Beginning on Monday, a series of tweets from Dirty Projectors singer Amber Coffman escalated with astonishing speed into a watershed moment for sexism in the music industry.
In them, the 31-year-old musician accused Heathcliff Berru, founder of Life or Death PR and Management, of inappropriate sexual behavior — specifically, of groping her buttocks [at a bar in New York in 2013, she later told Billboard]. Her tweets triggered several more women to come forward with claims via social media. Publicist Beth Martinez tweeted that Berru put his hand down her shirt multiple times while he drove her home from a bar, and reiterated that account in an interview with Billboard. Tearist singer Yasmine Kittles that he forced her onto a couch at her home, held her down, opened his pants, and forced her hand onto his genitals (an account she repeated to Billboard). And Brooklyn Magazine published an email it said it had received from musician Roxy Lange, claiming that Berru verbally and physically pressured to perform oral sex on him in a taxi, then forced his way into her apartment and continued his assault but stopped short of raping her. Singer-songwriter Sky Ferreira, who was previously repped by Berru’s company, tweeted, “About time someone said something.”
The outcry on social media was swift and fierce, and late Tuesday afternoon, Berru resigned from his position as CEO and issued a statement that he would be heading into rehab for drug and alcohol addiction.
“There have been several reports about my alleged inappropriate behavior which deserve a response,” the statement reads in part. “I am deeply sorry for those who I have offended by my actions and how I have made certain women feel. If I crossed the line of decency or respectfulness in situations when I was drunk and under the influence, there is no excuse, of course. To be clear, while my conduct may have been inappropriate, I have never drugged anyone or engaged in that type of behavior. Nevertheless, I do not want to be the type of person who would let drugs or alcohol take command of his life and compromise how he treats people. Yet I have been this person and it’s time to put a stop to all of this.” (Berru declined Billboard’s requests for further comment.)
After multiple artists announced they were firing the company, Life or Death essentially dissolved the following day, with the remaining staffers regrouping — separate from Berru — under a to-be-announced name.
Coffman first met Berru at an Unknown Mortal Orchestra concert at the Echo in Los Angeles in February 2013. They were introduced by a mutual friend and exchanged a few words. “He thought we had met before, but I didn’t remember him,” says Coffman.
A week later, Coffman saw the group again at the Bowery Ballroom in New York. Backstage, she saw Berru in the hallway and he asked for her number. “I had met his [then]-fiancé and he was the publicist for a friend’s band, so it seemed harmless to me. I didn’t feel threatened by him initially,” she says. At the band’s afterparty at a nearby bar, Berru approached Coffman and a male friend while she was standing with a drink in her hand. “Immediately, his hand went to my ass. He grabbed it and he was rubbing my butt, just up and down, without saying anything,” she recalls. “I just totally froze up and ran over to get my other guy friends because it was out of left field and I was shocked. Totally shocked.”
The group of them returned to the bar where Berru was standing. He told her that she looked “incredibly cute” and then grabbed her hair and started biting it in front of her friends. “I didn’t know what to do. It’s like, ‘How do I survive this situation?’ When someone violates you, you don’t know how far they will go. We just ended up leaving immediately to get out of the situation safely,” she says. The following day, Berru apologized via text for being drunk, adding a “ha ha” to the end of the message. Coffman told him never to contact her again.
A staffer at Domino Records, Coffman’s label, was also at the bar and witnessed the incident. Coffman reached out to Domino the next day, and the company decided to stop working with Berru — a decision that Coffman and a Domino rep emphasize was made by the label itself with no pressure from her. Coffman also relayed the story to her publicist, Judy Miller Silverman of Motormouth Media. Silverman told Coffman — and confirmed Billboard on Thursday — that over the years “at least five” other women had told her that Berru took unwanted liberties with them.
“When you are a woman and you have these kinds of experiences and you try to talk about them, a lot of times it’s like talking to a wall,” Coffman says. “People just don’t know what to do or what to tell you. There’s no real code in place to protect women from this kind of behavior. There’s a lot of tolerance for sexual harassment and a lot of complacency. Keep in mind, there are so many women who haven’t even come forward yet. I hope they do.” Following is an edited transcript of Billboard’s conversation with Coffman in Los Angeles on Jan. 20.
Did you ever worry that people wouldn’t believe you?
No. If somebody didn’t believe me, what the f— do I care? Any girl who makes up a story is hurting all those young women who it actually happens to. Almost any woman you talk to has some kind of story of at the very least [inappropriate] comments being made to them, and almost any woman you know has a story that’s unsettling. That’s what a lot of men don’t realize.
How much did you discuss with your publicist before and while this was happening?
I initially tweeted, but didn’t say Heathcliff’s name. Then she texted me, and we were talking about it. I had asked her, “Why don’t people say anything?” And she told me that people are scared.
Did you think your tweet would prompt so many responses from other women?
I had an idea from talking to Judy that there were [other] women, so in my head I was just like, “Well, f— that guy. I’m going to say his name.”
Why didn’t you come out sooner?
I told people in the industry. At the time, I didn’t have nearly as much of a Twitter following. When Domino Records asked me what I wanted to do after [the incident at Bowery Ballroom], that power was a scary feeling to me … the power to get somebody fired. However, I’m happy that they did. I was almost afraid of my own anger or power. There is definitely an element in which you get angry as a woman but don’t want to be perceived as vengeful and wrathful, so you will downplay it.
How do you feel about being the first person to expose a person who allegedly had a long history of abusive behavior?
It’s weird. All these people are saying, “You’re my hero,” and I’m getting so much praise. That’s really nice, but I feel like what I did is just something that every woman should feel free to do. And I’ve gotten messages from people who were harassed by him who said that if it weren’t for me saying something, they never would have said anything. And it’s all been very surprising to me. I don’t know. I don’t understand why everyone’s being so quiet.
How did you feel to see it all spread so quickly and aggressively over social media?
Really stunned and a little nervous. I knew it was the right thing and I knew it was a good thing, but it’s a little bit nerve-wracking to have all that attention on you. I think that’s why so many women don’t come forward. I have been getting so many [positive] messages from people in the last 48 hours, as well as a lot of messages from men who are really, really supportive and would never tolerate something like that. Clearly, a lot of women were holding onto this and never said anything because they never thought anyone would care. So, I’m very happy that they have at least a moment in time when they have a platform. I am in awe of the power of the situation.
Were you also concerned since he is a big-name publicist that he would ruin your reputation in the music industry?
I never cared about that. That didn’t cross my mind at all. At the time, I hadn’t looked up his roster. I didn’t know very much about him. I was angry that this happened to me, but then you don’t want everyone to freak out on your behalf. You certainly don’t want to be asking for that. If people’s reaction is to reprimand him, that’s their decision. I didn’t even think I was afraid to talk about it until this happened.
You’ve said that just before you sent your tweets, you were talking with friends about sexual misconduct and the inappropriate behavior of some men, including some in the music industry. Is that what prompted you take it to social media?
Honestly, it wasn’t a super-conscious decision. Sometimes venting on Twitter is just a reflexive thing. I go through phases with that when I take long breaks from Twitter and then I come back. But, sometimes, if I am upset about something and I want to vent about it, I just do it. So that’s really what it was.
Do you think he deserved to be outed?
Yes, for sure. … I think he’d been given a pass for a really long time because of his powerful position in the industry. I wish I had said something sooner. I can’t imagine how many more people it’s happened to since my experience. A friend told me there are so many women, none of them are talking, and I said, “Why?” and she said, “Because they’re scared.” I was like, “Well, I’m not.” Anybody who behaves like this deserves to be outed.
Do you feel like what happened to him was justice?
At least partially. It’s hard for me to say until we hear more of the stories of what he’s done to other women.
His client Chelsea Wolf recently tweeted that he tried to kiss her during a business meeting. Do you believe any of his clients knew about his behavior?
I’m sure. I do know a lot of people who worked with him and knew. There is just a really horrible status quo of men not taking women seriously. Even women can be part of the boys’ club. They can side with the boys because they want the approval or they want the job or whatever.
But it comes from men. It doesn’t come from women. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to tell a story to a guy about something that’s happened to me, some kind of assault, and it’s almost like it doesn’t compute because they don’t have much context for it. I see a lot of disbelief in men when this kind of thing happens. Most men don’t have a really broad awareness of these kinds of things that are happening to women all the time because it doesn’t happen to them. It’s the same with any other group of people who are facing a particular struggle. The people who don’t have to face that struggle are not as aware of it.
Berru said in his statement that he’s going to rehab for his problems with drugs and alcohol and that his wife has left him. How did you feel when you read it?
It didn’t sound like the response of someone taking responsibility for it. It sounded kind of like he said what he felt he had to say in the situation, and then painted himself as a victim when he’s not. That should be the only thing to do: to take responsibility. I saw in his initial statement that he used the words “alleged” and “offend,” like I managed to offend people. I don’t know. He doesn’t have a defense, and so I feel like that’s the only thing that he can really say.
Would you feel differently if he took responsibility for his actions?
How often does that really happen, though? People getting really drunk or using drugs doesn’t turn them into abusers. I’m glad that he wants to go to rehab and I hope that he gets the help that he needs. I also hope that he goes to get psychiatric care to change his perspective on women. That’s the real issue.
Are you surprised he stepped down from his position after all the women came forward? Was that powerful for you?
Yeah, it’s really amazing. But it’s only the very beginning of these conversations, because there are so many other men in this industry who are pulling shit like this. It shouldn’t be tolerated in any industry, and it’s everywhere. I just hope that this is a big wake-up call for people like that. They’re not going to get away with it. One girl wrote me that what he had done to her had been haunting her for nine years. This is not the result of addiction. It’s a result of a very sick person who needs professional help.
Have you had experiences with other men in the music industry or otherwise who acted inappropriately?
I’ve experienced sexism. I have had experiences like this since I was a teenager. But it’s very sensitive subject. That kind of thing doesn’t go away. That sticks with women forever. I’ve been chased and many of my friends have been chased in cars. I experienced a peeping tom in the bathroom stall of a venue once in Louisiana. When I’m out on tour or wherever, when I’m among other industry people I’ve been pretty insulated. I’m fortunate, because a lot of women have sleazeballs working for them, or they have sleazeballs at their label.
How do you think the industry can do a better job of preventing this behavior?
Zero tolerance. When you see men behaving badly toward women, call it out. It needs to be taken more seriously. If you hear multiple stories about a guy, you need to take it seriously, because eventually it’s going to come to light.
Did it upset you that your friends didn’t say anything to Heathcliff that evening when he touched you inappropriately?
It’s not about my friends, because we were all just in shock. I don’t blame my friends. I’m talking about the people who were around Heathcliff on a regular basis, know him well and are aware of his behavior. There were lots of them. I want to make that clear that I’m not talking about my friends. One of them called me yesterday and wanted to know if I was mad at him, and I’m not at all. It’s hard to know what to do sometimes when something is so shocking.
Do you believe Heathcliff’s friends should have called him out long ago?
My understanding is that most of his friends knew damn well what he had done, and they continued to associate with him. I think that women need to be listened to and taken seriously. And men need to hold each other accountable for how they treat us. When you see somebody you know behaving badly, rock the boat, call it out. Don’t be afraid of confrontation. There is no good reason that you could come up with for not defending women.
Do you think that this will spark other women to talk about possibly other men in the industry who have done similar things?
I very much hope so, because there are a lot of monsters out there. They should.
Do you in any way feel bad about what’s happened?
I have sympathy for sick people, but I do not feel sorry for him. I don’t feel sorry for somebody who is so abusive to so many people. I wanted him to get in trouble. I wanted him to be called out.
Were you embarrassed to come forward and tell your story?
No, I don’t feel embarrassed. It is weird when these kinds of things happen and you have to tell your story to men. That can be kind of embarrassing in a way. It’s really sad, because it’s hard enough in the music business to find your way, to find success. It’s so sad to me to think that women who just want to make art and do something worthwhile are being manipulated.