How Women Are Smashing Misogyny in the Music Business
Illustration by Jason Raish
Over the last two years, the often abysmal treatment of women in the music industry — from disenfranchisement to harassment to sexual assault — has finally received the kind of attention it deserves. In October 2014, singer-songwriter Kesha filed a lawsuit against Sony and producer Dr. Luke (Lukasz Gottwald) for sexual, verbal, emotional and physical abuse. Though a judge dismissed parts of the lawsuit in April (and denied her request to be released from her contract with Sony), Kesha prevailed in other ways; celebrities and the masses championed her cause online and in social media with a "Free Kesha" hashtag campaign, a petition demanding Sony release her and a crowdfunding effort to try to buy her out of her contract.
In July 2015, 40 years after her band's then-manager, Kim Fowley, allegedly raped her in front of a room full of people in an Orange County motel room, Jackie Fuchs (aka Jackie Fox) of The Runaways went public in a Huffington Post Highline story. Fuchs was just 16 years old at the time of the attack. Her decision to come forward sparked a national debate about how statutory rape was normalized and even glorified in the music industry of the '70s and '80s — and how such behavior still is often nostalgically revered.
And in early 2016, a multitude of female musicians and publicists took to Twitter with allegations that they'd been sexually assaulted by Life or Death PR founder Heathcliff Berru. Berru quickly resigned from his post, issued a mass public apology and checked into rehab. By then, the conversation about the mistreatment of women in the music business had hit its crescendo.
In a business where late nights, hotel-room meetings, drinking and drugs often are woven into the job, the line between the professional and the personal has been easy to exploit. Facilitated by a "boys club" mentality and the historic reluctance of women to speak out for fear of derailing their careers, bad behavior has flourished in the music biz for decades. Now, however, more and more women across the industry are coming forward with stories of abuse and mistreatment — and figuring out ways to fight the problem.
Veterans of the biz point out that conditions have improved since the cocaine-fueled days of the '70s and '80s. Sexual assault — although rampant — wasn't even acknowledged in the industry until the early '90s, after a former Geffen Records secretary filed a lawsuit against the label for sexual harassment, battery and assault. When there was money at stake, executives finally were forced to listen.
Now, using social media as their platform, women are able to make their voices and stories heard, perhaps more loudly than ever — and have found ways to build each other up while tearing the patriarchy down.
We talked to more than 20 L.A. musicians, publicists, producers, managers and former executives over the last five months, from the top of the food chain to those new to the game, to learn about the hurdles that have been forced into their paths and the ways in which they've overcome them.
Bringing Sexual Harassment to the Forefront
Sexual harassment and abuse in the music industry hit a grotesque peak in the 1980s, as punk rock gave way to hair metal, and the Sunset Strip became a playground for unrestricted indulgence.
Vicky Hamilton witnessed the debauchery firsthand when she moved from Indiana to L.A. in 1981. Hamilton worked as a cocktail waitress and also as a music merchandiser at record shop Licorice Pizza but quickly climbed industry ranks to work for Mötley Crüe's manager.
From there, she went on to book, promote and/or manage bands including Guns N' Roses, Faster Pussycat and Stryper. Hamilton says that, to this day, she still fields questions about which member of Guns N' Roses she slept with, simply because she managed and lived with the band for a time.
"It should never even come up," Hamilton says, pointing out that the key to her success was keeping her nose to the grindstone and steering clear of "flirty" executives. "I was very driven and just wanted to succeed in the business."
It wasn't until 1991, when a former secretary, then–28-year-old Penny Muck, filed a lawsuit against Geffen Records and its parent organizations for sexual harassment, battery and assault, that the industry was forced to address the pervasive problem. Muck claimed execs permitted "outrageous sexually deviant behavior" — and that executive Marko Babineau touched her breasts, jammed her face in his crotch and masturbated in front of her, the L.A. Times reported at the time.
Muck claimed there was a long line of women who had filed complaints about Babineau previously, but Geffen's top tier declined to take action. Attorneys for Geffen denied these allegations, according to the L.A. Times. Although Geffen initially issued a statement saying Babineau had resigned in order to spend more time with his family, the record label later conceded that he had been "terminated as a result of an investigation into Muck's allegations," the L.A. Times reported in 1992.
Muck's case eventually was settled out of court for a reported $500,000. While that payout may be small potatoes for a company like Geffen, Muck's case succeeded in bringing sexual harassment to the forefront and spurring other women to come forward with their own accounts.
"The guy I blew the whistle on was well loved by many powerful people at Geffen and throughout the industry," Muck told the L.A. Times in March 1992, in her first interview about the lawsuit. "When you tell something like this, it's so shocking. It's horrible. I felt totally isolated. I didn't do this to become a crusader. That was never my intention. But I couldn't just turn my head and walk away. This stuff has to stop."
Former music industry executive Julie Farman recently came forward with allegations of abuse by members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Blood, Sugar, Sex, Dickheads
It took Julie Farman, a three-decade veteran of the music industry who's now a marketing consultant, more than 20 years to go public with her allegations about being harassed by two members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was the recent conversation surrounding Heathcliff Berru — as well as an onslaught of publicity for the Chili Peppers as they prepared to release a new album — that finally convinced her.
"This incident, which I always framed as being very benign, took on much more power from everything I've been reading and hearing and seeing," Farman says.
The "incident" occurred 25 years ago, when Farman was the West Coast associate director of media and artist relations at Epic Records. She had just wrapped up an afternoon presentation and led two of the Chili Peppers to the office storage room so they could pick out some CDs and other swag. She says that in the storage room, they proceeded to rub up against her and tell her about the ways they could make "a super sexy sandwich." (Farman will not disclose which two members allegedly made the unwanted advances.)
In April, Farman published her account on her blog, the Grayish Carpet, and said that, at the time of the incident, she had considered it "a 3 on the 1-to-10 scale of sexual harassment." She says she kept her silence not because she didn't think it was a big deal but because she was embarrassed and felt that she was overreacting.
"It never occurred to me that that would affect me the way it affected me," she says.
Each of Farman's blog posts typically attracts only a few hundred to 1,000 readers, but this post, "Blood, Sugar, Sex, Dickheads," racked up about 134,000 views.
Although she says she was contacted by multiple news outlets after her blog post went live (and she turned down most of their requests for interviews), it was the effect her story had on other victims that she finds most moving. She says she received hundreds of Facebook and Twitter messages, in addition to comments on her blog, from men and women who wanted to not only offer their support but also share their own experiences — many of which they'd never previously shared.
"I had no idea that this would have the kind of impact that it did," she says.
Former Las Cafeteras musician/dancer Annette Torres published a blog post claiming that she was criticized and demeaned by her male bandmates.
Ostracized From Her Musical Community for Speaking Out
On Dec. 9, 2015, after a few words of encouragement in a text from her partner, native Angeleno Annette Torres published a lengthy blog post detailing how she was criticized, ignored and demeaned by her male bandmates in Chicano alt-folk band Las Cafeteras. It was about eight months since she'd separated from the band, with which she had danced and played the marimbol for nearly a decade. Torres says ongoing mental and emotional abuse caused her to spiral into depression.
"I was tired of being silent," she says. "I was tired of not having a voice."
She recalls staring anxiously at her computer screen in the minutes following her post, watching as the first person "liked" the story and commented on it. From there, Torres received a deluge of emails, blog shares and messages.
"Everything happened so fast," she says. "I didn't think it was going to reach as many people as it did."
Las Cafeteras began as an East L.A. music collective in 2006; by 2008, the seven-person ensemble was born. Consisting of four men and three women, the group included Torres' nephews, David and Hector Flores. Heavily influenced by a traditional Mexican musical style called son jarocho, the band embraced an eclectic array of styles including punk, cumbia and folk. The band, which in addition to performing also led educational workshops on topics such as race and identity, privilege and power, intended to address important issues in an effort to "better the world," Torres says.
"It was to speak of injustices and oppression in our community," she says.
But soon, Torres says, she was the one facing oppression. As a mother and the oldest one of the group, she was restricted from media appearances so that the band could maintain a youthful image, she says. She adds that the group's men had created a "bro space" and routinely silenced, criticized and bullied the women, and that she was ostracized for occasionally being late or having to miss practice in order to be with her daughters.
At one point, Torres says she tried to start a separate, all-female band with the women in the group, but the men called the move a "conflict of interest" and halted that effort. So in March 2015, Torres confronted the group about what she felt were misogynistic actions. Within two weeks, she was kicked out of the band, she says. In a Facebook statement published in December, the band says Torres left of her own accord and had not responded to "numerous attempts to resolve this matter."
Las Cafeteras members declined to comment on Torres' claims for this story. David Flores said in an interview with the Weekly last year: "Her statement [in her blog post] really put a dagger into our ethos and our values as a social justice organization."
Torres says many of her friends and most of her extensive family (she is one of 14 children) still won't talk to her because she publicly criticized her kin. She says she has spent the last year rebuilding her self-esteem, taking vocal and music lessons, reflecting on her career with Las Cafeteras and figuring out what's next.
"When this happened, I had no idea what I was going to do," she says. "To me, music was my life. It saved me. This whole year, I've been finding myself again."
Publicist Beth Martinez was one of dozens of women who reported being assaulted by Life or Death PR founder Heathcliff Berru.
Twitter as a Social-Justice Tool
On a Monday evening in January, publicist Beth Martinez had just gotten home from a yoga class when she received a text from a friend. He told her to go online and check the Twitter account of Dirty Projectors singer-guitarist Amber Coffman.
Martinez, founder of indie music PR company Danger Village, quickly realized that the scenario Coffman described was all too familiar.
Coffman tweeted: "Was just re-telling/re-remembering a story abt how a very popular music publicist RUBBED my ass and BIT my hair at a bar a couple years ago."
She soon followed it up with: "It was Heathcliff Berru, at Life or Death PR and MGMT."
The tweet was the final push Martinez needed to come forward with her own story. Throngs of others would soon follow.
"I made a decision just to go all in," Martinez says. "I knew that he was assaulting other people. Of course, I did not know the extent of it."
Martinez followed Coffman's tweet with her own Twitter account of what Berru allegedly had done to her on a December night in 2009. In dispatches of 140 characters or less, Martinez said that Berru repeatedly tried to stick his hands down her shirt while driving her home from a bar in Chicago. She recalled that she told him multiple times to stop.
"I had not given the impression in any way that I was interested in him [Berru] sexually," she tells the L.A. Weekly. "I remember thinking I should get out of the car, but it was this bad neighborhood, and there was no public transportation or cabs or anything around."
Prior to Coffman's disclosure, Martinez had only told a few people about the incident, and if Coffman hadn't tweeted first, Martinez says she probably wouldn't have done so. She says she had felt that her voice alone wouldn't garner much attention, and she'd been worried about how her account would be perceived: one publicist trying to disparage her competition.
The morning after her Twitter confessions, Martinez woke up with a "terrible vulnerability hangover," she says, which only started to fade once the story broke online and journalists began emailing her for comment. She says she found it shocking that people actually cared.
"This is the moment," she recalls thinking, "and this is the right thing to be happening."
Within a few days, other women came forward with reports of having been drugged, assaulted and nearly raped by the Life or Death PR founder. Women who hadn't been attacked themselves retweeted their peers in a show of support, and some of Berru's clients, including Wavves and Speedy Ortiz, fired him immediately by way of social media.
Yasmine Kittles, vocalist/percussionist in the L.A. duo Tearist, also tweeted back in January about her experiences with Berru. In late March, she filed sexual battery criminal charges against him. She explained her decision on her Facebook page, with a statement on why she's moving forward with legal action: "After seeing how many women came forward after us I knew I had to do something more than just comment about it. He has to be stopped and others like him have to know that women will report them. We have to stop the cycle."
Now, whenever Berru's name is Googled, the search yields pages of links to stories that describe his alleged sexual misconduct.
"That is justice," says Judy Miller Silverman, owner of Motormouthmedia and publicist for Dirty Projectors, who suggests that those search results will affect Berru's job and dating prospects. "The social shame is going to impede him in many ways."
To provide women with a safe space to talk about matters like these, and to locate resources for counseling and stay current on relevant news and legal cases, Silverman created a private Facebook group, which now has about 400 members.
"We aren't out there trying to make men's lives miserable," she says. "We just want to be treated properly in the workplace, and all the things that come with that."
Further complicating things are the few avenues for recourse in the music biz. Many boutique agencies and labels lack a human resources department, so there's no in-house way to handle workplace grievances. If a woman decides to file criminal charges, she faces an arduous legal process. And that's a big "if." About 70 percent of women who are sexually harassed in the workplace do not report the incident for fear of retaliation, according to a survey conducted by YouGov and the Huffington Post.
As for action taken in response to allegations of sexual assault, many women have seen better results from Twitter, Facebook and the mainstream media, where alleged offenders are essentially "tried in the court of public opinion," says Patti Giggans, executive director of Peace Over Violence, a nonprofit that educates and advocates for victims of sexual and domestic violence. The victims "may not get any legal justice, but they are getting some satisfaction," she says.
(However, releasing accusations on Twitter does raise concerns about false accusations. The very public nature of social media has the potential to demolish reputations prior to any corroboration.)
Giggans credits the social networks with creating more discussion about sexual assault than ever before.
"That privilege that men have had, to use and abuse women the way they want because they have power, is going to come to an end," Giggans says. "Those authentic voices — survivors' voices — are so powerful now. Nobody can drown them out anymore."
Kate "Dot" Ellwanger founded her label, Unspeakable Records, as an outlet for female artists.
A New Frontier
Kate "Dot" Ellwanger is settling into her new office space in a downtown building near Skid Row. The bright, light-filled studio is anchored by a large desk occupied by speakers and production equipment. Ellwanger, 24, shares the space with a photographer, so the room is magazine-ready: clean lines, high ceilings and a carefully curated living room.
Ellwanger has just moved her label, Unspeakable Records, from her studio apartment in downtown L.A. (and various neighborhood coffee shops) to its first real office space. The 2-year-old company currently boasts about 15 artists, all women and mostly electronic producers.
Ellwanger got her start in electronic music production after attending Chapman University's Hall-Musco Conservatory of Music and falling in love with producing. After an internship at Alpha Pup Records, she launched Unspeakable in 2014 as an all-female brand.
"I noticed that there was sort of a lack of camaraderie among female producers," she says, "just because I think we're so few and far between — at least at that point."
Ellwanger says she's experienced some sexism in the industry — such as when a promoter assumed she was Dot's girlfriend, instead of the label owner herself. She's also found that embracing the female identity in the industry can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, she's been criticized for capitalizing on the scarcity of women in electronic music. On the other, her success sometimes is attributed solely to the fact that she's a woman in a male-dominated genre.
But Ellwanger says she doesn't dwell on these things.
"I can either choose to get really angry and spiral in that direction," she says, "or I can channel that into doing something positive."
Ellwanger has been surrounded throughout her young career by supportive producers such as Team Supreme, a label and collective whose (mostly male) members have served as her mentors and taught her much of what she knows about producing. They showed her that more can be achieved as a group than as an individual going it alone, she says.
Now, she's using the label to get more women involved in writing and production. She teaches an advanced music composition and programming class at the Los Angeles Recording School and is planning to use her new office space to conduct private lessons, host production workshops and work as an artist mentor — one who creates an environment where women can work together toward a common goal.
"There's already so many other labels that are total boys' clubs," she says, "Depending on who you're working with, you might be pressured in some way to use your image to promote your music — and maybe do it in a way that isn't true to your vision."
Andreea Magdalina is taking a like-minded approach in her effort to band women together. Three years ago, at the age of 24, she was vice president of content at Mixcloud, a music streaming service based in London. One day, during a meeting at a local radio station, Magdalina realized she was being shut out from the conversation. She also was the only woman there.
"I felt like I didn't have a voice," she says. "I felt super frustrated that I was treated like an intern."
Magdalina reached out to female co-workers and created a support system. This informal crew eventually developed into She Said So, a 1,000-member, all-female network of record executives, managers and publicists. It's a reciprocal system in which each woman has the potential to be both mentor and mentee. There's an application process based on merits, which has helped build an ambitious, successful network of women across the globe, Magdalina says, who moved to L.A. in 2014.
"Having a voice internationally is important for us," she says, "because it allows us to create change across the key cities where the music industry has its core."
Industry veteran Silverman says she's encouraged by the power of social media not only to expose injustices in the business but also to help build a strong, outspoken community of women who empower one another.
"The internet is now our true forum for revealing," she says. "I think it's the beginning of a long, long revolution."
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