The Music World’s Reaction to Sexual Assault Needs to Keep Changing – Pitchfork
On Friday, October 13, three stories broke regarding sexual assault allegations in the independent music world. That morning, the L.A. producer known as the Gaslamp Killer was accused on social media of drugging and raping two women four years ago, a detailed story that quickly led to event producers Low End Theory severing ties with him. A few hours later, on the heels of victims coming forward, the indie rock band Real Estate released a statement explaining that theyâd parted ways with guitarist Matt Mondanile last year over his âunacceptable treatment of women,â a long-due admittance of an open industry secret. By late afternoon, Brooklyn label Captured Tracks made its own announcement: Alex Calder, formerly of Mac DeMarcoâs early band Makeout Videotape, had been dropped as a solo artist after theyâd learn of sexual assault allegations against him. Instead of protesting the allegations like Mondanile and Gaslamp Killer initially did, Calder posted a long, mournful apology addressing his past misunderstanding of consent.
Iâve been working in the daily music news cycle for the last seven years and I do not remember a day like this before, when multiple sexual assault allegations not only broke all at once, but were met with actual consequences.
When the truth about Harvey Weinstein came out, it turned on a faucet thatâs still running, and will keep running. As the world has been forced (again) to acknowledge what women have always known, the conversation surrounding sexual harassment and assault is growing and changing at a breathtaking speed, with more men finally acknowledging that it happens in their communities.
The music world makes plenty of money off the talent, labor, and patronage of women, and it purports to be liberal in the vague way that creative industries must be these days. But make no mistake, music is a hard place to be a womanâwhether youâre an artist, a behind-the-scenes player, or a fan. Perhaps especially if you are a fan, the role that keeps this whole thing running.
âAll sexual assault and harassment stories turn, to some degree, on power imbalances,â wrote feminist writer Rebecca Traister in a piece on the recent Bill Cosby trial. The power imbalance is key to understanding many of the sexual assault allegations coming out in the music world, involving inappropriate interactions between musician and fan. There are cultural traditions that say girls, girls, girls come standard with success, and that the transitory nature of being a musician facilitates these fleeting sexual encounters.
Some fans want to be groupiesâno judgment, that is their right of sexual agency, and it is a tradition shrouded in as much lore as performing onstage. But some young fans find themselves in uncomfortable situations where the power imbalance is so sharply off-kilterâmaybe where substances are involved, where theyâve been communicating with a musician via social mediaâthat they either think they canât escape unscathed or they actually, physically cannot leave. Sometimes they just donât know what to think, or who to tell.
One Mondanile accuser, then a 19-year-old fan, remembered âmarveling at the opportunity to actually talk to a member of a band she lovedâ following a 2013 Real Estate show. Minutes after meeting and seemingly out of nowhere, Mondanile shoved her in a broom closet and stuck his tongue down her throat. Similarly, a woman allegedly assaulted by PWR BTTMâs Ben Hopkins following one of their shows described feeling powerless because of Hopkinsâ social status. Fame, even just indie rock prominence, can embolden musicians and intimidate fans, throwing the latter off their guard. The bigger the star, the bigger that effect: Kitti Jones, who spent years enduring R. Kellyâs sickening physical, sexual, and mental abuse, underscored her brave recent chronicle with her bona fides as a longtime Kellz fan, illuminating how smart women find themselves in the most extreme of these situations.
The fan/musician vein of harassment is ostensibly professionalâthe musician was at work, though the fan was notâbut itâs hard to conceive of a standard flow of accountability. There is no HR department for this kind of issue, so it is up to those running record labels, music management companies, booking agencies, and the like to actually deal with the problem. These are also the people who make money off the musician, so holding them accountable has not historically been a huge priority, particularly the more profitable the artist is. As one music publicist I know recently told me, even her (female) boss said that ass grabs from a high-profile client were unfortunately part of the game. In the words of our president, âWhen youâre a star, they let you do it.â
Women are told, in ways both overt and more quietly demoralizing, that nothing can be done about this problem. If a fan has one of these interactions with a musician, who can they turn to with any shred of hope that they will be believed? If your answer is the police, you need to understand that about two-thirds of sexual assaults are never even reported due to the shame and trauma, not to mention the disheartening results: only six out of every 1,000 rapists eventually face jail time, according to RAINN.
For the truth to start trickling out, it takes something more boundary-less like social media, which has played a role inâif not breaking these kinds of stories openâthen tipping off journalists to fan allegations (as was the case with a Mondanile accuser). Journalists have been reporting out the most odious of these claims for years, like Jim DeRogatisâ 15+ years following the vile allegations against R. Kelly. Whatâs changing is the public reception to sexual harassment and assault, at least in some circles. Hesitantly, I say that independent music seems to be among them, but only if we keep listeningâand if we show, as a community of consumers, that abusers will not be tolerated. Because we can only truly depend on companies to take action when their bottom line is affected.
It is lazy and shameful to only deal with this problem when women take on the burden of speaking out, and the illusion of independent music as a progressive field is dented for all to see. I commend the indie labels and bands that have started dropping artists and members transparently upon learning of these situations, like Polyvinyl with PWR BTTM and Beach Slang with Ruben Gallego. It is important to show that there are real consequences for this behavior; that Real Estate werenât honest upfront about Mondanileâs exit, instead saying he was leaving to focus on solo projects, is like doing half the work.
Others in the industry with more serious money to lose, like R. Kellyâs label RCA, are long overdue to follow suit. Iâm not terribly hopeful they will. A major-label executive who was sexually harassed in the â80s by Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun attested recently that the majors still havenât done much about their internal sexual harassment crisis: âThe music business, like the Catholic Church, moves its abusers around from label to label,â she wrote. How can we expect men who act no better to do the right thing when it comes to their artists?
We need male musicians and men working in the music industry to examine their own behavior, and to hold other men accountable for the indiscretions they witness. We need them to believe womenânot only when they go public alongside a mass of survivor sisters, but when they speak up individually about uncomfortable situations involving men far more powerful than themselves. Yes, even when that happens to be disadvantageous to business, to disrupt friendships or, god forbid, to break up a band.
We like to act as though the songs are the most important part of music. But those who feel connected to some kind of musical community know that people matter more. Itâs only fair that you believe half of them.