Sexism in the Music Industry: Why Kesha is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Sexism in the Music Industry: Why Kesha is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

This weekend Kesha made her way back into the news, although thankfully it was under slightly better circumstances. In a conversation with Entertainment Tonight on Friday, dance music superstar Zedd repeated his public offer to produce a song for Kesha, even saying that she and her team have reached out privately to confirm that his offer was genuine. Zedd’s original offer to collaborate with the pop star came in the wake of a court ruling several weeks ago that prohibited Kesha from leaving her six-album contract with Sony and her current producer/alleged rapist Dr. Luke.

The ruling naturally garnered flack from fans, prominent musicians, and the general public alike. Fans protested the judge’s decision outside of the New York courthouse while artists like Lady Gaga (herself a victim of sexual assault) came to Kesha’s defense on social media. Zedd wasn’t the only producer to offer to collaborate with Kesha, either—Jack Antonoff (best known for his bands fun. and Bleachers, and for his work on Taylor Swift’s album 1989) wrote a less guarded tweet offering to make a song with her and either “leak it for everyone” or simply “wait on it (until) that creep can’t block you anymore."

Kesha was also honored on Saturday by Nashville’s Human Rights Campaign, receiving their Visibility Award for using her current position to advocate for the proper treatment of LGBT youth. Unfortunately despite her steady media presence, the #FreeKesha movement has fizzled out a bit since it reached a boil two weeks ago. Which is a shame, because a sustained conversation about Kesha’s predicament might provide the visibility necessary to finally illuminate what a hostile environment the music industry is for women.

Professional Slavery

On the surface, the judge’s decision in Kesha’s court case makes it seem like sexism doesn’t even factor into the situation. “You’re asking the court to decimate a contract that was heavily negotiated and typical for the industry,” New York Supreme Court Justice Shirley Kornreich said. “My instinct is to do the commercially reasonable thing.” Justice Kornreich’s statement isn’t without merit. Allowing an artist to walk out of a legally binding contract is a dangerous precedent for a label to set. Sony has fought hard to avoid this slippery slope in the past, perhaps most prominently in 1994 when singer George Michael filed a lawsuit against the company in an attempt to be freed from his contract. In what he described as “professional slavery,” the court ruled against him and moved to uphold the contract, using a similar argument to the one Justice Kornreich presented just last month.

Kesha cries as the court announces its decision to uphold her contractual obligations to Dr. Luke, her producer and alleged rapist

Kesha cries as the court announces its decision to uphold her contractual obligations to Dr. Luke, her producer and alleged rapist

Some have responded to this by arguing that over the past twenty years it’s become easier for male artists to leave their recording contracts, while women still face the same opposition that George Michael experienced in 1994. One of the most common pieces of evidence in this argument is One Direction member Zayn Malik, who walked out of the band’s contract in 2015 simply because he wanted to pursue a solo career. If Kesha is legally obligated to remain in a contract with her alleged rapist, why is Zayn able to excuse himself from his contract on much more trivial grounds? Unfortunately, the answer is a bit more complicated than Kesha’s supporters would like. As it turns out, Zayn didn’t disregard his contract. Ever since its inception, it contained a “leaving member clause” that allowed the band to move forward with only four members upon his departure. The clause also gave his label Syco—you guessed it, a subsidiary of Sony—the option to pick up his contract as a solo artist. These “leaving member clauses” are common among both male and female pop vocal groups. In fact, bands like Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls both had members make similar departures from their contracts.

The issue is this: when there’s potential for a lucrative solo career down the road, labels like Sony put acute preemptive care into providing ways for their artists to opt out of long-term contracts. So why isn’t the same level of care applied when their artist says her producer raped her? The main difference is Sony’s ability to profit from the artist’s music moving forward. After leaving One Direction, Zayn still brings in revenue for Sony via his solo career; however, if Kesha had been granted a preliminary injunction, she would have been able to leave Sony altogether and sign to a new label.

Of course the sanctity of contracts in the music industry should be taken seriously. But the sanctity of a woman’s right to not be raped is more important. The decision to uphold Kesha’s contract with her alleged rapist sets a dangerous precedent to value women as products instead of people, and redefines a woman’s liberation from her abuser as an unnecessary loss of future revenue.

The Industry Ain't Safe

Kesha’s case is indicative of a larger issue: many people in the music industry don’t address sexual assault against women with the gravity that it demands. It’s a pandemic problem, often perpetuated by some of the most powerful men in the industry. Sometimes the transgressions are blatant and abhorrent. In a guest verse on Dr. Dre’s 2015 song “Medicine Man,” Eminem raps “nonbelievers, there ain’t none / I even make the b*tches I rape c*m.” Other times they’re subtler. Grammy honored musicians Rev Run (of Run DMC) and Tyrese recently promoted victim-blaming on their talk show (which is ironically titled It’s Not You, It’s Men), asserting that women should “dress how (they) want to be addressed” if they don’t want to be harassed by men.

Even outside of obvious topics like sexual assault, sexism in the music industry is undeniable and omnipresent. By now you’ve probably seen those commercials for Apple Music featuring Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henson, and Mary J. Blige sitting around, dancing, and sharing playlists. When asked about the thinking that went into the ad, Jimmy Iovine (music producer and cofounder of Interscope Records) said the problem it aims to solve is that “women find it difficult at times—some women—to find music.” He continued to detail his inspiration behind the commercial: “I just thought of a problem. Girls are sitting around, talking about boys, complaining about boys, when they’re heartbroken or whatever, and they need music for that…You need great lists for dinner, you need great lists for exercising, and you need great lists for moments like that.” It’s not a good sign when one of the most powerful men in the industry regards women as two-dimensional, lovelorn "girls" too helpless to search for music to accompany their crying and gossiping.

Rhetoric like this is dangerous in its own right, but what really make the industry unsafe are the powerful men whose brand of sexism is closer to Dr. Luke’s than Iovine’s. One of these men is Heathcliff Berru. Until recently, Berru was known primarily as the founder of Life or Death, a respected PR firm associated with high profile acts like Killer Mike, Odd Future, and D’Angelo. But that changed literally overnight back in late January when Amber Coffman (of the band Dirty Projectors) tweeted about a time when Berru physically harassed her at a bar. Perhaps because she’s a well-known and well-respected musician, Coffman’s tweet was enough of a spark to set in motion a flurry of responses from other women in the industry who have also been victimized by the publicist. Beth Martinez, another music publicist, said she had a similar experience one night when Berru “repeatedly put his hand down my shirt while driving me home after I told him to stop many times.” Musician Roxy Lange shared a more graphic story of a time when Berru exposed himself in a taxi and repeatedly tried to force himself onto her, after which he followed her up to her apartment, forced himself inside, and tried to take advantage of her again before giving up and passing out. Bethany Cosentino (of the rock duo Best Coast) thanked Coffman via twitter for speaking up, saying that she knew Berru was “a scumbag,” but “was too freaked out to ever say anything.” Within a day the backlash against Berru was so severe that prominent artists like D’Angelo, Kelela, and Speedy Ortiz were publically denouncing him and terminating their partnerships with the firm. Berru ended up resigning as CEO of his company, and the remaining employees dissolved Life or Death and banded together to create a new firm unaffiliated with him. 

Amber Coffman and others come forward about Heathcliff Berru's sexual predatation

Amber Coffman and others come forward about Heathcliff Berru's sexual predatation

It’s important to realize that Berru isn’t an outlier. Countless women in the music industry have been sexually harassed, only a fraction of which are famous. CHVRCHES lead singer Lauren Mayberry has spoken out about the daily violent sexual threats she receives via her band’s social media accounts. Lady Gaga was raped soon after pursuing a career as a professional musician. Grimes (whose Art Angels was one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 2015) was sexually assaulted by a stranger backstage at her own show. For every famous woman who makes headlines by speaking out about these experiences, there are countless more behind the scenes who deal with the same thing. One of the most shocking examples of powerful men in the music industry taking advantage of anonymous women and girls is the despicable “baby groupies” movement of the mid-20th century. Some of the world’s most famous rock stars were known for raping underage teens and even preteen girls. The movement was infamously immortalized in Iggy Pop’s 1996 song “Look Away,” written about one such groupie Sable Starr, when he sang, “I slept with Sable when she was 13 / her parents were too rich to do anything.” And this kind of appalling sexual assault still takes place today. The list of examples is literally too long to fit into a single article, but a small collection of stories from less famous women in the music industry can be read on the Tumblr “The Industry Ain’t Safe.” The stories you’ll find here only just begin to scratch the surface of what happens on a massive scale in today’s industry.

Doing the Math

In case harassment and degradation weren’t enough, even after they fight their way through a climate of sexual assault, female musicians are historically not provided with the same opportunities as male musicians. For proof, look no further than last year’s summer festival season. The Governors Ball lineup featured one of the highest rates of female inclusion of any summer music festival… at a mere 30%. Coachella, one of the country’s most popular festivals, boasted a lineup that was less than 14% female. According to an analysis by The Guardian that examined twelve of the largest UK music festivals, 86% of the advertised performers were found to be men. (Below you can find images of some festival lineups from last summer with the all-male acts removed).

The 2015 Governors Ball lineup with the all-male acts removed.

The 2015 Governors Ball lineup with the all-male acts removed.

It’s not just music festivals that disproportionately exclude women, either. The Grammys—one of music’s biggest platforms for artists—is guilty of similar rates of discrimination. In 2011, the LA Times conducted a study that statistically analyzed all nominees since the award show’s inception in three of its four major categories: Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best New Artist (the study chose to exclude Song of the Year, a songwriters' award, in order to focus more accurately on nominees in the public eye). This Grammys census found that since 1959, 48% of nominees had been white males. Meanwhile, only 21% had been white females. And if you’re hoping that the minority nomination tallies had a large enough impact to balance the gender ratio, think again—the combined total of all black nominees was a mere 19% (for a closer look at racism and the Grammys, check out this article).

The 2015 Coachella lineup with the all-male acts removed.

The 2015 Coachella lineup with the all-male acts removed.

All of these different statistics can start to make your head spin, but luckily they can be reduced to just a single percentage that matters: 50%. 50% of all human beings are women. That means 50% of the world’s talented musicians are women. It means that 50% of your favorite music festival’s lineup should be women. And it means that 50% of Grammy nominees should be women. Until 50% of the musicians you see getting recognized by these institutions are women, there will be brilliant female musicians out there who aren’t being acknowledged. There’s a chance that you haven’t heard of your favorite musician yet—and at this rate, you might go your entire life without discovering her. Maybe she’s too afraid to enter the music industry, disheartened and deterred by its regular mistreatment of women. Maybe she already has a recording contract, but her label is more concerned with profits than her personal rights and so her music is being stymied. Maybe she’s been lucky enough to build a fruitful, healthy career as a recording artist, only to find herself shut out of the top festivals and award shows and thus denied maximum publicity. Whatever the reason, it’s not okay to sit by and watch it happen anymore. Sexism in the music industry is here to stay unless we collectively decide to stop ignoring it. 

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