TRIGGER WARNING: This article and pages it links to contains information about rape, sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.
As many disturbing stories emerge about the music industry’s longstanding problem with sexual assault, abuse, and unprofessional behaviour, there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of discussion about the impact these experiences have on survivors’ mental health.
As part of my work as a psychotherapist and counsellor, I have worked with music artists and industry members to support them through experiences of addiction, trauma, and mental illness. Prior to that, I worked in the music industry myself. In my 10 years as a psychotherapist, I cannot recall a single music industry client who hasn’t witnessed or experienced unprofessional, inappropriate, or criminal behaviour. In my eight years working in music, I witnessed and experienced some awful things myself. These behaviours are so normalised that it can become a bizarre, cult-like scenario at times, with people accepting that this is simply the way the industry operates.
Music industry clients who seek counselling often come to me feeling depressed, anxious, terrified of losing their jobs, exhausted by grinding away at a relentless profession that can be as equally thankless as it is cliquey, and one that has very few healthy boundaries. In particular, women and gender non-conforming people must deal with the often added layer of misogyny and sexism, all of which can leave people completely worn out.
The widely accepted cultural era of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll has a lot to answer for. While it’s always been a magnet for some people wanting to enter the music industry, it also gets used as a cloak or an excuse for abusive behaviour. How many times have you heard people say, “Oh, but that’s just how he is, he’s creative, he means no harm,” or “Yeah, but that’s just what happens when people are drunk”, or other variations on a theme?
Clients tell me the side effects of these toxic workplaces and their abuse. Experiences like anxiety, panic, depression, poor sleep or oversleeping, physical health problems, preoccupied thinking and inability to concentrate, feeling overwhelmed, and being ‘checked-out’ are common for people who have these experiences.
I’ve had music industry clients tell me they feel “weak” for not being able to stay in a meeting with someone who has sexually assaulted them. Or that they feel ashamed for not being able to stop thinking about being screamed at and verbally abused by their boss in front of their colleagues. I’ve also had clients tell me they thought they were the only ones struggling with these feelings, because it was such a normalised part of the industry and they observed their colleagues and peers being treated similarly.
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I wish it were possible for all of the people who tell me these stories to talk to each other, so they understood they are very much not alone. Of course, it’s often not safe for people to talk to others about their experiences. It can be impossible to know who they can trust, particularly in workplaces where perpetrators are protected by senior management, or with colleagues who can take advantage of this information to leverage their own careers.
Survivors of toxic workplaces and abuse – in the music industry and elsewhere – often feel enormous relief when they learn the side-effects of their experiences are normal. People can feel as if their experience “wasn’t bad enough” to warrant feeling the way they do, which is a huge barrier to getting support. If this applies to you, your feelings are valid and there is no threshold of suffering you have to reach before you get help. In fact, the sooner you get support, the more likely you are to bounce back quicker.
The music industry needs drastic, wholesale change in order for things to improve. There can no longer be any excuses for this toxic culture and lasting change must be built into the entire industry.
People of all genders, cultures and backgrounds must have a place at the table, and robust consultation with change leaders, mental health professionals, and survivors must occur. Music industry leaders must either step up or be recruited with enough emotional intelligence and professionalism to instigate and maintain these changes, otherwise they must be replaced with people who will. It’s time to clear out anyone who scoffs at the idea of political correctness or believes they are exempt from basic human decency because of their position or years of experience.
Anyone who is a barrier to this sort of reform is part of the problem. This includes bystanders who witness these incidents but choose to do nothing.
Put simply, if you can’t maintain some self-control and do your job without abusing and assaulting people, there is no place for you in any workplace environment.
If you have experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment and feel you would like to speak to someone for support or information, 1800RESPECT (Phone: 1800 737 732) can provide counselling 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.
Australian music industry workers can contact the Support Act Wellbeing Helpline. It is staffed by professional counsellors who offer expertise in all areas related to mental health. It is free, confidential and open to anyone in music or the arts. Call 1800 959 500, 24/7, 365 days a year.
TIO encourages music industry professionals to follow Beneath The Glass Ceiling, which publishes real life experiences working beneath the glass ceiling of the global music industry.