MUSIC’S DIRTY SECRETS: WOMEN FIGHT BACK | WE’VE BEEN WATCHING
Ben Woolhead takes in a BBC documentary which examines the pervasive depth of abuse and misogyny in the music industry past and present, and wonders if there is hope for change with so many powerful men still calling the shots.
When journalist Tamanna Rahman invited women to share their experiences of what it’s really like to work in the music industry, the response was overwhelming – and deeply troubling. Harrowing accounts of harassment, assault and abuse flooded in, painting an ugly portrait of an unsafe working environment with no HR reps or policies, as one of Rahman’s interviewees in this consequent BBC documentary points out.
While representation was once a significant issue, that’s no longer really the case: 66% of under-25s currently working in the music industry are women. However, men continue to dominate the higher-status positions (record execs, managers, producers), enjoying and in some cases exploiting the entrenched power imbalances between themselves and the women in their orbit. As US women’s rights lawyer Gloria Allred tells Rahman, such differentials not only create a climate in which sexual abuse is rife, but also one in which victim often choose to suffer in silence, afraid of the personal and professional consequences of speaking out.
Women Fight Back focuses not on abusers working in behind-the-scenes roles but on those in the public eye. Superstar DJ Erick Morillo’s friends “all knew what he was like” but did nothing; at the time of his death in 2020, he was about to face a rape trial. Up-and-coming UK rapper Octavian is alleged to have physically assaulted his ex-girlfriend, while grime artist and former Boy Better Know member Solo 45 is currently serving a 30-year sentence for several counts of rape and imprisonment.
When Morillo died, many of the tributes from fellow DJs and dance music insiders either referred euphemistically to a “troubled” individual who struggled with his “demons” or ignored the allegations against him altogether. It was much the same story with Phil Spector in January of this year: even the BBC themselves were not immune, describing the spousal abuser and convicted murderer as “talented but flawed” before subsequently apologising for the lapse in editorial judgement. The Guardian’s Laura Snapes argued that Spector’s “living legacy” is not the immediately recognisable drumbeat of The Ronettes’ Be My Baby but “music industry abuse going unchecked because the art is perceived as worth it – or worse, considered ‘proof’ of wild and untameable genius”.
For Snapes, then, the tributes paid to Morillo and Spector are symptomatic of a serious problem: the excessive veneration of the individual male genius, to such an extent that violent misogynistic behaviour is excused or ignored. It’s for this reason that Solo 45 felt untouchable, while Octavian was able to write lyrics which appear to reference assault. Snapes’ comment about the music being “perceived as worth it” is particularly significant – that worth is measured in terms that are financial as well as artistic.
Morillo was a revenue-generating global megastar of the clubbing scene. Octavian, winner of BBC Music’s Sound Of 2019, represented huge commercial potential for his label Black Butter. Island Records turned a blind eye to Solo 45’s conviction for domestic violence, claiming “there was no reason to suspect” him capable of the crimes for which he is now imprisoned. In an industry notoriously short on ethics, money talks and women don’t – often because of pressure, threats and non-disclosure agreements.
So much for the dirty secrets of the documentary’s title: what of the women fighting back? Rahman cites what happened to UK punk/metal label Holy Roar as cause for cautious optimism. When founder Alex Fitzpatrick was accused of rape, sexual harassment and abusive behaviour, the label’s entire roster quit en masse. As Serena Cherry of Svalbard [pictured, top] and Ithaca’s Djamila Azzouz explain, there was never any question of them continuing a working relationship with Fitzpatrick – the principle of believing victims was more important. While it’s too soon to talk about a seachange, or a #MeToo movement in music, there are signs that power may be starting to shift.
Harassment, sexual abuse and misogyny are not, of course, exclusive to the music industry; as the horrific news about Sarah Everard and the subsequent social media reaction has underlined, they are a huge problem in society as a whole. And yet Rahman makes clear that such behaviour not only exists within the world of music but is tolerated, even enabled. It’s a safe space of the most perverse kind.
What, then, can be done? What needs to happen? Gloria Allred claims that “as long as a victim does nothing, nothing will change” – but the onus shouldn’t be on women to speak out. On the contrary, the responsibility to acknowledge the industry’s culture of toxic masculinity and to call it out lies with men. As Rachel Hewitt has this week argued should be the case in wider society, it’s men whose behaviour needs to change, not women’s; abusers, not victims, should live in fear of the consequences of their actions. Dispensing with the myth of male creative genius that grants some artists impunity would help, as would more people in positions of power acting with a modicum of propriety rather than only according to commercial imperatives.
“It’s tempting to think that another Erick Morillo couldn’t happen,” says Rahman towards the end, before suggesting that that would be folly. Sure enough, only a few days after Music’s Dirty Secrets first aired, came the revelations about Marilyn Manson. As one of his victims, Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell, commented, “he put his depravity in plain sight”. If Manson could get away with it for so long, then how many others remain invisible?
Available on BBC iPlayer now. Info: here
words BEN WOOLHEAD