Sexism, rape, and rock 'n' roll
As the Kesha case proves, men hold the balance of power in the music industry. Suzanne Harrington reports on a business still stuck in the past
Published 05/03/2016 | 02:30
The legal proceedings between pop star Kesha and her producer Lukasz Gottwald - Dr Luke, one of the most prominent music producers in the US - has elevated Kesha into something of a cause celebre for feminists.
The singer wants to be released from her contract with Dr Luke, a close associate of Sony Music, because, she claims, early in her career, was drugged, raped, and psychologically dominated by Dr Luke, but didn't press charges at the time because she believed he was too powerful to challenge without endangering her family and career.
Dr Luke countersued for defamation and breach of contract. But New York Supreme Court judge, Shirley Kornreich, declared it "commercially reasonable" that Kesha remain within her contract despite her allegations, which has resulted in her career stalling. She says that to continue working with Dr Luke is intolerable, but the courts have effectively shrugged and told her to get on with it.
Messages of public support came from fellow musicians Lady Gaga, Grimes, Demi Lovato, Lily Allen, Lorde, Kelly Clarkson, Fiona Apple, Ariana Grande. Lena Dunham said she "felt sick" at the "systematic misogyny" of the industry. Taylor Swift, in a robust display of deeds-not-words, donated a quarter of a million dollars to her music industry colleague "to help her with any of her financial needs during this trying time."
Kesha was signed by Dr Luke in 2005 aged 18; according to John Seabrook in the New Yorker, once "her pop star dreams had come true she was proving hard to control."
And control is all. A look at Billboard's latest Power 100 List - a who's who of the American music industry - shows exactly where the control lies: 127 men and 14 women.
Mostly the women are hovering around the bottom end; the majority of the men are middle aged.
So is sexism, exploitation and misogyny so rife in the music industry that we don't even notice it?
"We have become so complacent that when I ask other women if they experience sexism they immediately relate it to sexual advances," says Angela Dorgan, CEO of Dublin's First Music Contact.
"Like, we seem to have made being condescended to all the time okay. In my case, it's constantly being asked 'who comes up with all the great ideas?' like there's no way it could have been my idea."
I contacted quite a few Irish women working in the industry in Dublin and London - booking agents, sales directors, marketing managers, and several well-known artists. What's their experience, if any, of sexism in the industry? No response. Tumbleweed blows through my inbox. Tweets, calls, emails are to no avail.
"There's loads of it [sexism]," tweets Roisin Murphy. "It's just so obvious, it's boring to moan about it."
Several others are "too busy" to talk about it. Only one musician - Niamh Farrell from HamsandwicH - responds: "I think this whole Kesha case is shocking," she says. "We've been making such great advances in expelling sexism and double standards in the music industry that something like this is - and should be - a massive deal.
"Here's a woman who seemed totally in control of her career, only to be let down by the people who were meant to be on her side.
"There is still a huge pressure on women in the industry to look and act a certain way, but it's changing. There's a lot of victim blaming that goes on.
"'Oh, she was in rehab, she's a loose cannon, look at the way she dresses'. None of this is acceptable - would people be saying the same if it were a man sitting in that courtroom accusing another man? The attitudes would be totally different.
"As a woman in music, sometimes I feel too much attention is brought around to the fact I am a woman, but to me it doesn't and shouldn't make a difference. I've lost count of the amount of times I've been asked what it's like to be the only female in a band.
"And it's such a ridiculous question, it sometimes feels to me it's almost like they are saying 'oh what a privilege it must be to be let into this predominantly male world'.
"I've been in a band with these guys for 10 years and to be honest it's almost like we are all genderless. Just a bunch of friends who love what they do and love making music together, why does it need to be a male/female thing?
"But we need to make sure we are all treated equally, especially in the music industry where it is so easy for people to be taken advantage of. Hopefully the Kesha case starts a conversion."
Bernadette Barrett is an artist manager at Mondo Management. Her own experiences in the music industry have been entirely positive, but she is aware that this is not always the norm.
"I am very aware that sexism is alive and well in the music industry, as it is in many other industries," she says. "While we can acknowledge the firm imprint that many amazing women make on the music industry, both as performers and many other roles, I believe we have a long way to go before women will be considered as being on a true equal footing with male counterparts."
She cites "recognition, pay and status" as the main weak spots. "It's highly encouraging to see amazing talented women performers having unprecedented global success.
"Disappointingly, on another level, the over-sexualisation of women in the media will do nothing to diminish sexism in the music business and gives an inappropriate and unsettling message to budding young women, men, musicians and performers."
Perhaps, as Niamh Farrell suggests, the Kesha case may have an impact on how women artists are treated. Or not. After all, the entertainment industry, for all its creativity, is the most patriarchal of them all.