Former Life Or Death Execs Talk Their New Company, Liberal Arts, and Life After Heathcliff: Exclusive
"I understand why someone would want to leave Life Or Death. We did."
At around 8AM last Tuesday, Nick Dierl, president of Life Or Death PR and Management, woke up to find several alarming requests for comment “about the Heathcliff allegations” in his inbox. He soon discovered that over the preceding few hours, a series of tweets from Dirty Projectors singer Amber Coffman alleged sexual misconduct by Dierl’s boss, Life Or Death CEO and founder Heathcliff Berru. Some 19 more followed in the coming days, with allegations ranging from unwanted touching to forcing his way into a woman’s apartment and attempting to have sex with her. Dierl quickly phoned the company’s other employees to discuss what to do next.
“I then asked Heathcliff about the validity of the Amber story, and he told me that he was ‘blackout drunk’ that night,” says Dierl, 26, adding, “I couldn’t judge Heathcliff’s level of sincerity, either.” That afternoon, the PR staff decided that Berru must step down as CEO of the company. He agreed via a phone call with Dierl. On Tuesday afternoon, Life Or Death released a statement, drafted with the assistance of their attorney, announcing that Berru had resigned. Later that night, Berru released a statement apologizing to the women “who I have offended by my actions,” adding that he will be entering drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Will says that Berru told him he has no plans to return to the music industry.
“We believed all of those stories and chose to operate accordingly instead of contesting those statements,” says senior publicist Duncan Will, 27, who began working at the company as an intern in 2011. “I applaud all of the women who came forward and brought these conversations to the public sphere. I hope that it’s a conversation that doesn’t end this week and continues to be talked about in the industry.”
While Berru had stepped down as an executive at the company, it was unclear whether his ownership stake in Life Or Death would enable him to profit from the company. “We wanted to make sure he absolutely couldn’t work or profit from anything else that we did,” adds Will. And the following day, Dierl issued a statement saying that Life Or Death was effectively dissolved. “We are saddened by the circumstances under which we are departing, but grateful for the opportunity we had together,” the statement reads in part. “There will be a new venture imminently that bears no ties to Heathcliff Berru or the Life Or Death name.”
That new venture’s name is Liberal Arts, and staffers include Life or Death vets Dierl, Will, Bradley Bledsoe, Emily Mullen and Linda Valenziano. Clients include rapper Killer Mike and Wet. Knitting Factory Entertainment is backing the venture.
Ian Wheeler, president of Figure Eight Management and Figure Eight Media, told Billboard in a statement: “I will serve as managing director for the new entity, which will be 100 percent owned by Figure Eight Publicity, a subsidiary of Knitting Factory Entertainment. An equity position will also being carved out for the founders of the new entity in the coming months. Previously, Heathcliff Berru owned 100 percent of Life Or Death PR, and we had an investor profit share. Life Or Death PR has now been dissolved. Mr. Berru is no longer a party to our organization and will not take part in our new venture, nor own an equity position. All ties have been cut.”
“It’s been emotionally draining and exhausting, and I’m sick to my stomach still,” admits Will. “It’s an amazing opportunity to start our own company, but I feel conflicted having it born out of these events. We needed to take steps, and within our [new] company, we put our female coworkers in positions of leadership that involves them fully in all decision-making processes." (Berru declined or did not respond to Billboard’s multiple requests for comment.)
Following is an edited transcript of Billboard’s exclusive conversation with Dierl and Will in Los Angeles on Jan. 24.
What inspired your decision to break ties completely with a company that you helped to build?
Duncan Will: From a business standpoint, we were employees of Life Or Death; he was the CEO. We all decided we didn’t want to have any association with the brand, so we quit the company the next day. Essentially, nobody works at that company now. I think internally also establishing a protocol that creates a system that safely and anonymously allows employees to report anything if they feel like a boundary has been crossed sexually or otherwise is important.
Nick Dierl: As soon as we also collectively asked him to step down, we made sure we took the right steps to ensure we were severing financial ties. What we had done with Life Or Death, outside of Heathcliff, is something that I was proud of and wanted to continue without him.
Will: The easiest way to sever ties was to start another company that he was not a part of, so there is no way for him to benefit financially from the work that we do. But it’s also important that we foster an environment within our company that’s very cooperative. There needs to be transparency between us, because Nick and I were not fully informed of things regarding the company before. For example, I'm now aware Domino Records stopped working with us due to the Amber Coffman incident [the Dirty Projectors are signed to Domino Records], but I was never informed about it. I want our employees to feel like they are an integral part of the decision-making processes and that we all have a personal responsibility for each other.
Would you ever take him back after he goes to rehab and gets help?
Dierl: No, never.
Will: I will never be friends with him, but I do think I have an element of responsibility to see this through. He’s planning to go to a treatment center, and I feel like I have a responsibility to check on that from time to time and make sure he’s doing something to change himself. I’m not going to be seeing him or interacting with him, but I want to follow that a little bit. I feel a responsibility to look after that, because I don’t know who else would.
Do you know which artists will be staying with you?
Will: It seems we are taking quite a few of the core roster. It’s still a discussion and some are at varying degrees of confirmation. But, we have had a lot of conversations with everybody. Killer Mike is going to keep working with me. Wet are also going to work with us and have confirmed publicly. We’ll let the rest of the clients speak for themselves. Heathcliff wasn’t doing day-to-day [PR] on any projects. In many cases, clients had never met Heathcliff or spoken to him. So, for most clients, it was more about working with the person who had done good work with them before.
What about Odd Future? They have not been vocal on social media.
Will: We’ve been in touch with their camp, and there is still work to be done on projects for them and stuff. We are continuing to work on those projects, but we don’t want to speak for them if they will want to continue with us or not.
How do you feel about the clients that have left so far? Do you think it's justified, and will you reach out to them once the new company is more established?
Will: It’s definitely justified. I understand why someone would want to leave Life Or Death. We did.
Dierl: We have been in touch with every client. That was one of the first things we did. I think for [some former LOD clients], it was important for them to fire Life Or Death in the same way that we knew we were quitting.
What did Berru say when you spoke with him?
Dierl: He apologized profusely. He did not admit to anything, but he apologized for jeopardizing everything that the Life Or Death staff built over the years. My feeling is that the “why” is irrelevant. It’s not acceptable [behavior] regardless of why.
Will: He said he had a lot of changes to make and apologized to me for ruining the work that we were trying to do professionally. I didn’t ask him why he did it. I don’t know if his guilt can be proven, but I believe all of the women’s stories. I think when someone comes out with that sort of thing, you have to believe them, especially when there are so many, and it became a pattern.
How did you feel after reading all the allegations online?
Will: Pretty sick. Surprised, especially by how many women were hurt, but we definitely took them seriously and chose to believe them. I’ve been very sick to my stomach and hot in the head for quite a while.
Dierl: Beyond the accounts that have surfaced online, we have been in touch with a number of close friends who have recounted similar stories [about Berru]. It’s not our place to tell their stories, but suffice it to say, it’s horrifying.
What about after reading his statement?
Will: I felt pretty much the same way I felt before reading it. Mainly, there was just a lot of concern for the women.
Dierl: I think he made the statement that [he] could make without conceding anything concrete. He sent me his statement before he released it, but I didn’t respond to him.
You obviously have both known Berru for a long time. Did you know about his alcohol and drug issues?
Dierl: Yes. It had been addressed with him numerous times before. He acknowledged he had a problem and that he needed to find a way to fix it. He talked about seeking help, but we didn’t know what that entailed. I don’t think we suggested what actions or steps he should take. It’s a precarious situation to voice that to your employer. There was a reticence to say what steps should be taken, but it was easier for me to point out there was a problem he needed to address. I made note of it adversely affecting our relationship, and he discussed giving up drugs and alcohol as recently as October. The first conversation was at the end of 2012.
Will: He said, “I know I have a problem and I need to address it.” I don’t know what he did to help himself. After that point in 2012, he was doing a lot less with clients, too. He wasn’t taking lead on projects anymore. He wasn’t doing day-to-day work on campaigns. I would assume some clients knew about the drugs and alcohol. I told him to get treatment or deal with your problems and take steps to address it. But it’s hard to tell someone what those steps are. It was more urging him to please take a step.
Did you ever see Berru drunk or high at the office?
Will: He was barely ever in the office. Clients had made jokes because he wasn’t around. I have actually never worked an entire day alongside Heathcliff in the time that I worked at that company. I don’t think people were aware of how little work he was doing. It’s also speaks to why we have the relationships with clients and why people are continuing to work with us: because we were the ones doing all the work.
Dierl: There has always been a presumption that Life Or Death was a boys’ club. When Duncan and I joined the company, there was an active effort to change that. Every single female that has been hired over the course of that company’s history was done by myself and not by Heathcliff. I’m fully aware that there is a belief out there that we had to have known [about Berru’s behavior]. On a surface level, I understand how someone from the outside looking in would assume that. But I think if people understood the level of proximity we had to Heathcliff, for roughly four-and-a-half years, they would understand that that’s not necessarily the case. He wasn’t around, but he did travel around a lot with the artists that he managed.
Had you ever heard any sexual abuse or harassment allegations against Berru prior to what was posted on social media?
Dierl: No, never. One, if you are taking those types of actions, you aren’t telling people. Two, there was this perception that we were in close proximity to Heathcliff regularly, which makes it [less likely that people] would tell us directly. Three, there is a very clear history of people with serial behavior, particularly in positions of power, being very good at covering their tracks. Sometimes even leading a double life.
Will: No one has ever said anything to us before Amber [Coffman] came out, but I believe her and applaud her in doing so. That’s the point we became aware of it, and that’s when friends came to us and said, “Hey, there was actually this thing with me, and I never said anything about it.” Those stories -- from people I interact with a lot in the industry -- were horrifying to hear. I was really shocked.
Dierl: Given the nature of the industry, so much revolves around live shows and puts you out in a setting late at night, interacting with people outside of office hours, and the line between professional and personal get blurred very quickly. I think it’s important that there is an environment where people can speak out. Issues like this come up and then go back to normal after a week, but the real challenge is to make it so we can continue to have these open conversations.
When you guys hung out with him outside of work, did you ever witness any inappropriate behavior?
Will: I never witnessed anything that was sexual harassment or abuse.
Dierl: I never witnessed any nonconsensual behavior. I don’t really think it’s my place to say, but I also think it’s important to say, that there was an awareness of him engaging in consensual sexual activity outside of his committed relationship with his wife. I knew some time after I started working for him. I think from the outside there is a perception that because there was an awareness of that, we would have known about any nonconsensual engagement. I don’t want us to seem like we didn’t have any awareness of anything he did, because that’s not the case. But there is a huge delineation between what someone is doing in their personal life consensually versus what’s nonconsensual.
If you had known about the allegations, would you have left Life Or Death?
Will: If we had known, we would have taken the same actions we took this past week.
I have been told that some of your clients knew about these allegations. Do you know this to be true?
Both: No, we don’t know this to be true.
Your client Chelsea Wolfe also tweeted that Berru tried to kiss her at a casual business meeting. Did you know about this?
Both: We weren’t aware of it, nor were we there.
Sky Ferreira also worked with Berru and tweeted "About time someone said something." Had Sky ever talked to you about any incident with him?
Will: I did day-to-day stuff for her, but she mainly worked with Heathcliff. I was told we were let go by her management the day after she appeared on the cover of The Fader in 2013. I had booked that myself, and I was proud of that. I didn’t know why she left, and I didn’t really understand why she would leave after that type of moment, [but] I thought maybe they wanted to go in a more mainstream direction. She never told me Heathcliff did anything to her. We didn’t know that Heathcliff’s actions were losing us business, especially clients I really cared about. We were being handicapped by it without knowing it for years.
Why do you think women didn't go to authorities or report him?
Will: I’m sure there was fear of some unknown consequences from speaking up. But I’m glad they came out with it and it became a conversation in the public, not isolated to Heathcliff.
Have there ever been any incidents along those lines with anyone who currently works in your office?
Dierl: Yes, since the accounts surfaced last week, one of our coworkers told me she had received unprofessional texts from Heathcliff, but it was difficult for her to open up. That was the first thing we did: call all of the female staff. She told me after [the female staff was asked], but I didn’t know beforehand.
Why do you think your coworker didn't tell you right when it happened?
Dierl: If you are young in the industry and making strides in your career, you might be afraid to say something that you think may jeopardize it.
Do you think your business will bounce back after all of this?
Will: Yeah, I’m optimistic.
Dierl: I would like to think so. I think this is intrinsically tied to the conversation about complicity and culpability. I’ve personally accepted that there are people who know us well enough and will believe us based on our actions in the past. I have also fully accepted that there are a number of people who will not, regardless of what we say right now, and that those people have to be made believers by our actions in the future and the environment we create with our company.
Are you worried that new clients won't want to work with you because of the association with Berru?
Dierl: It feels the same to me about whether or not or business will bounce back. There will be some that won’t be intimidated by that. It will ultimately be on us to prove that we don’t support any of what has been described.
Will: Yeah, we are not Heathcliff.