It’s hard to think of a band that has soared and then plummeted as quickly as PWR BTTM. Last week, the gender-nonconforming punk duo of singer-guitarist Ben Hopkins and drummer-singer Liv Bruce saw sudden acclaim — breathless reviews of its second album, Pageant, and profiles in The New York Times and other major media outlets — turn to scorched earth when a May 11 Facebook post accusing Hopkins of a history of sexual assault and making “unwanted advances on minors” and a May 12 Jezebel story quoting another alleged victim sparked a massive backlash against the group.
According to music attorney Steve Gordon, most recording and management contracts contain morals clauses that can trigger the contract’s termination “if the performer does something indecent or obscene.” And within 48 hours of the second story, PWR BTTM lost its label deal, album distribution, management and its backing and opening bands for what was shaping up to be a largely sold-out summer tour. At press time those concert dates had been canceled, and PWR BTTM’s music — which had been generating an average of 414,000 on-demand streams per week in the eight weeks leading up to the May 12 release of Pageant, according to Nielsen Music — had been removed from all retailers and streaming services including Apple Music, Tidal, Google Play, Amazon and iTunes, effectively erasing its catalog entirely.
Even the band’s first album, Ugly Cherries, on Father/Daughter Records, has been pulled from digital services as the label took pains to distance itself from the group. What’s shocking is the speed with which things went wrong for the duo known for stopping shows to check on the safety of fans and for making advocacy on behalf of the marginalized, mistreated and underrepresented part of their mission statement.
As Hopkins and Bruce huddled with their PR firm to craft a second response to the accusations, Billboard asked industry veterans for their appraisal of PWR BTTM’s predicament. All spoke on the condition of anonymity, and virtually everyone expressed shock at the speed with which PWR BTTM lost the industry’s support, given that no charges have been filed and that one of the accusers was anonymous.
“I don’t know a ton about the band, only the stuff I’ve read since Friday, but I was surprised by how quickly everyone retreated from the band… that’s unfortunate regardless of whether what happened is true or not,” said a longtime veteran of the indie community who has experience working with artists in crisis. [The source requested that their name not be used.] “I think it’s a sign of our society right now in terms of people rushing to judgement and when something is out there on the internet the assumption is it’s true.”
Given how quickly PWR BTTM’s support system collapsed and retreated, the source said “where there’s smoke there’s probably fire, but that’s just me rushing to judgment, too.” At press time the group had not made any statement aside from the one initially released in the wake of the revelations, one in which Bruce neither apologized nor denied the allegations, a move that a number of music industry sources tagged as strange, if not doubly damaging because it appeared to put the onus on survivors to come forward to share their stories.
The statement pointed to a “culture that trivializes and normalizes violations of consent,” a phrase that only served to further muddy the waters in the wake of later posts from T-Rextasy — a band that had been slated to open PWR BTTM’s summer tour before dropping out — in which they tweeted that “someone came to us privately and warned us that they had these experiences with Ben.” The statement also claimed that this was the first time PWR BTTM had heard of these accusations, a stance that become more tenuous as additional accounts emerged, including a tweet from Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis, who said an alleged victim of Hopkins confronted the band in February only to be met with “inaction.”
“There’s something about the kind of person [Hopkins] is that almost makes it worse,” said the source, a nod to Hopkins’ proud embrace of queer culture and the group’s insistence that venues provide gender neutral bathrooms so trans and gender-nonconforming fans could feel safe at shows. “The way they were marketing themselves as non-gender-specific and as a safe place… being seen as a champion of the rights of people whose rights have been infringed upon? That certainly cuts into it.”
The silence coming from the PWR BTTM camp speaks volumes to some in the industry, and that might be one of the biggest problems. “If you didn’t do it, you can’t say anything and the only thing that works is ‘I’m sorry and I’m getting help,'” counseled a veteran publicist who has been following the story. “You have to own it and put yourself in other people’s shoes and understand what they might be going through and say ‘I’m sorry and I will work on myself.’ Anything else feels like an excuse and there’s no excuse for it.”
One thing you can’t do is give a not-pology along the lines of the one offered up by disgraced former Life or Death PR CEO Heathcliff Berru in January 2016 after more than half a dozen women accused him of sexual harassment. Berru’s mea culpa was read by many as a failure to take responsibility for his actions, with sentiments such as “I am deeply sorry for those who I have offended by my actions and how I have made certain women feel.”
The publicist said it appears to them that Hopkins might have made some bad decisions and not owned up to them or how much they hurt, or confused, his alleged victims, criticizing the band’s initial attempt at damage control, in which Hopkins neither apologized nor denied the allegations as the band offered a mediator-monitored email address for alleged survivors. “The label needed to protect itself and not one person came out to defend him,” the publicist noted of the stony silence from both the band’s professional peers and the LGBTQ community. “It heated up to such an intense level in such a short time that he’s got to do something, or just go away.”
A long-time booking agent with a roster that includes both veteran and up-and-coming acts said context matters, as PWR BTTM “stood” for one thing and then had a member who seemingly acted in a contrary manner. “Given that the band’s core audience and management/agency/label have decided that they are toxic… I see a difficult road ahead for the act,” the agent said. “Now the artist needs to fight in the court of public opinion, and the question that they are asking themselves right now is whether they have the will and means to clear their name.”
Though PWR BTTM have not said what their future plans are, the agent predicted that Bruce may have to decide that “there is only room for one in the lifeboat.”
Several of the sources pointed to the case of Surfer Blood, who dealt with allegations of abuse after that group’s singer, John Paul Pitts, was arrested on domestic battery charges in 2012 following a fight with his then-girlfriend; the charges were later dropped. The band weathered the storm and recently released a new album, Snowdonia.
That group is in the midst of a summer tour that will include dates with The Shins, but given the meltdown of PWR BTTM’s tour schedule and the possibility that its rabid fan base might not turn up for the shows still listed on their website, can they continue as a live act?
“Look at what’s going on in our country today… everyone who is in a scene, DIY or LGBTQ… everyone who is a member of that community can know about something very quickly and whether you’re a band or a promoter or the president you can’t control it,” said a New York promoter and club owner who has been putting on shows for more than two decades. “Whether the accusation or information is accurate I don’t know, none of us do. But it’s out there and the bands or the promoters have to respond. The whole world is always watching. We would have to look at all the facts, what’s out there [before booking a band like PWR BTTM]. You can be accused without hard evidence, but something like this is difficult for us. We have to look at every situation on its merits.”
In a vacuum, the promoter said, all the “other stuff” out there becomes fact. The more information you offer your fans the better. “I wouldn’t hesitate to not book a band band based on their actions or things they’ve said,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and there’s probably been a time or two that I’ve made a call that this band doesn’t fit the vibe we want to present. We want to be a church that entertains everyone. But it needs to be a safe space, a right space.”
The long-time indie veteran said it comes down to the Hopkins’ character and his history when predicting if PWR BTTM will get the benefit of the doubt. “Everyone makes mistakes, that’s reality,” he said. “But we used to be a society where you can make a mistake and there was an ability to recover from it and live an estimable life and learn from your mistakes. That’s not the world we live in anymore. Did everyone cut bait because this is the twentieth time it’s happened and the first time it became public? We don’t know. But none of it is excusable.”