 contracts. These are contracts which grant labels the right to take a percentage from all the income generated by an artist, and not just from his or her record sales. Since at least 2008, these contracts have been mandatory for all new artists signing with the majors, and while they may be an understandable response to the post-Napster decline in record sales, the upshot of their newfound ubiquity is that labels have ever-greater control over their talent.
If modern 360 deals weren’t bad enough, the music industry also has a long and venerable tradition of extorting its artists. Take royalties, which at least before the passage of the Recording Industry Accounting Practices Act in 2004 (and probably still afterwards), were underpaid by anywhere from 10% to 40%, or if you ask the right musicians, were not paid at all. In one egregious case of underpayment, five-time Grammy winner James Taylor discovered in 2007 via a professional audit that Warner Music owed him $1,692,726, of which the label subsequently paid only $97,857. That Taylor could get away with conducting an audit on his own bosses was a testament to his relative seniority within the industry, whereas those who’ve lucked their way through the legions of rival amateurs to secure a fresh record deal would in no way endanger their new position by attempting to hold the gatekeepers of their dreams to account.
And it’s perhaps this seemingly unassailable role as the gatekeepers of a highly coveted music scene that most explains the abuses of power that have recently made the news. Even though musicians have an increasing number of alternative routes for disseminating their music, they still vie with each other to claim the stamp of validity and marketing muscle that comes from a record deal. While their sheer eagerness to obtain such a deal can’t be explicitly measured or quantified, it’s betrayed amply by a willingness to tolerate a business model that — in the words of the Board Director of the UK Music Managers Fund, Andy Edwards — “completely avoids the matter of transparency.”
Referring to the “Rethink Music” report published in 2015 by the Berklee College of Music, Edwards notes how record labels are refusing to modernise their accounting practices and often refuse to provide digital copies of royalty statements, all in the knowledge that this makes discovering what is rightfully theirs particularly laborious for musicians. He was once told by an unnamed major label that he “could not have an Excel version of a PDF statement “as a matter of policy,”” while the report itself observed that “Data provided to artists with royalty payments is often opaque and artists often don’t understand the payments and accountings that they receive.” More tellingly, it ended the same paragraph by stating, “This opacity may benefit intermediaries.”
This opacity may indeed benefit intermediaries, since without a clear notion of just how many units they’ve shifted or streams they’ve reaped, artists can’t adequately justify their value to their labels and stand up for themselves. Having a dimmer conception of their worth, they therefore become more vulnerable to mistreatment and being taken advantage of, and with it more vulnerable to the kinds of abuse suffered by so many female musicians in this year alone.
But it’s not only the resistance of the industry to transparency that underlines just how much scope it has for exploiting artists. Another big warning sign comes from the enduring opposition of labels to recognising a fiduciary duty to their signees. Such a duty would legally require them to “act solely in another party’s interests,” in the process endowing musicians with “greater leverage in legal disputes” and challenging the dominance of recording contracts that are “notorious for being one-sided.”
However, despite numerous calls from such organisations as the International Artists Association for the establishment of just such a framework, and despite the emerging argument in law that 360 deals have now established the kind of partnership that would warrant a fiduciary duty, the music industry has consistently dug in its heels. Legislation and legal rulings that would have assigned a duty of care to labels — such as the Recording Industry Accounting Practices Act — has been successfully watered down by the industry, so that it can continue acting in its own interests to the detriment of the musicians it commoditises.
As such, the labels comprising this industry still hold almost all the power, as reflected in 360 deals, contracts with Spotify and other streaming services that are unfavourable to acts, unfair and opaque royalty payments, the absence of a fiduciary duty, and harassment. In fact, it’s arguable that since the internet-induced decline of the industry its treatment of artists has only worsened, squeezing them in order to preserve fragile profits and thereby placing them in an even weaker position. And in the end, it’s precisely when (female) musicians are in such a position that they become more exposed to dishonourable approaches from the big-shot producer or label boss, whose narrow interests are furthered by their ‘degradation’ and who knows only too well that they’re not in a position to fight back. This is a big part of the reason why the industry has a misogyny problem, and it’s also part of the reason why the industry has become something of a problem itself. Sadly, both are long overdue a solution.