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Sexual Harassment and the Music Business: The Song Remains the Same (Guest Column)

Variety logo Variety 5/17/2017 Julie Gordon
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I am not convinced that L.A. Reid’s high-profile ouster from Sony Music signals a new era in the music industry, where sexual harassment of women will no longer be tolerated.

Rather, I am assuming that there are many more incidents that Sony must know about, and probably incidents going back to his days in Atlanta, more than 25 years ago. Things are different today, with the immediacy of social media making it much harder for companies to settle these matters quietly. Plus, the money is not flowing as it did in the early 1990s, and the “pay to make it go away” mentality is no longer as economically feasible as it used to be. In an interview, Aaron Reid, L.A. Reid’s son (and at one time an A&R executive at Epic), offered a quote of advice he got from his father: “You gotta do what you gotta do so you can do what you wanna do.” That seems apropos for his current situation.

From Ike and Tina Turner to Tommy Mottola and Mariah Carey and Phil and Ronnie Spector, the dynamic of young up-and-coming women looking for a mentor in the music business has spawned many legendary relationships. So much of the music industry is about who you know, and much of the business does not take place in an office or during traditional hours. It’s a lifestyle business and it attracts people who don’t draw much of a line between their personal and professional lives.

In 1987, the year I was getting started in the music industry, Pamela DesBarres published her memoir, “I’m with The Band: Confessions of a Groupie.”  It’s one thing to be a groupie who wants to sleep with rock stars; it’s quite another to be climbing the executive ladder in a business rife with male executives who feel that women who want to be successful need to pay their sexual dues. I quickly caught on to the fact that high-level music industry executives want publicity just much as their artists do, and I understood that studying the music trades, recognizing who was who and not being afraid to approach them (and of course compliment them) would serve me well.

In the early 1990s, a young law clerk at a prestigious entertainment law firm in Century City was awaiting her bar exam results. One day she was asked to bring some documents over to a senior partner’s home. There,  she was told that if she wanted to get into music law, she’d better be prepared to sleep with him — and he removed his clothes then and there. She sued (along with a secretary), got a six-figure settlement and agreed not to discuss the matter further. The partner became of counsel to the firm and got an in-house job at a major music publisher. At the law firm, it was business as usual. I’m not sure if that attorney ever chose to practice entertainment law after passing the bar, but I doubt it, and who could blame her?

Then there was the case of the record label president, said to be inebriated at a company function, who let his assistant know that if she did not have sex with him, it would impact her job. She didn’t, and the next day, he fired her. Shortly before an article came out detailing her lawsuit and these events in The Los Angeles Times, the label president was moved to a different company within the same label family, where he was appointed co-president. The woman who filed the claim had a hard time finding any further work in the music business.

And then there’s the major-label artist-development executive who often asked female co-workers if he could bite them or touch parts of their bodies. Women who complained were offered demotions to other departments if they couldn’t take his “jokes.” He has gone on to enjoy a long and successful career.

When women in the music business go to HR with complaints about male bosses or co-workers, they are often warned to think very carefully before proceeding, since they are embarking on a path they will not be able to reverse. One would think that a company would want to comfort to an employee, male or female, who is in any way being victimized at their job.

However, the cold reality is that in a business where there are more failures than successes, the pattern is to closely guard those who bring the hits at all costs. Often it is these female coworkers who actually bring in the hits while their bosses enjoy the credit.

The boys club is alive and well and it’s not going down without a fight. It is by no means limited to the music industry: Look at what has been happening at Fox News. The complaints aren’t new, but the dismissals are.  The advent of social media is bringing the ugliness to the surface more quickly than in the past; there is no longer a rug big enough to sweep it all under.

Yet sadly, the culture at the core of it all remains largely unchanged.

Julie Gordon is a former music-industry executive whose career included jobs at Famous Music Publishing, BMI, and EMI-distributed label The Enclave. She also launched the online music industry  communications network, The Velvet Rope, and published an unsigned-band tipsheet for music executives. She is currently director of operations at Israel Cancer Association USA, which raises funds for cancer research in Israel. She is the proud mother of 17-year-old twins and lives in Palm Beach County, Florida.

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