“The first major step is just people getting woke,” a veteran entertainment attorney told Moneyish
A key change in the music industry could be in order.
As the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements consume Hollywood, media and beyond, music appears poised for its own reckoning on sexual abuse and gender inequality: Nelly, R. Kelly and record exec Charlie Walk face backlash over recent allegations of sexual misconduct, while Russell Simmons, accused of rape, saw himself axed from Oprah Winfrey’s self-help book. Janelle Monae called for “safer work environments and equal pay” in an impassioned Grammys speech before Kesha belted out “Praying,” a gut-wrenching reflection on her own alleged abuse. The grassroots coalition Voices In Entertainment, formed last month, sent some attendees to the ceremony sporting symbolic white roses.
Grammys President Neil Portnow, meanwhile, took heat after suggesting — and later backpedaling on — the notion that industry women should “step up.” “The statement you made this week about women in music needing to ‘step up’ was spectacularly wrong and insulting and, at its core, oblivious to the vast body of work created by and with women,” read a fiery letter from female senior executives. “Today we are stepping up and stepping in to demand your resignation.”
One reason for #MeToo’s relatively slow seep into mainstream music, attorney Monika Tashman told Moneyish, is a lack of larger organizing bodies. ”We all exist in our sort of independent fiefdoms,” she said. But Portnow’s remarks, coming after a measly 17 of 86 Grammy categories went to women, “created community” and unified women. “We left depressed and we didn’t know why, and then Neil Portnow made the comments he made about women having to step it up,” Tashman said. “We all bust our asses, right? And then for someone to say that we need to step it up — are you kidding? You step it up!”
Another impediment to music’s reckoning, Tashman said, is that artists typically land in years-long, multi-album deals as opposed to working on a one-off Hollywood film. “Because you’re in them longer-term, there is more fear and less ability to speak out,” she said. “The repercussions are potentially longer, because it’s a longer relationship.”
Attorney Jill Berliner, who entered the business in 1985, recounted horror stories from an early decade-long stint at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp. A senior partner at the firm, she told Moneyish, would regularly grab her leg under the table during lunch with important clients, walk by and slap her butt, and extend a coveted invite to the industry conference Midem on the condition they shared a hotel room. (Berliner says she turned it down each of the seven times.) “It was the norm not just for me, (but) for every woman I talked to,” she said. “That’s just what you dealt with.” She likened the dynamic to a game of cat and mouse: “If you laughed and kept your sense of humor, you won.”
“I don’t think any of this has stopped,” said Berliner, who has represented Nirvana, Foo Fighters and the Smashing Pumpkins. “I think what’s happened is that women have been given permission in the #MeToo movement to report this, and the people they’re reporting it to are now being forced to listen … People are more willing to talk about it, and I think hopefully there’s going to be consequences where there weren’t before.”
Sexist music marketing poses yet another obstacle, Berliner said, as women on album covers, ads, music videos and even stage costuming are treated as sex objects. “With the exception of maybe k.d. lang, you don’t see female performers in a suit looking professional — they’re generally in very tight-fitting clothes.”
Then, of course, there’s the industry’s stunning underrepresentation of women: On the top songs of 2017, a recent study from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found, just 16.8% of artists were women; out of 2,767 credited songwriters, 12.3% were female. The ratio of male to female producers was a jarring 49.1 to 1, while only 9.3% of Grammy nominees from 2013 to 2018 were women. “Females are missing in popular music,” the study concluded in part.
“It’s the rare Taylor Swift or Adele that happen — they are few and far between,” Berliner said. And it’s not always easy for the few industry women to promote other women: “They’re looking at who’s the best person for the job, and generally you’re going to see maybe 80% men and 20% women applying for the job, whether it’s manager or agent or lawyer or tour manager or roadie,” she said. “So you’ve got to make a huge, go-out-of-your-way effort to bring on a team of women.”
So what to do? “The first major step is just people getting woke, and obviously the men who have been in positions of power getting woke to what women have been dealing with all these years,” said veteran entertainment attorney Laurie Soriano, whose clients include Frank Ocean, Carly Simon and Marilyn Manson. “It’s extremely difficult to break out of a boys’ club … I think the first notion that has to be embraced is that there shouldn’t be any kind of club.”
People also need to call out bad behaviors, Soriano said, “because when you remain silent, unfortunately, they tend to get worse.” “(For) women in my generation, the attitude was just ‘whatever, eye roll, just let the behavior happen and … leave me alone,’” she said. “I think that younger women are understanding that it’s better to call things as they occur and address them.” Soriano already sees improvement: “Even in just the normal conversations that I have with men in my industry — and I mostly talk to men — I’m telling you, the language that is used has changed,” she said. “The good men, they respond. They modify.”
Education and awareness are vital, Soriano said, suggesting it’s simple enough to implement harassment training within corporate music organizations. Berliner, for her part, has established and distributed a detailed sexual harassment policy to all of her clients’ employees. Soriano applauded the zero-tolerance mentality put forth by Universal Music Publishing Group CEO Jody Gerson, who pledged last month not to “knowingly sign an artist who has committed a violent crime against women, or anybody else.” “I hope that the male executives will sort of adopt the same mantra,” Soriano said. “If they do, that would be extraordinary.”
Women supporting other women, “as trite as that is,” is critical, Soriano added. “One big thing is mentoring,” she said. “It’s also just having female executives supporting female artists … That’s a little bit of a problematic thing, because unless you have enough women in positions of power then you don’t achieve power for as many women. But it is happening.”
“When (women) get into powerful positions, we need to try to be better than the people who were above us as leaders, as role models,” Berliner added. “Think about it. Be conscious. Try your best. I don’t care if you’re a woman or a man — try to give women opportunities. Try to treat them fairly.”
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