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"A glass ceiling with razor wire": The harsh reality for women working in dance music

A woman with over 20 years experience in the music industry talks about the coercion, bribery and harassment she's faced in her career

  • As told to Annabel Ross
  • 12 November 2020

WARNING: This article includes the discussion of sexual harassment and assault and may be distressing for some readers

Women have made great strides in electronic music in recent years, increasing in both numbers and in prominence, but there’s no denying that the industry is still dominated and controlled by (overwhelmingly white) men. For decades, men have, consciously or not, enjoyed a power dynamic grossly tipped in their favour, allowing for many of them to exploit the women working in the industry in ways both subtle and overt. In this interview, conducted between two women working in the industry and shared with Annabel Ross, one woman lifts the lid on the manipulation, sexual harassment, coercion and barriers to career advancement that she has endured over her twenty years working in the industry. The details are disturbing and illuminate just how hostile the scene is for many of the women, trans women and non-binary people working in it. This interviewee says that every year of her career has been marked by a bad experience involving inappropriate sexual behaviour. Drastic action is required to ensure that her experience, which is sadly far from unique, is no longer the status quo for women working in our scene.

So as a woman with over 20 years experience in the music industry and ten of those years working in dance music, what would you like to tell us about inappropriate behaviour towards female colleagues in the workplace?

Twenty years is a long time and generally you start very young in the music industry. So your first experience is usually quite a polarizing one. When inappropriate sexual language or advances first happen, you either kind of accept it, or fortify yourself against it, or you leave the industry. And I think at that point, the industry loses a lot of talent because if you are not able to weather the first few jarring experiences of the climate, it is going to get a lot worse later on. Because it is a climate, a landscape, as it is present in practically everything you do, everywhere you go, everyone you meet and everyone who is prepared to acknowledge, work alongside or prefer to ignore you. For women of colour there are more layers again.

The industry is losing really talented personnel because when you first enter the industry, you are so green; you don't even have life experience. You don't have industry experience. You don't have gender experience and you have a lot of people who can be ten, 20, 30 years older than you influencing your direct envirnoment. And you can be considered ‘fresh meat’ arriving into that industry. And if you think people don’t talk in dark corners like that then you are naïve. ‘Locker room’ is not just the exclusive domain of political presidents. I have overheard conversations that are akin to sexual sweepstakes regarding who will ‘get there first’ to a new face on the scene.

Read this next: We need to end sexism, misogyny and violence in dance music

When you look historically at the music industry, the typical jobs available to women were receptionist, secretary, PA, coat check girls, office managers, with lower responsibility – and therefore less power – and low pay, but very high accessibility. These positions tend to be incredibly unstable and that opens everybody up to manipulation because there are few discernible routes for a woman into and through the industry. It has got better but it is still based on personal determination more than anything else. There are not many educational routes where you're going to learn about the reality of the music industry, event management, or artist management and then be placed on a career carousel, which is going to take through all of these differing roles and opportunities. You usually have to fight to get in, and you have to struggle in every single place that you move to. And because there isn't a roadmap through the industry and there is rarely an HR department to protect you, you are on your own. Most of the music industry is freelance, contract or interim roles. There's very little detail written down in terms of employment contracts and expected behaviour from the company, until you start getting into those important money-making positions, so all of those checks and balances that people usually experience in other businesses are not always there. And as this industry is built on the night time economy and its unique environments, that often means people don’t have their wits about them as the predators move in.

Can you talk a little about business practices within the industry that concern unwanted social advances, bribery, coercion?

So there are a number of different tactics in terms of coercion. I have touched on the ‘after hours’ culture and the proliferation of alcohol and drugs. So getting people drunk, putting drugs in their drinks, all those kinds of things have been very much part and parcel of the industry for years. We have to understand the manipulation of drunk people is a strategy to get information, leverage deals that would have not ordinarily been achieved, create anecdotes that undermines people professionally by leading people into scenarios they would not normally choose and therefore create secrets between the instigator and the focus of their manipulation.

I know of people who have unknowingly had drugs put in their drinks, a female tour manager and a female artist. The easy access to ‘date rape’ drugs like rohypnol and GHB especially over recent decades has culminated in a huge problem. Predators try to get somebody drunk in order to take advantage of them. If one adds a tranquilliser into the situation, the victim has no chance to escape. This has a devastating impact on them privately for years afterwards because they cannot escape their abuser professionally.

One of the ugliest experiences I have ever had was working with a foreign promoter, who I was trying to bring into my global network, as I had contracts with big brands that wished to reach the youth lifestyle audiences and I had a requirement for a local partnership in a very specific location. One needs to be able to string together a number of events around the world, and that forces you to sometimes have to choose individuals that you would rather not have in your professional environment. In certain territories, the level of expertise and professional expectation is high, but internationally, it can be very difficult to find people of a certain calibre, especially in the late night economy. We all frequently come across people of very dubious character and we do not often find out until it is too late. People will tend to hide their true character and behave professionally when there is money and opportunity on the table and when you are dealing with them in the office during the day. The late night economy historically attracts people who are at home amongst illegal prostitution and drugs. Any business that is cash rich, whether it's a launderette or a nightclub, is going to attract dubious and unwelcome personalities. I've had to deal with a foreign promoter hiring a blatantly under-age sex worker and taking this child back to his hotel room, and DJ handlers who, as well as organizing their charges’ professional touring life, also organise the prostitutes on arrival at every city on the tour. One can also find themselves in the company of corrupt public officials. I have been invited to what I thought was a professional meeting and ended up sat in a meeting with city chief of police officers who was chopping out lines of cocaine in what could be described as a brothel while I am trying to get them to approve event licenses! I have a lot of similar anecdotes from all over the world. And as a woman, travelling on one’s own, this opens one up to a lot of potential situations that can go very, very badly very quickly and leave one feeling afterwards as a co-conspirator or an enabler when in fact you are just a witness or a victim yourself.

Tell me how the industry supports this status quo.

I think it's because business is very much built on a friendship model and most of the real deal making is done via quid pro quos — you do something for me, I'll do something for you. Now that goes on in pretty much every single industry. We all like to work with people that we know, but the music industry can be particularly insidious and what you get is a kind of clustering of malevolent characters. There are people around the industry who have surrounded themselves with like-minded people and one doesn’t have to go far to find these environments. Industry events and conferences, afterparties and backstage VIP areas for big shows. Over time this becomes a cabal. You get a situation where they have such a hold over a specific part of the industry that unless you play by their games, it's very difficult to break into that section of the industry. So you're not dealing with an individual per se but dealing with what feels like a team of like-minded, like-behaving individuals all acting out their most base characters. Your talent, potential and experience mean less in this environment. It's about, do you fit into this mindscape of inappropriate behaviour? For women especially it becomes that if you don't drink enough or take enough drugs, then you're just not fun enough. Being judgement-free is an expected character of women, much more than men.

Also, the industry is very, very small and this idea of friendship, alliances and allegiances is very strong. The powerful men who perhaps started out in the ‘70s now own the most powerful businesses. The consumer sees the records, the consumer sees the gigs, but behind all of that, you've got a whole world of activity, such as global music conferences, where they're basically meat markets for the latest act, or the latest track. And when you get into those rooms you've got a lot of people with a lot of money and a lot of influence all sat around at two o'clock in the morning, out of their minds on coke and possibly with or organising further late night entertainment involving sex workers. And that's a very difficult situation as a woman who is there professionally. I have witnessed an unspoken pact between these individuals, as if they are blood brothers, all keeping each other’s sordid secrets.

Read this next: AFEM launches music industry Code of Conduct against sexual harassment and gender discrimination

So say, for instance, you want to work with a particular artist or you want to work with a particular venue, or you want to work with a particular festival and you have initiated negotiations and are working on what you think is a financial transaction to mutually benefit all parties. I've been in a situation where I have signed contracts for an artist and the tickets are on public sale, only to be told the dates are pulled for spurious reasons and then placed into a situation where it is explicit that I can save that run of events by being more accommodating and ‘friendly’ with the artist’s representative. The artist did not know about this and I feel they would be horrified to know their manager was leveraging their talent to coerce women to having an emergency meeting in a hotel room at a music conference to address the contracted situation when in fact it is just a ploy to hide sexual advances and sexual coercion. And the situation is that if you take action against this person, other agents and artists may not want to work with you because all they see is that you are litigious, they don't see the sexual coercion that is behind it all unless you have been able to gather evidence, so you can end up with a black mark against your name and less agents and managers will work with you. It can be a career killer. There are Harvey Weinsteins in the music industry and the reports from those actresses were painfully familiar to me. And just because the artist is a nice person does not necessarily mean their representatives have a similar character. I have personally experienced a number of serious events in hotels involving agents, managers, promoters, artists and road crew involving unwanted and unwarranted sexual advances when travelling nationally and internationally as a professional.

That brings us on very clearly to career limitation and mental health implications for women in the industry that speak up.

Throughout my career I have seen young, talented women come and go, I'd see them being cockblocked at every stage to let them know they need to acquiesce to be accepted, and there are certain areas of the business that are just a no-go zone for women. I've got to take my hat off to the women that have actually broken down those barriers because that’s not just a glass ceiling, it’s a glass ceiling containing razor wire.

And it is not just in the afterhours that one experiences poor behaviour. I've had seriously inappropriate phone calls from indie record label heads, I have been phone stalked by a daytime radio DJ, I have had sexually threatening calls to my office from an unknown caller requiring my then boss to organise taxis home from work every night for a month, I have had an industry manager lie to anyone who would listen that he had slept with me in an attempt to discredit my character for some unknowable reason. I also have had some job offers that were just absurd and demeaning. I had one instance of meeting with a CEO of a company I really respected, and after two interviews he offered me a career-defining role, but with understood ‘perks’ for him — the job he outlined also entailed travelling with him on my own, participating in drinking and drug taking, frequent after hours meetings, and to be on call 24/7. It was obvious by his tone what accepting the role would require of me. That is really disappointing and debasing after a decade in the music industry when one believes you are being judged on your competency rather than be a trophy to a middle-aged predator with a wife and family. I have forgotten more examples that I can recall, it is that bad.

Women are put into very vulnerable positions, especially if they're working in unique circumstances. Sometimes you could be the only female in the building surrounded by some very unhealthy characters, and it can be very dangerous.

There are few HR departments within the music agencies, the management companies, the promoter offices etc, and there can be nobody to complain to in the HR function plus whatever HR there may be is really limited to the employees that have a formal employment contract, not freelancers or contractors. What does one do when you have an employee that has been sexually assaulted by their biggest artist or moneymaker? No HR department is going to sort that out. And what HR department in any business is going to sort out some mob boss individual from another country, who has drugged, assaulted and then dumped one of your freelancers? What HR department is going to deal with that? The usual answer is ‘don’t hire women’ for these roles but that is not the correct answer. Such avoidance just increases the vulnerability of the women currently in those roles and leaves the perpetrators unchecked and free to continue.

There is also only so much that can be done in culturally and legally varied territories. We urgently need to have a gobal organisation, recognised by the record labels, TV and radio stations, artists, managers, venue operators etc, that all sign up to create a safer industry. Because without collecting the information and putting dates and people against it, you don't get to see the picture. This is a catalogue of macro and microaggressions that women deal with every day, and unless somebody is collecting all of that data, no one can get a real picture. Also, if no one's collecting the data, nobody can start to identify the hotspots and the people who are involved. Because believe me, the people who have been the worst offenders in my career have definitely been the worst offenders in other people's careers. But how are we going to know that? And I think once you start collating, corroborating evidence and investigating these hotspots, you can start pulling those individuals aside and say, “you have been repeatedly reported to an independent source,” a global union for the protection of music industry workers.

Women also need a system of protection in regards of where to go. I've had situations where I've been called in the middle of the night by women crying in hotel rooms or wherever they've found themselves because they've been attacked. Where do those people go, because if you've been attacked outside your native country, it creates a whole different situation, especially if you put into this scenario cultural and language differences, this makes women especially vulnerable. So perhaps there needs to be a representative in every country where if somebody gets that call, there is somebody in the country that goes to that person and becomes their local advocate, collects the details, whether the victim wants to go forward with a prosecution or not. They can offer a personal escort out of that country, city, venue, festival, office or hotel room — so you’ve basically got a global panic button that records and supports women wherever they are. And it can be independent of all of the politics of he said / she said, and the potential character assassination of the victim that usually goes on with it. Because, let's face it, to be a woman within the music industry…well let’s just say it’s not a place for shrinking violets and you've got to be strong, capable, a bit sassy. It's really easy to destroy the character of such women with undermining comments.

We really need male allies within our industry too who can stand up and say, “I've seen this, I know it to be true and I'm here for you.” People who are at the top tier of their careers and who have a good reputation as well as power and influence. I also think there should be explicit structure and roadmaps to roles and responsibilities plus anti-corruption training, which is often lacking in areas such as genre-specific music areas — for instance the dance music industry — which needs to be addressed if we are to make the necessary changes to create a safe place for women, and young women at the beginning of their careers in particular. Then career progression and survival is no longer the casual tool of influential predators but a transparent course and process invested in by a wide and varied group of professionals.

If there is one thing this interview has done is force me to recollect what I had mentally buried, and on recollection I can mark every year of my career with a bad experience involving inappropriate sexual behavior. I would not wish that on anyone. And I am one of the lucky ones.

Anyone with more stories of abuse or assault can email Annabel Ross securely at annabel_ross@protonmail.com

The fee for this article has been donated to Rosa, a charity that funds a diverse range of women’s organisations each working to tackle the issues of our time

The Association For Electronic Music has created a Code of Conduct against sexual harassment and gender discrimination for the music industry. Find out about it here

Rebekah has launched MeToo #ForTheMusic, a campaign to raise awareness about and combat sexual harassment and sexual assault in the music industry. There is an open letter to the industry, a pledge for individuals and organisations and anonymous testimonies by those who have been affected on the campaign's website here

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