International

There Was a 'Sexualized Atmosphere' at This French Label — Until Employees Spoke Up

Christine and the Queens
Xavi Torrent/WireImage

Christine and the Queens performs in concert during Primavera Sound Festival on May 30, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain.

After a rapper was accused of rape, Because Music owner Emmanuel de Buretel launched an internal investigation and enacted reforms at the French company.

Early last fall, employees at French indie label Because Music began hearing disturbing rumors about one of their artists -- French rapper Retro X. Then on Oct. 1, StreetPress, an online magazine, elevated their concerns when they posted an article in which five women accused the artist of rape, one of whom had pressed formal charges.

With Retro X dominating office chatter inside the label’s Paris office, a group of women at the company, mostly aged 25 to 35, decided to act. They wrote a letter to their boss, label founder and chairman Emmanuel de Buretel, highlighting their concerns about the rapper in light of the accusations, saying they no longer wished to represent and promote Retro X. (Retro X refuted the allegations to StreetPress.)

The letter, which they sent the day after the article was published, was signed by 44 employees, both male and female, representing about 70% of the staff of 60 in the Paris office.

What happened over the next two months may have broken the mold for how the French music industry handles #MeToo concerns about sexism in the workplace. At a time when a growing movement is seeking to expose male executives who have acted inappropriately towards women at music labels, employees at Because took matters into their own hands, spearheading a push for change that resulted in an internal investigation, the dismissal of a label executive and several structural changes.

They found a receptive partner in de Buretel, who founded Because Music in 2005 after serving as president of EMI Continental Europe. The label, and its publishing arm Because Éditions, represent a diverse array of artists, including Christine and The Queens, Charlotte Gainsbourg and electronic duo Justice.

Four days after the employees sent him the letter, de Buretel responded. In an internal email to all staff, he said he shared the wider concerns of employees, and vowed the label would cease all future collaboration with Retro X. But the label chief added that terminating contracts with artists on the grounds of sexist comments or acts was more problematic given legal limitations with contracts. Nonetheless, one sentence in the letter “particularly struck a chord with us,” a group of a dozen female Because employees later wrote anonymously in an Instagram post. “The idea that we would risk endorsing an artist or an employee who does not respect women is simply unacceptable for Because,” de Buretel told them.

Across the company, employees began to share their own stories of sexual harassment at work. Many quickly realized that the practice was more widespread than they had thought. “Everyone had a story: an anecdote about an awkward moment at a party, about a sentence full of implications under the guise of humor, about a not-so-funny joke about our looks that was passed off as a compliment. Why did we have to accept behavior that was making us uncomfortable?” they wrote on Instagram. “We had had enough.”

Added to that, says one female employee who spoke anonymously with Billboard, “there were names that cropped up more than others.”

A group of four women requested a meeting with de Buretel and the company’s legal counsel. Before the meeting, they compiled 41 separate accounts of alleged sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior in the workplace from current and former employees. These included “little” sexist remarks and “more serious” incidents, says one employee. The group redacted the names of the victims and alleged perpetrators.

De Buretel responded by suggesting an internal inquiry. He left the employees to choose an outside investigator in order to promote impartiality. They opted for Carole Pascarel, a Paris attorney who is vice-chair of the Association of Lawyers for Women. “It was vital that the people implicated in the investigation could not say that it was biased,” Pascarel tells Billboard. There was no obligation for any staffers to take part in the investigation, but “ultimately, no one came with a lawyer and no one refused to participate,” she says.

The investigation began on Nov. 2. Pascarel delivered a report to de Buretel four weeks later. The report revealed problems of sexist language and a sexualized workplace environment at the company, as well as racism and homophobia, according to Pascarel. But by design, she says, it made no recommendations.

De Buretel, nevertheless, quickly dismissed Tahar Chender, the label’s head of marketing and promotion for France, for helping create a “sexualized atmosphere” at the company marked by sexist, racist and homophobic speech; and issued a formal warning to another male employee. (Chender, who could not be reached for comment, told French publication Mediapart that “if my passionate and excessive character has put people in an uncomfortable situation, I apologize, but we cannot judge 15 years of a career through the filter of 2020.”)

Aside from the internal investigation, de Buretel has created a stronger sex-harassment policy and suggested that staffers organize panel discussions, monitored by a professional outside coach, to raise awareness about sexism and discrimination at the company. The label hopes to host a roundtable by the end of February, depending on COVID-19 restrictions. “We ultimately decided that a one-day 70-person Zoom would not be efficient,” the label chief says.

Because Music also plans to institutionalize annual “sexual audits” to assess the workplace climate, much like financial audits, de Buretel says, which could take the form of anonymous questionnaires.

As for Retro X, the rapper faces a formal rape charge from one woman in southern France, says Louise Bouchain, a lawyer representing the accuser. The public prosecutor in Toulouse has opened an investigation into the woman's allegations, Bouchain says. (A representative at the court there did not respond to a request for information.) Billboard could not reach Retro X for comment. In the StreetPress story in October, the rapper denied the accusations by text message. "I have never attacked women and I was raised by women, my mother and also my manager," he told the magazine.

Because Music did not exercise options for Retro X’s recording contract, and it has started the process of breaking ties with him on the publishing side, de Buretel says. Future label and publishing contracts will include a clause that allows the label and publisher to terminate any agreement should the artist exhibit behavior or make statements that are deemed offensive towards women or express prejudice towards any race, sexual orientation, gender identity or religion, he says.

De Buretel gives credit to the younger generation of women who initially came to see him, several of whom he says are very involved in women’s activist movements like #changededisque (“change the record”). What happened at Because Music, he says, shows that changing a workplace culture can happen through dialog and collaboration. “Some big companies have just fired people and don’t really change the way they manage,” de Buretel says. “We tried to clean our whole company on the basis of one complaint.”

As Because staffers are currently working from home amidst the pandemic, two women there say it is too early to say whether there has been a lasting change to the label’s culture. Just as important for them, however, is that their action inspires other women in the industry to speak out against sexual harassment in the workplace.

“The first step to making change is accepting that you have problems,” says one female employee. “Just speaking among ourselves was a really good start. It was this that gave us the courage to take matters further.”