fter sartorial support was shown for the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements at the Golden Globes and the Grammys, the Brit awards are following suit. The awards’ organising body, the British Phonographic Industry, has invited artists and guests attending the 2018 ceremony to wear a white rose pin “as a symbol of solidarity” – although the memo doesn’t specify the cause.
The Guardian understands the BPI consulted industry figures on how to acknowledge the issue of sexual harassment and abuse in the arts. The body ultimately partnered with Voices in Entertainment, the American collective of female executives that asked artists to wear white roses to the Grammys. “If the Brit awards can help shine a light on such a sensitive topic, our hope is that it will ultimately help,” says the awards’ chair, Jason Iley.
Speaking via email after declining a conversation, Iley explains the BPI’s decision: “We felt the ongoing conversation around equality and harassment in the workplace could not be ignored by the UK music community.” Asked about the scale of sexual harassment in British music, he says “every single industry faces these kinds of unacceptable problems”, and expresses certainty that the industry is addressing its former issues with inequality. The BPI has not planned any topical speeches or performances for the ceremony, preferring to leave “artists and presenters freedom to exercise this right on the night”, Iley says.
The tribute has met with a mixed response. “I personally will not be wearing a flower, not because I don’t have sympathy with the cause – I myself have experienced sexual harassment – but I feel however well-intentioned this action is, we should all be focused on creating meaningful change,” says Vick Bain, chief executive of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors. She cites a need for labels, publishers and radio playlisters to commit to total equality, and to support and promote women “throughout their careers so they don’t up and leave, as is currently the situation”.
Paul Pacifico, chief executive of the Association of Independent Music, says: “I appreciate the BPI’s efforts to highlight the issue, but we already know there is a problem.”
And Jane Third, global chief creative officer at the record label PIAS, welcomes the news, saying “every little helps”, but she wants key industry figures to lay out concrete plans to tackle discrimination. “There have been enough warnings from women in the industry that this time would eventually come, and organisations need to decide whether they want to keep step or be left in the cold.”
The Brits’ mild display is commensurate with the British music industry’s relative lack of a public reckoning with sexual harassment. Speaking on behalf of the umbrella organisation UK Music, the BPI spokesperson Ayesha Hazarika says: “Individual companies and organisations take the issue very seriously and are taking steps to engage with staff, setting out guidelines and making it clear that there is no place for harassment, bullying or discrimination in their workplace.”
However, figures across the board say the issue continues to affect the industry. “Our evaluation through our Women Make Music fund shows that of the grantees we’ve supported, 78% had experienced sexism in their career,” says Vanessa Reed, chief executive of the PRS for Music Foundation.
Naomi Pohl is the assistant general secretary of the Musicians’ Union. “We know there are likely to be many victims who have not spoken out about abuse they have suffered at the hands of powerful individuals in music,” she says. “I hope whatever is said at the Brits by high-profile artists will empower victims to come forward in the knowledge that they will be supported and believed.” Yet the musician Kate Nash is unsurprised by the lack of publicly reported incidents: “Most of the time, victims are punished for coming forward and end up suffering more after the initial trauma.”
There are countless initiatives dedicated to addressing gender equality within the British music industry, but a sense remains that powerful figures are hesitant to confront the issue of sexual harassment until a scandal emerges, and that implementing behavioural guidelines could spoil a permissive culture. “If we remain reactive, we’re in danger of constantly being on the defensive and not solving problems where there are real problems,” says Pacifico.
Some figures also believe the industry is actively resistant to addressing the problem. Responding to a direct request for comment, one leading British pop star says her team have asked her not to speak about the issue. The Musicians’ Union has established a hotline for musicians to share their experiences of sexual harassment and request the union’s intervention should they wish – a move that Pohl says met with “initial resistance” from certain bodies. “For those organisations who represent the industry rather than individuals, I think the first instinct is to protect and defend the industry and say, ‘We don’t think we have a problem,’” she adds.
She says the hotline has received reports from a lone woman in an orchestra who was nicknamed “Tits”, and a woman who quit her job after being forced to continue working with a male colleague who, she alleged, had assaulted her. Another woman reported being signed to a label that paid for her housing and food but gave her no cashflow, leading to a situation in which an employee took advantage. Most women calling the hotline “don’t want retribution”, says Pohl. Instead, they want to “prevent that sort of thing happening to other people”.
Pohl also expresses concerns about the use of settlement and non-disclosure agreements within labels to conceal abuse. “There’s got to be less secrecy,” she says. “I heard one record label had multiple claims of sexual harassment of fans by one of their male bands who were beginning to do quite well. Their instinct was, of course, to protect the band, so they didn’t do anything about it. They had the opportunity to pull the tour but they didn’t – they saw [the issue] as an inconvenience.”
Third emphasises the importance of recognising sexual harassment in the music industry as structural, “rather than it being about rooting out the odd bad apple. There are some individuals who are particularly bad – to the point of it being imprisonable – but it’s totally systemic, and [this movement] should be about more than highlighting a few people.” When 70% of senior industry figures are men, unconscious bias is inevitable, Third adds. “They don’t understand the issues well enough to do anything about it. You have men who would be horrified at the thought of women being harassed at work, but at the same time don’t think women can understand finance.”
Nash says she is fortunate never to have experienced “anything that extreme”, but reflects on the “seedy” dynamic that underpinned her early career as a teenage songwriter plucked from MySpace: “Middle-aged men buying you drinks, trying to get you to sign contracts that aren’t artist-friendly.” She says she had no pastoral care from her label at the time – Fiction, a subsidiary of Universal – and that despite writing her own material was told to give up “more of my songwriting than I felt was fair. I got advised – all by men – to give up on the fight because of how bad it could be for me in the press if it came out.”
After any scandal involving sexual harassment or inequality, the music industry often launches mentoring initiatives aimed at women rather than the men in positions of power. Given that the issue nonetheless persists, some have questioned the efficacy of such schemes. Pacifico says he would like to see more mixed mentoring, and Third adds: “Anything that puts the emphasis back on the system and away from women is good. Don’t patronise women by saying, ‘We can show you the way.’” She says she has experienced bullying and sexual harassment during her 20-plus years in the business, but refused to ever quit a job over it. “When you’re a woman in music, you have to have such strong boundaries.”