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We need to talk about the music industry’s open secrets

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A new series from gal-dem and VICE calls for change in an industry that has swept sexual misconduct under the rug for too long.

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25 Jul 2022

Aude Nasr

This article is part of Open Secrets, a collaboration between gal-dem and VICE that explores abusive behaviour in the music industry – and how it has been left unchecked for too long. Read gal-dem’s Open Secrets articles here, and read VICE’s Open Secrets articles here.

Content warning: This article contains mention of abuse and sexual assault.

It’s a question that comes up again and again: “Why hasn’t music had its #MeToo moment?” Despite the movement towards justice and accountability in Hollywood, there has been little to no reckoning in the music business, and no real or meaningful change for victims and survivors. According to the Musicians’ Union, almost half of musicians have experienced sexual harassment at work. Survey after survey reveals the extent of such abuse, but the industry itself remains unchanged. It is far easier to pass off individuals convicted of abuse, like R Kelly, as bad apples rather than admit the whole system is rotten from the inside out.

“According to the Musicians’ Union, almost half of musicians have experienced sexual harassment at work”

The informality of the business means a world of late-night recording sessions, boozy tour buses and bars as offices. The defence for bad behaviour often relies on claims about the “blurred lines” of these environments – that it is built into a culture where work and play frequently cross over. This is also an industry that has traditionally been dominated by men, with women, femmes and non-binary people often tokenised and lacking support.

In a business that relies heavily on freelance work, reporting harassment or abuse is an unwieldy process that only underlines the precarity of one’s employment. It’s no surprise, then, that over four in five victims of harassment decide against coming forward due to the “culture of the industry” – a fact underlined by the testimony of some of the women who came forward recently to accuse DJ Tim Westwood of sexual misconduct. (Westwood has denied all the allegations.)

But what happens when these “open secrets” are never called out? How many people have had their lives ruined or been forced out of their dream job because the structure and dynamics of the industry only serves to protect those higher up the food chain? How much incredible music has been lost just because victims and survivors were driven out, or felt they had no choice but to leave?

“What happens when these “open secrets” are never called out?”

Open Secrets is an editorial series from gal-dem and VICE that explores abusive behaviour in the music industry – and how it has been left unchecked for too long.  

On VICE, writer Stephanie Phillips speaks to people who have quit the industry completely after experiencing harassment and abuse. Music journalist Nicolas-Tyrell Scott considers what it means when abusive lyrics get a pass from record labels and the public. In an extract from The Secret DJ, an anonymous musician recounts her experience with racism in the business, and a group of music industry insiders explain how the structure of the industry itself makes it difficult to come forward and report these stories.

“If you’re reading this and work in the industry, now is the time to ask: What part will you play?”

For gal-dem, an anonymous DJ writes about their experience of speaking out about the abuse they faced in the underground music scene. Music supervisor and journalist Jumi Akinfenwa writes on the concept of whisper networks and how marginalised groups have worked to protect eachother where institutions and the media have failed. Journalist Ray Sang looks at how useful “muting” an artist is as a form of solidarity with survivors, and writer and lawyer Rahel Aklilu looks at the organisations and collectives trying to build something better and safer in music.

We are running these stories as part of our Open Secrets series to highlight the wider issues in the music industry. We are calling for change. If you’re reading this and work in the industry, now is the time to ask: What part will you play? 

There can be no more open secrets.

This article is part of Open Secrets, a collaboration between gal-dem and VICE that explores abusive behaviour in the music industry – and how it has been left unchecked for too long. Read gal-dem’s Open Secrets articles here, and read VICE’s Open Secrets articles here.

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