Why can't #MeToo shake up the music industry?

Many women are still waiting for music's full reckoning. People in the industry tell Salon why it's so complicated

Published June 20, 2018 5:00PM (EDT)

R. Kelly; Charlie Walk; Russel Simmons; Kesha (Getty/AP)
R. Kelly; Charlie Walk; Russel Simmons; Kesha (Getty/AP)

At the 60th Grammys this year, Kesha performed "Praying," a song from her latest album "Rainbow." It is the first record she's released in five years, and the first since she began an intense legal battle to be liberated from her contract with producer Lukas "Dr. Luke" Gottwald, a longtime collaborator who she says raped her.

During her performance, Kesha's face contorted in anguish as the song gained vigor. "'Cause you brought the flames and you put me through hell/ I had to learn how to fight for myself," she sang, the pain and resilience of her words manifested all over her body. Kesha would furrow her brow, squeeze her eyes shut and then glare outwards, her eyes piercing, her arms thrashing by her side.

Fittingly, she was accompanied by a diverse, all-women ensemble of back-up singers. And when the song was over, with tears streaming down her face, Kesha nearly collapsed into the arms of the women around her. But she didn't fall. The women held up Kesha's literal body and the weight of her story. It was a testimony, in support of the #MeToo movement, and perhaps a declaration that this movement is needed in the music industry, too.

Five months later, many are still waiting for that reckoning.

It hasn't all been silent on the music industry front. Charlie Walk, the former president of Universal Music Group's Republic Group label, left the company after being accused of sexual harassment by multiple women over a span of decades.

In May 2017, before Harvey Weinstein's allegations opened the floodgates for the #MeToo movement in entertainment, veteran music industry executive L.A. Reid exited from Sony Music Entertainment's Epic Records, following a sexual harassment allegation from a female assistant. But Reid was not blacklisted. He formed a new company, HitCo, reportedly raised over $100 million, and in March, Variety confirmed that Reid signed Big Boi, one half of the legendary hip-hop group Outkast.

When music mogul Russell Simmons was accused by 11 women of allegations ranging from sexual harassment to rape, he vehemently denied the accusations and said he was starting a counter-campaign called #NotMe. He's since backed down from the endeavor.

For Kesha, she may have just received the final blow to her legal fight for freedom. (Most recently, it was revealed that Kesha allegedly told Lady Gaga that Dr. Luke also raped pop star Katy Perry in 2016.)

In response to her accusations, that Dr. Luke "sexually, physically, verbally and emotionally abused" her, as she said in a 2014 lawsuit, the producer is in the process of suing Kesha for defamation. Dr. Luke strongly denies her accusations and there are no criminal charges.

Kesha has attempted to countersue the producer in hopes of being released from her contract, but to no avail. "You can get a divorce from an abusive spouse," said Kesha's proposed countersuit. "You can dissolve a partnership if the relationship becomes irreconcilable. The same opportunity — to be liberated from the physical, emotional, and financial bondage of a destructive relationship — should be available to a recording artist."

In general, and perhaps telling of the hardships for women seeking justice for alleged sexual violence in the courtroom, Kesha has been dealt a series of legal defeats when it comes to the termination of her contract with Dr. Luke. And as her legal losses mount, Kesha's allegations against Dr. Luke get further and further removed from the narrative. Her voice has effectively been muted.

While Kesha was able to release her long-awaited album "Rainbow" last year, the producer will still profit. "Any commercial triumphs Kesha experiences with 'Rainbow' are, on paper, a win for Dr. Luke as well, given the ongoing contracts that cover both her recorded music and her songwriting royalties (or publishing)," the New York Times reported.

Further, while Sony did not renew Dr. Luke's contract this year, according to the Times report, "Kesha’s deals with Kemosabe [a subsidiary of Sony started by Dr. Luke] and RCA are entirely dependent on earlier agreements she made beginning in 2005, at the age of 18, with Dr. Luke’s Kasz Money Inc. (KMI). She is also signed to his publishing company, Prescription Songs."

To some in the music industry, the exits of Walk and Reid, along with Sony distancing itself from Dr. Luke, mirrors the reckonings in Hollywood, media, the food industry and beyond. But to others, the music industry has been able to sidestep accountability for allegedly abusive artists and executives and evade the necessary institutional changes that allows such misconduct to go unchecked in the first place.

"At the top with the executives, it's musical chairs," Dart Adams, music historian, journalist and A&R, who has written for publications like NPR and OkayPlayer, told Salon. He described a business culture that's small in size, chummy, with an everyone-knows-everyone kind of vibe. That small-world atmosphere has only become stronger as the number of record labels decline or absorb into each other.

"A lot of those people who are entrenched and [are] industry veterans have also over the years committed some flagrant acts," Adams said. "But the thing is, they have so many people loyal to them and so many people that they put on, that are almost obligated to hold them up and be quiet for them. They know those people are beholden to them, and it's like that all over the music industry."

Sowmya Krishnamurthy, a music journalist whose been in the industry for over 10 years and has written for Rolling Stone, Billboard and the Village Voice, offered Salon a similar perspective. "Especially in the case of very powerful men, or very powerful artists, not only have they made themselves a lot of money, but think about how many people directly or indirectly have profited from them."

This kind of blind loyalty has been weaponized in a myriad of ways in the music industry and often to the harm of women. In a BBC documentary that aired in March, "R. Kelly: Sex, Girls and Videotapes," which contextualized the 20 years of sexual misconduct and assault allegations against the R&B singer, one of Kelly's former business managers acknowledged his alleged predatory behavior, but said candidly, "My loyalty is to the person who changed my life."

Beyond the music industry's size, "so much of the culture is steeped in 'sex, drugs and rock and roll,'" said Krishnamurthy, adding that this can produce a perceived "gray area," which can make it difficult to pinpoint inappropriate or abusive behavior.

"I've interviewed artists in their hotel rooms, or at their homes, or in the strip club, and that's very common," she said. "There's nothing unprofessional about it. It's something that's very much an everyday occurrence, which I think in certain other industries would be extremely rare and from the onset be a red flag."

With the open bar events and late-night parties and studio sessions, there's a different standard of morality, said an industry veteran who works for the video platform Vevo. He asked Salon not to use his name in this report. He added that there's also a standard of what in other industries might be seen as sleaziness that's normalized in music, and even expected. "We imagine the A-list actor in a tuxedo or this steely gaze on the red carpet, whereas when we imagine a rock star, it’s like tattoos, drugs and a lot of sex," he said. And whether a male artist is a rocker, singer/songwriter or a rapper, "the viewpoint is a woman is a groupie," he said, meaning never a victim.

In music as in Hollywood, massive amounts of money and influence are at play, and a sweeping disbelief of sexual misconduct accusations when made by women who are relatively powerless usually follows. When a lawsuit accusing Simmons of rape was dropped in April (though it's unclear if a settlement was reached), many male fans on social media cheered, and the same happened when a rape allegation against Nelly was dropped in 2017. His accuser said she felt helpless in facing a celebrity and that the criminal justice system had already failed her.

For someone like R. Kelly, whose alleged victims have mostly been young, black, low-income girls and women, his enduring career has predicated on society's tendency to dismiss the experiences of powerless and marginalized women and girls. Even when it came to his illegal marriage in 1994 to 15-year-old R&B star Aaliyah, countless people looked the other way.

But from interns and assistants to journalists or even artists, there can be barriers for women coming forward with allegations in the music business. "Most women have navigated the music industry without female mentors and advisors," Alan Williams, associate professor and coordinator of the music business program at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, told USA Today. "And in the pop mainstream, long-term careers for most musicians are exceedingly rare, which means most women find their careers over before they have enough cachet to speak up and be heard."

While those in Hollywood have at least pursued some institutional changes to rectify issues of misconduct, like the enactment of the Academy's "Standards of Conduct," there has been little similar success in the music business.

Spotify, the music industry's leading streaming service, announced a new hate content and hateful conduct public policy in May, which said it would stop promoting music by artists whose content or conduct is violent, offering sexual violence as an example. The company cited two artists who would be immediately affected, R. Kelly and XXXTentacion, a Florida rapper who was charged with multiple felonies, among them aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, false imprisonment and witness tampering. Monday, XXXTentacion was shot and killed.

The news of Spotify's policy was met with intense backlash. A spokeswoman for XXXTentacion questioned if Spotify planned to remove artists such as Gene Simmons, Ozzy Osbourne, Dr. Dre and Michael Jackson, according to the New York Times, renowned musicians who've also been accused of sexual or physical violence.

Unfairly, in the streaming service's initial plan, it only targeted black men in R&B and hip-hop, despite the scores of other genres and artists plagued by similar accusations. "If Spotify sits down and says we're going to remove all the music by people who have publicly harmed or sexually assaulted — allegedly or proven, women or girls — they're going to have to wipe out at least 40 percent of the music on Spotify," Adams said.

So women's advocacy groups like Ultraviolet urged Spotify to expand their policy, take a wider view of artists who commit sexual or physical violence against women. But many of the industry titans who openly criticized the policy weren't encouraging Spotify to be firmer, saying instead that this decision equaled censorship.

"If they censor us now, ain't no telling what's going to happen in the future," Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith, CEO of the label Top Dawg Entertainment, told Billboard. He threatened to pull his entire label's music, including rapper Kendrick Lamar's from the streaming service, if it didn't rescind its policy. "It's a slippery slope if you start censoring music. You gotta let artists be artists and speak freely," Tiffith said. "That was the main thing."

On June 1, Spotify cancelled the policy. "We don’t aim to play judge and jury," the company said in response to the criticism. And the women were totally forgotten.

Even if #MeToo isn't as palpable in music as it has been in film, TV and media, there have been renewed conversations about separating an artist from their art. Yet it's been largely and conveniently deployed as a defense mechanism by fans, who not only want the freedom to support an artist who has an alleged or even proven history of abusing women, but who also wants to be free of guilt for doing so.

So, in music, the conversation operates in a roundabout: institutions like labels or streaming platforms avoid responsibility by saying they cater to the fans, and fans, with their money and attention, can ensure allegedly abusive artists continue to be viable. Neither side feels much pressure to stand up for women.

Unless this pressure reaches the music business, there's little hope that anything will change. "The only time anybody really has any motivation to hold anybody accountable is if their bottom line is hurt. People will fire people and get rid of people if it's going to hurt their pockets," Adams told Salon. "Until that happens, no one's going to be motivated to do anything."

What's next for #MeToo?

The movement's founder Tarana Burke outlines important next steps.

By Rachel Leah

MORE FROM Rachel Leah