If you keep people oppressed – history tells us what happens. 

The last three months have felt like a watershed in the music industry. Following breaking news in May exposing the extent of bullying and sexual harassment, there have been major changes at the top of Sony Music Australia and now Universal Music are conducting an internal review of their culture.

Truth be told, we already knew about toxic behaviour in the music industry. Everyone has their stories, but for so long those stories were only told in secret and amongst friends. For so long many in the music industry have lived in fear, because everybody knew about the powerful people who would not hesitate to destroy careers to preserve themselves. The status quo has benefited the emotional abusers and perpetrators of sexual harassment for so long, so what might happen now?

sony music australia warner
The three major labels

The simple truth is that power players harass others because they can. Toxic behaviour is widespread because abusers find out two things very quickly: The first is that bullying and harassment gets results, and the second is that they can get clean away with it.

The root cause is the large imbalances in power

The greater the power imbalance: the more someone can get away with without the risk of push back. Up until recently no one has ever been called to account and those who have been harassed or abused effectively have become invisible, by staying silent, leaving the industry, avoiding certain work environments or losing their jobs or careers.

As a result, powerful people get used to being untouchable. Take a deep breath and pause for a second. At this point, I want to put on record that there are countless people in music who are simply extraordinary. Some of the finest and smartest people I’ve ever worked with I’ve met in the music industry, but that still doesn’t change the fact that workplace bullying and sexual harassment are widespread and far reaching in the music industry.

It also doesn’t change the fact that some senior industry figures have used their power to intimidate others and have allowed the perpetuation of a culture where some men use power to subordinate or manipulate women and in some instances other men.

Never miss industry news

Get the latest music industry news, insights, and updates straight to your inbox. Learn more

So, with the current soul searching going on, are we there yet?

The short answer is – no. Not by a long way.

As long as there are massive imbalances of power in the music industry, then the risk of this happening again is extremely high. In order to understand how we might move forward from here – we need to dig a little deeper.

Last week the three major labels globally achieved a new milestone: together they are now earning USD $2.5 million per hour. We know that artists and musicians worldwide will only retain 12% of that revenue. Even though the Australian music market is less than 2% of that figure, it’s still a lot of coin.

The people who can give an emerging artist access to those larger markets and audiences have the unique power of gatekeepers. As time has gone on, there have been lots of mergers, buy-outs and gatekeeper power has become concentrated – because there are fewer labels to choose from.

Add to that the fact that there are always more emerging artists than places to fill in a record label roster, and a ready supply of people who want to get into the music industry working in other roles. This makes for a perfect storm, where a small group of individuals can wield disproportionate power. Artists and employees alike are very aware of how a music industry career can be launched into orbit with the right word and equally can suddenly come crashing back to earth if they are not careful.

A vast majority of the power players were men. So in general, women in the industry have been far more vulnerable to discrimination and harassment. Many women have been speaking up and speaking out, through initiatives like #menomore and the organisers of the Australian Women in Music Awards.

So how does toxic behaviour become widespread and hard to shift over time? We already know that organisational culture flows downwards from the top. We know from other research that influential people or senior managers only have to tolerate abuse behaviour or sexual harassment in their organisations for toxic behaviour to spread like wildfire.

So, the solution: change the leadership and set a new positive culture – right?

Yes and no. If that company is influential (say – like a major record label) then toxic cultures infects surrounding businesses. Think of it almost like COVID-19. This doesn’t happen overnight, but it happens – helped by a revolving door of employees carrying the virus between that company and others. Eventually the virus spreads out and infects smaller businesses and sole traders a long way from patient zero. So powerful players acting in abusive ways makes for that behaviour to become normalised.

Recently three things came together to offset this massive power imbalance. My research, four years in the making, was able to contribute something to this because the legitimacy of the academic process amplified the stories of so many music industry professionals.

Secondly, two journalists, Nathanael Cooper from the Sydney Morning Herald and Kelly Burke from The Guardian were working on stories looking into the culture at Sony Music based on information from former staff.

Finally, and in my opinion, one of the most important things to level the playing field was the arrival of Beneath The Glass Ceiling, the anonymous Instagram account posting survivor stories and shedding light on abusive behaviour in the industry. The courageous people behind BTGC remind me of the kinds of resistance movements that rise up in occupied countries.

Beneath The Glass Ceiling instagram page
Beneath The Glass Ceiling

History tells us that even the largest power structures can be undone by this kind of guerrilla attack. If you are someone in the music industry who has bullied others, belittled and marginalised women (or those who identify as gender non-binary), sexually harassed them, or tried to coerce them to have sex; you should be shaking in your shoes. You can no longer act without fear of being exposed.

Even though the stories on Beneath the Glass Ceiling are carefully redacted, the music industry is small enough and connected enough for the rest of us to work out who you are. You can’t even sue for defamation because you haven’t been mentioned by name, and you don’t know who to sue anyway.

Additionally, journalists are now alive to your behaviour, and you can bet that there are others are on the hunt for what else can be uncovered. I am also sure that there’s going to be more research.

This is a call now for everyone to get their house in order

At some point the news cycle will move on and not even Beneath The Glass Ceiling can address every instance of harassment, nor can they right every wrong. What is needed is for the industry to get serious about putting real accountability in place.

Real accountability will level the playing field, because people will realise they can’t get away with wrong behaviour. There needs to be real consequences for bullies, abusers and sexual harassment predators, at every level of the industry, not just the big companies.

This means serious culture change needs to happen in the big companies but that is only the beginning. That change needs to positively infect the thousands of small businesses and freelancers whose work depends heavily on their network of relationships.

This cannot be achieved in the short-term and sadly there will be some who like things the way they are. But this old virus has to be killed off if we are to make a healthier more productive industry.