In late November 2017, Def Jam co-founder and lifestyle mogul Russell Simmons stepped down from his companies after the screenwriter Jenny Lumet accused him of sexually assaulting her in 1991. By mid-December, more women had come forward with allegations of rape or harassment, including a former Def Jam executive, a singer and a music journalist. (Simmons denied the allegations.)
The breadth of these women’s positions underscores the fact that sexual misconduct affects all tiers of the industry, and after decades of neglect, consequences are finally beginning to hit home. Last May, Antonio “L.A.” Reid, who counted TLC, OutKast and Mariah Carey’s 2005 reinvention among his successes, resigned as CEO of Epic Records following a former assistant’s harassment accusation. Yet with months to go before the sea change sparked by Harvey Weinstein’s fall from power, Reid’s exit played out quickly and quietly, with few details made public — something that’s all but unthinkable now.
The music business, which operates everywhere from studios to nightclubs, is by nature difficult to regulate. So how to enact change? In an email to friends and colleagues in 2017, Atlantic Records chairman/COO Julie Greenwald suggested that collective action and solidarity are the way forward: “We have to have each other’s backs as we gain strength through our collective voice.”
To that end, social media remains a powerful tool with a proven history. In 2016, music publicist Heathcliff Berru left his business after being accused of sexual misbehavior by multiple women on Twitter, starting with singer Amber Coffman. “I don’t think anybody thinks [social media] is the ideal way to go about this,” Coffman says now. “But it becomes a last resort when you don’t have other options that work.” She would like to see women working together across industries: “We could create a much bigger support system.”
Kathryn Frazier, owner and founder of publicity firm Biz3, stresses the importance of rehabilitation. “If they’re not going to prison, as is the case with nearly all sexual abuse situations, then I don’t want them to just move to another city and keep hurting women,” she says. “Real efforts in rehabilitation — recovery programs for sex and love addiction, as well as substance abuse, if applicable, coupled with therapy — feel like the only way to stop future harm.”
Organized labor could help pave a way forward as well. “Our role as a union is to demand that musicians’ workplaces be free of intimidation and abuse,” says a representative from Local 802, American Federation of Musicians. “It is the employer’s responsibility to guarantee a safe workplace, and we are working to ensure that they do so … through legal and regulatory channels [and] the collective bargaining process.”
Already, a group of powerful women in Hollywood have founded Time’s Up, creating a legal defense fund, calling for penalization of companies that tolerate harassment and asking women to wear black to the Golden Globes. After #MeToo, it’s the latest reminder that the status quo is no longer an option.