Sexism, rampant on the local music scene

Phil Witmer

Power and influence in the music industry is in the possession of a few people, mainly men. When the cache of influence held by these men is used as a bargaining chip, it creates a toxic cycle of sexual abuse and blackmail. In fact, the tight-knit circles of local scenes can be more conducive in allowing abusive professional relationships to self-propagate. The barrier between local recognition and wider fame is often the toughest for an artist to break through. Male promoters, managers and publicists can choose to give or take influence from female musicians when they please.

I’ve seen it happen here in Toronto’s all-ages scene. Teenage artists struggle to find shows at venues that aren’t 19+ and are susceptible to falling in with men who abuse them and then use blackmail to ensure they aren’t found out. All the while, these men present the artists with opportunities or at least goad them with promise of ones in the future.

A story that made the rounds in local circles last year concerned prominent Toronto promotion company Johnnyland. Their founder had taken advantage of girls who attended and performed at the company’s shows before being exposed by a network of survivors. What’s key here is that because the scene is so small, the behaviours of the individuals in question were an open secret, whether it was irresponsibly getting kids inebriated or dismissing reports of harassment. Through an anonymous Tumblr user, the accounts became one solid case, and it was strong enough to make some venues blacklist Johnnyland from holding shows on their property.

A more visible example of this strategy emerged earlier this month, when New York musician Amber Coffman tweeted about her experience with Heathcliff Berru, publicist at the major New York firm Life or Death PR. While Coffman’s coming forth with the details of exploitation was courageous and resulted in Berru’s resignation, only through the corroboration of other women did her story gain traction. Had no one else backed her up, Berru and his team could have likely buried her claims, apologized and continued as if nothing had happened. Because many voices were heard in unison, an influential New York industry figure was toppled.

In both these cases, action was only taken when enough women spoke out. But why did it need to be so many? Why does the music industry have such difficulty in not believing women?

This systemic failure is an incredibly large and complex problem, rooted in how we consume popular music and stereotypes of individual music listeners. Bringing the bigger issue down to the minimal size of a local music scene can allow for sexism to be tackled with more ease. Hiring women into administrative music management positions here in Toronto would also help in deterring a frat house-like atmosphere. Maybe next time one woman’s claims will be enough.

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