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Why One Label Head Calls Nashville an 'Island of Morality' Despite Country Singer's Sexual Harassment Claims
When country singer Katie Armiger told Fox News last week about the numerous incidents of sexual harassment that she experienced by an array of radio station employees before leaving her label, Cold River Records, two years ago, Cold River’s president Pete O'Heeron issued a statement denying that the singer had made the same complaints to his label.
"Cold River Records strongly condemns sexual harassment of anyone. Also, to be clear, Cold River Records has never heard Katie complain of the inappropriate physical contact from anyone at radio as she alleges," stated O’Heeron, who is also Armiger's first cousin once removed.
However in a May 2015 email -- a screenshot of which was posted last week by a former Cold River employee Staci Kirpach -- O’Heeron appears to have acknowledged at least some of her complaints about feeling uncomfortable in the business: "I'm sorry...I don't think any of this it [sic] out of line. We are trying to show you what others are doing in the market. If that makes you uncomfortable, I'm very sorry...but that's the market you operate in. You can choose to accept our advice or not. Taylor Swift hugged and kissed these guys...so did Kellie Pickler and Kelsea Ballerini...if you choose not to, then that's up to you and your career will be impacted. Advising you to dress edgy is not out of line either. It's no different than Luke Bryan wearing tight pants and shaking his ass for the girls...or Chase Rice wearing muscle shirts...or Miranda [Lambert] losing weight and wearing bustiers and plunging neckline shirts...it's all the same. The audience and the PDs need to find you alluring...it's my advice. I can't...and won't force you to do any of these things...but I spend a lot of time assessing the competition and I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't advise you of this. NONE of this is out of line." The email, which Armiger had also filed as part of a now-settled lawsuit, is signed by O'Heeron.
Posting O’Heeron’s email on Twitter, Kirpach commented, "When 2017 doesn't match 2015." Kirpach, the founder of an event management and marketing consulting firm in Fort Worth, Texas, had worked for Cold River twice during the period in which Armiger was on the label's roster as a radio promoter and creative director.
“We even had interview questions with potential employees about how to 'best' handle inappropriate advances in which we were looking for candidates who would respond playfully. It seemed to me at the time that the implication was for the staff to do what needed to be done to keep the relationship, rather than report inappropriate actions or set clear boundaries," Kirpach tells Billboard in an email. Armiger declined to comment to for this story.
O’Heeron says the email in question was "a personal, confidential conversation," and stresses that the singer never accused anyone at his label of sexual misconduct. In fact, he argues that with top executives in Hollywood, New York and Washington facing sexual harassment allegations, Nashville “seems to be an island of morality” in the entertainment business."
"All of this is brand new, and I've gotten calls from a couple of her friends, and their thing is, 'We should focus this national conversation on women who were actually physically and sexually abused in the workplace.' For me, that’s where the story is, and I haven't seen or heard about it happening in country music," O’Heeron told Billboard. "I think there is an undercurrent of that in Hollywood, but I just haven't seen it here. These new accusations - for [those at the label] - seem nothing more than her trying to attach [herself] to the national conversation about, you know, real abuse. We wish her true happiness, and happiness in her life and career, but we just want to go do our own thing and she (to) go do her own thing in her career."
While Armiger had told Fox News that she was inspired by Harvey Weinstein’s accusers to speak out, O'Heeron said that "going from Katie Armiger to Harvey Weinstein is a leap over a chasm; these are not equivalents. Harvey Weinstein exposed himself to women; forced himself on women; lured them to his bedroom. There is absolutely no accusation like that from Katie.”
Their dispute highlights a fundamental disagreement between some in the music industry over what type of behavior crosses the line. For example, Armiger told Fox News of a lunch with a radio team at which a programmer said to her guitar player, “Surely you've been fucking her. Where is she [on your top five] list?' O’Heeron described the incident to Billboard as “people being edgy in their conversation,” something he’d observed in the industry, but noted he hadn’t seen any physical misconduct.
On Fox, Armiger also described an experience on her first national radio tour at the age of 15 that left her horrified: "I was at a radio station in Texas and was taking a promo photo with one of the on-air DJs after doing my performances and he grabbed my butt during the photo. And at the same time he was whispering in my ear, 'When are you going to be legal?'"
Asked about that incident, O'Heeron tells Billboard: "Yeah, she said at fifteen a program director - or radio personality - in Texas touched her leg. Touched her leg. One guy you're reading about in the newspapers luring women to his hotel room...this guy touched her leg. And I can tell you this, that happened when she was fifteen, and Katie's 26 years old now; in eleven years, we had never heard this story."
O'Heeron adds that "Katie never had a problem [during that time period] to tell us when a fan touched her in an inappropriate place, so to wait all these years later to bring up some program director in Texas who touched her leg when she was fifteen...I just had never heard it before. You can decide whether she's creating the story, or if she had just suppressed the memory, that's a conclusion that you and your readers will have to come to."
Inspired to pursue a music career after winning a country singing competition in Houston, Armiger signed with Cold River Records at the age of 15, and had released her self-titled debut album by 16. She saw her greatest success with the release of her final album on the Cold River label, 2013's Fall Into Me, which peaked within the top ten on both the Billboard Country and Indie Album charts; Fall also features the only single of her career to break into the US Country Airplay top forty with "Better in a Black Dress.” In June 2015 the label released a statement saying that the singer had "decided to take a breather and decide her next career aspirations," which was quickly followed by Armiger stating publicly that those were "not my words, and certainly not my intention," and that the label had locked her out of her social media accounts. In 2016 the two sides entered the courtroom with dueling lawsuits, Cold River arguing that the singer had refused to perform the remainder of her contracts, and Armiger arguing that O'Heeron and Cold River VP of Promotions Jim Dandy allegedly told her to hug, kiss, sit in the lap of and flirt with radio program directors. The cases ended in a settlement and NDAs being signed. Armiger is currently writing new music and attending school, something she missed out on as a teenaged touring musician.
O'Heeron says country music industry is a paradigm of virtue within the entertainment world even after Taylor Swift successfully countersued a former Denver DJ for assault and battery, after he first unsuccessfully sued her for defamation of character and a tort claim of interference with contractual obligations and prospective business relations, all stemming from a photo op that had the radio personality place his hand beneath Swift's skirt.
"If you look at any conversation we had with Katie [regarding other female country singers' careers], we always said, 'You don't have to do this, but it is our responsibility to apprise you of the competition: who is co-writing a song with who; who is on tour with who; who is wearing what gown to what red carpet.' We never asked Katie to be physical with people. Music is a social game. It's a music game, but there's also a good deal of socialization in there. How you choose to carve your [career] path is up to you as an artist, but we would never ask an artist to do anything inappropriate physically."