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Why music’s #MeToo movement has a grassroots problem

The UK’s music scene has long endured a silent epidemic of misogyny and abuse against women. Insiders are beginning to ask: should high profile names be the only ones held accountable?

“A uni band me and [my friend] were shooting talked about date raping me”, says Megan, 24, who has built a name for herself as a successful music photographer. “Now I think they wouldn’t dare, but at the time they didn’t know they’d see me again and somehow that made it okay.”

Around the same time this incident took place, a man touched Megan up from behind while she was shooting a set, an incident witnessed by many in attendance. “I left crying and nobody did anything.”

Jessica, a 21-year-old music photographer who works for a UK talent agency, tells of how a music manager she previously worked with had “joked about how all female employees had to sleep with him”, and had asked her to do cocaine with him in the office when she was 17 and he was in his late thirties.

In January of this year, tributes for the recently deceased producer Phil Spector filled social media timelines celebrating moments from an impressive discography of work: from ‘River Deep - Mountain High’ by Ike & Tina Turner, to ‘Let It Be’ by The Beatles.

Yet many of these celebratory tributary posts glazed over the fact that Spector was a convicted murderer, also accused by his wife Ronnie (lead singer of The Ronettes) in her memoir for imprisoning her in their Californian mansion and subjecting her to years of psychological torment that included refusing to allow her to perform, and threatening to hire a hitman to kill her.

Within days of Spector’s death, the conversation turned to metal performer Marilyn Manson, who is now the focus of a new FBI investigation over allegations made against him by several women. They were later corroborated with a public accusation of abuse by Manson’s former fiancé Evan Rachel Wood.

While it may feel we’ve progressed with the #MeToo social movement since it began in Hollywood, there’s something about being a man in music that seems to still permit toxic behaviour and abuse in 2021- especially when it's directed towards women.

According to a recent survey by UN Women UK, four fifths of young women in the UK have been subjected to sexual harassment, ringing true with Musicians’ Union 2019 report that almost half of musicians have experienced sexual harassment at work, with 4 in 5 not reporting it due to the culture of the industry.

The film and music industries have a lot in common. They’re notoriously difficult to crack and a very small percentage of those who dream of stardom actually reach it. A report by music business expert Moses Avalon found that even once signing with a label, success rate while signed with a major label is 1 in 2149, and commercial success from signing with an independent label is even more unlikely still: 1 in 477,000.

Both create a hotbed for the exploitation of desperate dreams, and a breeding ground for silence, out of fear of jeopardising one’s own chances at success. When you are young and still trying to make your mark in either of these worlds, the cards can feel stacked against you.

While a high-profile abuse story from within the music industry may not be that shocking, the culture of abuse, misogyny and sexism towards women is just as rife at the bottom of the music food chain, since paviours of music and art, no matter how avant-garde, have always emulated and been influenced by their idols.

This year’s Grammy Awards saw no female nominees for Producer of the Year (Non-Classical) for the second year running. Due to a notorious lack of female producers, it’s a common set-up for older male producers to be paired with younger female singers or artists, especially within the DJ and pop genres. And although up from 12.5% in 2018, female membership at the Music Producers’ Guild is still as low as 13.5% in 2021.

The resulting environment of women dependent on superior industry males creates a culture of thin lines between professional relationships, and those that are romantic or sexual in nature.

One female DJ artist, who wished to remain anonymous, explained that young women being made to believe that men are critical to their success is common within her area of the industry. She regularly hears of producers requesting non-disclosure agreements to be signed by young female artists before anything has taken place.

She added that it was common for female artists to be groomed by their male managers into relationships, and that there was a “system in place to protect men who are abusive and step over the line of what is professional”.

Music photographer and musician Laura, 34, began dating a music promoter in the London psychedelic rock scene that later developed into a relationship of three-and-a-half years. Meeting through her work as a photographer, the promoter later managed Laura’s band that she had begun as a project with a group of female friends.

Laura describes what had begun as a classic “love bomb situation” transitioning into a “hugely abusive situation from someone in a position of power”.

I started to see a completely different side of him. Things like the gaslighting, constant cheating, jealous outbursts, keeping me from seeing my friends. The worst was several layers of sexual coercion”.

With regular threats to strip the band of his management, Laura felt she was under constant pressure to please her partner in order to keep the status quo within the group. “It was always a threat”, she says. “I didn't want him near me, but I also didn't want to lose him. I didn't want to let the band down.”

‘The consequences of taking my side or standing up against him were a bit too big for them’

Eventually their relationship split, but Laura recounts how speaking out about the abuse led her to being accused of lying and forced out of the band she had founded.

“I didn't get the support of my friends, because their careers were at stake. The consequences of taking my side or standing up against him were a bit too big for them. And they didn't want to face that”.

Laura continued to feel his control linger over her professional and personal life even after their relationship dissolved, to the extent that she began attending different gigs and venues, and eventually moved to a different city earlier this year.

The stronghold of male dominated managers and producers with female DJs and pop artists is just one area of the UK music industry affected. A recent report on gender politics within the UK Jazz scene found that 30% of their interviewees of a “notable level of success” had reported experiencing sexual harassment in their careers, and 90% had experience gender-based discrimination that included requests to “sex up” their album covers and scepticism about their musical capabilities.

A subculture where the attitudes of misogyny and sexism are thriving can be found within the revival of sixties and seventies influenced rock music. An extraordinary time for freedom movements, these hallmark decades sent shockwaves through the music scene, but the industry’s adoption of such ideals ultimately lost its tenability due to the heavy weight of its own hypocrisy.

‘The music scene’s idolisation with the 60s reaches far beyond the flares and dagger collars’

Les Back, author and a professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, says: “very often these anthems of liberation were male fantasies of freedom. We live in times where music is constantly looking back for a golden age but the sexism in rock music needs to be consigned to the past.”

“Liberation for men was often subjugation for women like the Rolling Stones 'Under My Thumb'. This meant sexism was left intact or unquestioned”, he says. “Women's roles in music are limited and that legacy of 'freedom' as a license for predatory masculinity is still very much alive.”

Megan, who nurtured her career in the male-dominated field of music photography and achieved her success through networking and hard work can attest to the ‘sex-on-tap’ assumption pervasive through UK band culture.

“My whole job is to not only be part of their crew, but to make them feel comfortable and good about themselves. That can very easily be taken the wrong way.

“We are of a generation that is longing to follow examples of the past as opposed to adapting to the year we are in.

“For some reason, the music scene’s idolisation with the 60s reaches far beyond the flares and dagger collars, and seems to assign itself with misogynistic and outdated ideas about how and who you need to be if you’re within the industry.”

Olga Fitzroy, executive director at Music Producers’ Guild, says that more women present in the studio environment will help create a healthier atmosphere for all artists to work in. “We also need men in positions of power, whether that is in production, management or A&R, to do their bit and call out inappropriate behaviour wherever they see it,” she says. “It cannot be right that the responsibility for culture change lies with women alone."

Names have been changed to protect the privacy and safety of the women mentioned.


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