I saw one of ionie‘s posts on Facebook about something that recently happened to her and asked her if this was just a one time experience from a creeper or something that she encountered regularly in the music industry.
Unfortunately, she told me it was the latter. So I asked her if she would share some of her experiences. She has courageously revealed what it’s like to be a woman in the music industry. When she told some female colleagues she was working on this article they encouraged her not to write it for fear of backlash or blacklisting. She went ahead anyway and I am grateful she did, so men can finally get a glimpse into women’s realities. And make a fucking change.
As a man, I have been completely oblivious to what women have to put up with from (many) men on the regular. After some more investigating, I have realized that this isn’t unique to ionie. It is apparently commonplace in the industry. And that’s disgusting, infuriating and, frankly, disappointing. I have only witnessed, firsthand, this kind of sexualized power dynamic once and it left me sick to my stomach – and it didn’t even happen to me!
Last year at a music conference I was chatting with an up and coming attorney, let’s call her Jane, at the dinner thrown for all panelists. We mostly chatted about the state of the music industry and where we saw our place in it. We were both around the same age and starting to make a place for ourselves in the biz. A very well-established music attorney acquaintance of mine, let’s call him Jon, was a couple tables away and I called him over because I thought this is a great connection for Jane. He walked over, I introduced them with quick little bios to talk each one up – as you do – and immediately Jon put his hand on Jane’s head, stroked her hair and said “wow, you’re so beautiful.” Jane was seated and Jon was standing. The physical dynamic couldn’t have been more apt. This powerful man in the industry was towering over her while he touched her. I was stunned. Jon just met her and immediately he made it about her looks and started touching her. I quickly diverted the conversation and asked Jon how his panel was. As Jon and I were chatting he kept stroking her hair. Occasionally he’d pause, look at her and say “beautiful.” Then he invited me to an event he was throwing and he said “bring Jane.”
Jon left. I sat back down. Jane was noticeably shaken. As was I. I didn’t know how to continue our conversation. I so badly wanted to apologize for Jon’s actions because I invited him over. He was my contact. I felt let down by Jon as I had respected him for years. He’s extremely well-established in the music industry and has huge clients. He is in a position of power that Jane and I were not. But in that moment, I lost all respect for Jon. I said nothing. Jane said nothing. But the following day, as the experience had been gnawing at me, I wrote Jane and email and apologized. She boldly said that “it reflected the character of Jon.” And she was right.
As we get to ionie’s stories below, let me make this perfectly clear to the creepy men of the music industry: you’ve been put on notice. This shit ain’t acceptable anymore. It’s time to change. This has nothing to do with women and everything to do with men. Women can wear bikinis or burkas to business meetings and studio sessions for all I care. It shouldn’t make a difference. Treat them how you treat your male counterparts.
The following comes from singer/songwriter ionie.
I’m a singer, songwriter, and actress from SF/NYC currently living in Los Angeles. I’ve been working in music since 2011 when I graduated from NYU Steinhardt’s school of music. Over the course of my career I’ve met many producers, label and publishing reps, booking agents, and venue owners, and I’ve noticed a pattern. Nearly every middle-aged man I’ve met in music who holds a ‘position of power’ has acted in an inappropriate way towards me and caused me to feel unsafe or uncomfortable. I find myself constantly on guard and unable to relax. I most definitely cannot concentrate on the work at hand–the most important thing to me in the world: music.
Last year I attended a song pitch session in Greenwich Village where I met a very experienced producer whose credits include one of the greatest vocalists of our time. We agreed to make one song together – with the potential for more music down the line. He invited me to a show at Rockwood Music Hall because he had some people he wanted me to meet. It was dark, crowded, and loud, and every time he came over to talk to me, he got real close. He snuck his hand around me onto that place where your back meets your ass. A few times he just stuck me with a pointed finger in my pelvic area, in the crease where your stomach meets the top of your thigh.
GASP! I thought to myself, “Did he just do that? Maybe he’s drunk, maybe he didn’t realize where he put his hand, maybe he’s just short. OK but is that actually my ass, or is it just my back?” I started to doubt myself, I questioned my own feelings and instincts, that little voice in my head that says “this is definitely not ok.” Then he did it again. And again. And again. Any chance he got he did it.
And that doubt I felt earlier got replaced with anger and distaste, shame and confusion.
I didn’t want to talk to him anymore. I wanted a 50’s schoolteacher to swoop in and wedge a textbook in between us, anything so he’d stop touching me. All I wanted was to escape, end the night, powerwalk home so I could call anyone who’d listen and tell them how deeply disappointed I was that yet another man in the music industry made it about sex.
But I felt like I couldn’t leave because he had some people he wanted me to meet and they weren’t there yet so I waited and waited and every time he put his hands on me my heart sunk deeper in disappointment.
It’s a constant catch-22. The lines are always blurred between professional and personal, between studio and home, between favor and obligation, between concert and date.
Shows are at night, people are drinking, the session goes late, it’s music and it’s emotional. This blurring of lines sets up the perfect conditions for a man to cross boundaries. And if he intends to take advantage of that grey area, he can, and almost always will. I’ve heard it all before: a man tells me he can get me a synch license or introduce me to a manager, he offers to connect me with a contact or a performance opportunity, and I want to believe it’s because he actually thinks I’m talented. If he’s due a producer or a finder’s fee, I’ll pay it – but that’s where the transaction should end. Instead, there’s the overwhelming sense that he wants something more. He may in fact think I’m talented, but that’s not really what he’s after.
You’re probably wondering, then why did you decide to work with this guy? I’ve been asking myself the same question for months, and the answer is exactly why I’m writing this letter today. I’ve spent long enough accepting that this is the way it is. I’ve spent long enough waiting to see if it would happen again, only to find myself unable to speak out when it does. You see, these things happen in a instant, and no matter how many times it’s happened before, it takes you by surprise. It feels as if men use the element of surprise to their advantage, to catch you off guard, to push the boundary a little more, to see how much they can get away with.
Make no mistake, having this done to you is a paralyzing and incapacitating phenomenon. In one fell swoop it takes away your power as a woman and your right to consent.
Though, as I do, you may consider yourself outspoken, you are stunned into silence. So, you say nothing. Because you don’t even know where to start.
I agreed to work with this producer on a trial basis. I had the sense that his behavior would continue but I naively hoped he might clean it up. He offered (for a fee) to pitch my old record to his synch contacts, and I figured that working with such an experienced producer (for a fee) could lead to good things. He wasn’t doing me any favors here, so the free touches were an added bonus for him.
He quickly demonstrated that this would be the only track I’d ever make with him. Every time I arrived at the studio, with no exception, he’d look me up and down no matter what I was wearing. I felt like I was constantly being evaluated for my sexual worth. This really sets the tone for a studio session. I’d always end up sitting as far from him as possible, keeping my sweater on in the middle of summer, and drawing wide circles of personal space around myself whenever possible. His partner was oblivious. I wanted to take him aside and confess so he would do something about it, but I never found the courage.
When I was right out of high school in San Diego I met a producer through a local music store owner who offered to work on some tunes for me, for a fee.
I was a kid who knew nothing about the music industry and neither did my parents, so I had no real guidance. The producer was warm and gave a lot of hugs. We met at his home studio, played through some songs, and set up a rehearsal with the rest of the players. I visited his home a few times for pre-production. One time on my way out, he hugged me and his hands crossed that line between my back and my ass. I waited to see if it would happen again, and it did. He lived in a huge house on a secluded piece of land in San Diego, and every time I went there I played through scenarios in my head of what might happen if he tried something. How much bigger he was than me. How I would escape. But still, I couldn’t really tell what was happening, I kept talking myself out of something being wrong, and I said nothing to my parents. I didn’t want to make a scene.
Now let me be very clear, anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a very friendly, open person. I’m a hugger. But over the years, I’ve begun to wonder if I should adjust my friendly personality when in a business setting—I’ve thought, maybe something about me invites these advances? I’ve considered not wearing makeup to meetings or events. I think about how I could dress as to not invite unwanted advances.
The fucked up thing about these questions is that they put the burden of preventing men’s illicit behavior on me, and that is flat out wrong.
I really struggle with this because on one hand I think being a performer means looking the part, being ready to hit the stage at any moment, and for some that means the whole nine yards—costumes, facepaint, makeup, alter-egos. But I also have immense respect for people like Alicia Keys who have renounced the pressure to wear makeup and look a certain way onstage. We all know that music and the media are hyper-sexualized, severely blurring that line between product and artist (but that’s another conversation entirely).
Last week in LA, I met a man who owns a record label and runs an artist showcase that a friend was performing in.
I mentioned to him that I’d be interested in performing, got his information and cordially texted “Nice to meet you!” Without hearing my music, he suggested we meet in person that same day, and asked where I lived. I happen to live close to the showcase venue, and he responded, “I need you to be my new girlfriend so I don’t have to drive home at 2am after the show lol!” I “LOLed” back and tried to shrug it off, but it kept bothering me, so I decided to speak up. Very graciously, I explained that while I’d love to help him out with the driving, “I don’t mix business with pleasure.” He then asked if I’d like to date him or work with him, as if I hadn’t made it sufficiently clear. I gritted my teeth trying not to be rude, and responded with a friendly “music music music.” But he went on, asking, “Does love music count?” and I insisted it’s just business. Finally he backed down, telling me how much he “likes my focus.”
Last February I was at a Grammys viewing party hosted by NARAS in NYC and a session drummer was sitting next to me with some friends.
That night I networked with all sorts of people because that’s just what you do at a NARAS event. The drummer and I chatted and exchanged info. I asked nothing of him, but he offered to help me because he “saw something” in me. He told me he wanted to introduce me to the owner of Urbo so I could gig there. He told me he wanted to put a band together for me. He told me he knew a producer I’d expressed interest in working with. He invited me out to Urbo, and it turned out he only knew the host of their weekly showcase. He invited me to a jam session led by someone he wanted to introduce me to, and he showed up too late to make the connection. He asked to “meet” me many times, and the one time we did, it happened to be at a restaurant at night, where he directed the conversation toward everything but music. He looked me up and down, called me “sweety” and “honey”, complemented my looks and personality, but didn’t follow through with any of his promises. I invited him to multiple gigs, but he never showed. The whole time we were in contact, I felt like he was withholding what he said he’d do for me while subversively trying to date me. It felt as if he expected me to have dinner with him every time he had somebody he wanted me to meet.
Last week I was out at an LA music venue and one of the owners’ business partners kept putting his hands on my lower hips, crossing that line between back and ass again.
Dim lights, loud music, and drunkenness, a perfect recipe for a few unnoticed caresses. I was in a weird position. A family friend who’s involved with the venue wanted to introduce me to the music director for the night. I didn’t want to offend anyone. The man touched me like this multiple times over the course of the night. Just when I was about to leave, he snuck up behind me, grabbed my hips and thrust himself against me, pulling me closer so my entire body was pressed to his. He put his head over my shoulder, his face right next to mine, and whispered in my ear, “Have I told you how beautiful you are tonight?”
As it was happening, I thought to myself, “Who the fuck is that? An old friend? An ex-boyfriend? (not that that would make it ok). I don’t even know anyone in this town! I’ve lived here a month.” I turned around and firmly told him to stop touching me.
“Oh sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to be that guy,” he said, putting his hands up and shrugging his shoulders in apology. I told him I’d be in contact about the showcase and left, and that was that.
I want to reiterate that what I’m talking about here is a very specific group of middle-aged men who hold ‘positions of power’ in the industry.
Perhaps they feel their age, position, or clout entitles them to a free pass to our bodies. Perhaps they feel entitled to do as they please and not suffer the consequences. Well, I’m tired of this. I’m tired of setting boundaries for men that they should be setting for themselves. I’m tired of chalking it up to “that’s just the way it is.” I’m tired of this being the rule not the exception. I’m tired of not being surprised. I feel obligated to speak out against the unrelenting sexism and misconduct that pervades my beloved place of work. I’m writing to tell you that I’m done holding my tongue, and I’m done choosing men’s feelings over my dignity.
I hope this brings a little comfort to my fellow women in music. Know that you’re not alone.
This happens to us all, but it’s not right, and it will never be right. And to the men of the music industry, I truly hope this inspires you to just stop. Stop sexualizing everything. Stop mixing business with pleasure. Stop testing that line or convincing yourself you haven’t quite crossed it. Stop shrugging it off like “it’s not that bad.” It is that bad. Here’s some advice: We do not want to sleep with you. Stop convincing yourself we do. We took the meeting because you offered to help. If you don’t truly intend to help and just want to sleep with us, don’t offer a meeting. Because, I repeat, we do not want to sleep with you, we do not want to be touched by you, and we do not want to be looked up and down like a piece of meat. We’re never thinking, “Ooh I wonder if he’ll invite me back to his place.” No, what we’re thinking is “I hope this meeting leads to a fruitful business relationship.”
Here’s some more advice to the men of the music industry: keep your hands to yourself. A hug is commonplace. Fine. But we both know that when you slide your hand down my backside you’re not just being friendly.
How often do you do that to the men you meet with? Never? Then don’t do it to women.
I want to emphasize that I am honored and grateful to be part of a music community with some of the most talented, creative men I know, who also happen to believe in respect in equality for all. There is a truly inclusive community that really does make it all about the music. So I want to sincerely thank you, wonderful men, for holding that safe space.
To the women who face this every day, I want to encourage you to find your voice, unleash your resistance, and use that two letter word NO. If that’s all you say, fine. USE IT. Yell it. Kick it and scream it. Don’t keep your mouth shut any longer. Name things as they are, as soon as they happen. If he slips a hand over your ass, say, “Don’t touch me like that.” If he looks at you like a steak dinner, say, “Stop looking at me like that.” Say NO. Say STOP. Say DON’T. You can do it.
Know that no man who does this actually cares about you or your music. No favor is worth sacrificing your dignity and your power as a woman, and nothing guarantees that he’ll even see it through. Know that I am with you, and so are the people who love you. Start talking openly about this, get mad, post it to Facebook, and shout it from the rooftops. We’re in this together, and it stops now.
ionie is a singer/songwriter (currently) based in Los Angeles. Find her music here.