TO BE A FEMALE PERFORMER – ABUSE AND HARASSMENT IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY

by Tom McGhie

Content warning: sexual harassment, sexual abuse, misogyny

There are few greater feelings than when an artist connects with their audience at a gig, something more than just applause and guitar chords. Most people have, at some point in their lives, attended a gig which has stuck in their memory because of that very exchange between performer and public. This visceral communication is what propels music as one of the most important art forms; it brings people together in an ever-dividing societal sphere.

In order to tap into this, an artist needs to lay themselves bare before an audience, be this on stage or on online platforms which can leave them exposed and feeling vulnerable to members of the public. There is a dark underbelly of the music industry which is rarely discussed, and that is the harassment of female musicians by their male counterparts, promoters and producers. In an investigation carried out by the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire Show, sexual abuse and rape within the industry was described as ‘endemic’ by songwriter Chloe Howl as she spoke out about numerous incidents where she had been ‘come onto’ by male record executives. She had stated that the only way that some female artists feel that they can progress is to accept and roll with the tidal wave of abuse that they receive by men who have the power. Many male musicians speak of this hinterland of the 1970s, where rock icons like Jimmy Page and Mick Jagger took their fill of groupies and behaved inappropriately because they were, of course, allowed to. Sex went hand in hand with drugs and rock and roll; morally dubious acts with the opposite sex were permissible because they have occurred within this magical musical sphere. This has directly influenced the industry as we see it today, as the Victoria Derbyshire Show’s investigation can attest to, consolidated also by huge stars like Lana Del Rey and Rihanna who have spoken out about their negative experiences.

Once I had to pull out of a gig because a promoter was sending me inappropriate messages and making me and other female acts on the bill incredibly uncomfortable

These experiences can range from women being overly sexualised and objectified when on stage to actual sexual abuse, which is something that happens on a local scene level, too.

“After gigs, I’ve been approached by older men who get rather upset when I say I don’t want to go for a drink with them” says Niamhie McCallister, one of Norwich’s own singer-songwriters. “Once I had to pull out of a gig because a promoter was sending me inappropriate messages and making me and other female acts on the bill incredibly uncomfortable”.

McCallister, 19, is a talented musician, having risen to the top of Norwich’s scene through hard grafting in the gig department and a constant online presence where she can connect with fans on a daily basis, something which is crucial for success in the digital age. This has seen her fan base grow to over fifteen hundred in a little over a year, and although she sees the benefits of having such a fantastic platform to communicate with her audience, she admits this can come with some unwanted interactions. “Female musicians are sexualised – it’s just the way things are, isn’t it? On average, I receive about four or five inappropriate pictures from men a day and this can go up to ten if I’ve posted a picture of myself that day.” I jokingly ask if anyone’s ever proposed to her (the next logical step, obviously), to which she replies collectedly: “Yeah, about two or three a day.”

Usually what we used to get was: You’re good for a bunch of girls! Followed by the inevitable: Would you like to go for a drink with me?

There seems to be a great number of older men (McCallister assures me that they are usually in their forties of fifties) who attend the performances and subscribe to the social media pages of female musicians with the desire of seducing them. With little or no interest in the music, the artists become merely an object of male desire – a sexual fantasy to be fulfilled. This is something which is elucidated further upon by Molly Draba-Mann, ex-drummer of the all-female band Young States. Draba-Mann claims she had never played a gig where one of the members had not felt harassed in some shape or form. “Usually what we used to get was: You’re good for a bunch of girls! Followed by the inevitable: Would you like to go for a drink with me?” Draba-Mann details the events of one night where after playing a set she was followed on a night out by a man in his late twenties. The man persistently made attempts to come on to her until it got the point where she had to firmly ask him to leave her alone. These examples of post-performance harassment seem commonplace; some men seem to buy into the idea that because they have listened to the songs of a female artist then they have the right to at least one drink alone with them.

“Guys definitely use it as an opener,” Helena Lewis, 23, ex-lead singer of Lost Lungs seems to agree. However, Lewis said that she could see why perhaps this is such an endemic within the industry. “A lot of people aren’t comfortable with being sexualised, but then again it can help gain you some popularity. It shouldn’t be this way, but it just is! Why do you think the NME put Ellie from Wolf Alice on the cover of their magazine and not the rest of the guys? Sex sells, man!” At the same time, Lewis agreed that occasionally it can stray into nasty territory.

“In another band I was in, we had a female drummer as well and the usual thing we heard was: Who would you rather sleep with, the drummer or the singer?” At this Lewis shrugs, looking world weary. “And that shit just gets pretty tedious, you know?”

It seems that there is a trickle-down effect from the top of the music industry food-chain, from big label sharks who have the power to make or break a woman’s career depending on whether or not they have sex with them, to the old pervert harassing an aspiring artist after a gig. This has a negative effect on the scene on a local level, as McCallister attests:

“There have been too many open mic nights to count that I have played at where I am the only female on the bill. Sometimes when you encounter these guys who make you feel uncomfortable, it makes you want to run and hide away from music for a while.”

Featured image courtesy of Tony Felgueiras under CC.2.0 (no changes made)


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