Once, at a show, I ran into a famous DJ I’d met before. I was working as a music writer at the time and had recently interviewed him for a story, an encounter I found pleasant enough. This time, though, things were different.
He spent the evening groping me the moment other people left the room or trying to kiss me when we were alone, advances I tried to laugh off by jovially removing his hand from my breast or putting my fingers between our mouths as he leaned in. I was not interested in him but I accepted his offer to go out to dinner with a group of bigger, even more famous musicians, because his endorsement granted me access to a room I wanted to be in.
By the end of the night, when it became clear I was not going to leave with him, he turned on me. Intoxicated and aggressive, he leaned into my face and whispered “Nobody wants you here, so why are you here? Just leave,” then walked away and erupted into a physical tantrum, kicking hedges and flailing his arms, until friends put him in a cab back to his hotel. I hoped he had liked me and respected my work but in this moment it was obvious I would only be allowed to stay if I was willing to fuck him.
This week The New York Times published an extensive report about the musician Ryan Adams. In it, it’s alleged that Adams acted in a way I found sadly familiar towards at least seven different women, including his ex-wife Mandy Moore and folk artist Phoebe Bridgers, who was 20 years his junior during their brief relationship.
The NYT report that Adams used his position as a successful, high-profile musician to manoeuvre his way into sexual relationships with women under the guise of collaboration or jump-starting their careers. It’s alleged he dangled big opportunities in front of them and took them away if they didn’t play along; he reportedly told them his attention was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” then belittled their abilities or harassed them when scorned. Adams has disputed some details of the story, but the NYT has seen texts suggesting he struck up a sexually explicit online relationship with a 14-year-old fan, herself a musician, after she messaged him excitedly on Twitter. As reported, these are the actions of someone who knew they were in a position of privilege and exploited it.
Much has been made of how the Me Too movement, which has swept Hollywood, hasn’t managed to take hold in the music industry. Part of it, perhaps, is to do with the fact that women are still trapped in multi-album deals with their abusers — like the one Kesha fought so valiantly to try and get out of. But I think much of the way men in music wield their power is subtler than it was with Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey, instead based on with-strings-attached offers of help like those allegedly used by Ryan Adams. To see how stock standard the idea of an older male musician “mentoring” and then entering into a sexual relationship with a younger female is, you only need look at the fact that A Star Is Born has been remade four times now.
These sorts of relationships are rife in the music industry but their predatory nature can be hard to define, and that ambiguity leads to silence. Music is a hierarchical industry built on relationships. At the top sit successful artists like Adams, and being vouched for by one of these gatekeepers can grant women a way into the boys’ club. Appeasing powerful men without missing out on the opportunities they’re promising is a delicate balancing act — give just enough and you‘ll be rewarded, push back too hard and you risk hurting your career, give too much and you’re branded a whore.
Shame leads to silence, too. In her book My Thoughts Exactly, Lily Allen describes a sexual encounter she had with music industry professional when she was 20, before the release of her debut album:
It was consensual, sure. It’s just that he had all the power and I had none. It’s just that I was young and he wasn’t. It’s just that I was looking for help and he acted as if he was doing me a favour.
Years later, she was at a table with friends including Florence + The Machine’s Florence Welch, who discussed how the man Allen had slept with all those years ago was known to be a creep. Embarrassed, she didn’t tell anyone what had happened between them. After all, how do you explain the way sex that is technically consensual can still feel exploitative?
I worked in the music industry for close to a decade and have spent a lot of time navigating those unspoken power dynamics. The truth is I needed that DJ who chucked the tantrum on my side — I couldn’t do my job without his good graces. I had messed up by rejecting him too overtly and it got me evicted from the room I so desperately wanted to be in. But to call him out would be to lock myself out forever.
I knew then my currency was youth and perceived availability, and I was willing to trade a bit of it to be around artists I admired. Men like Ryan Adams know their currency is power, and they have been cashing it in for decades.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.