Silence vs. Solidarity
by Max Mohenu
January 21, 2016
Why are women like Amber Coffman still fighting alone in the music industry?
If you’ve been on Twitter at all this week, you’ve probably heard about the string of tweets from Dirty Projectors guitarist/vocalist Amber Coffman revealing that she’d been the victim of sexual misconduct at the hands of Heathcliff Berru, founder of the now defunct music publicity company Life Or Death PR.
Coffman tweeted about a creepy incident where the US publicist “grabbed her ass and bit her hair at a bar a few years back” on January 18th. The initial tweets ignited a firestorm on social media that saw multiple women unmask their own horror stories with Berru, citing several instances where he made inappropriate sexual advances on them throughout the years.
Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino, Motormouth Media’s Judy Silverman, and Danger Village PR’s Beth Martinez led the pack with stories of their encounters with Berru. Soon after, over 10 women stood in solidarity, giving vivid accounts of rape, assault, and other slimy encounters a lot of them sat with in silence until Coffman’s story finally surfaced this week.
In the last few days we’ve witnessed the resignation (followed by a piss poor statement/“apology”) from Berru as CEO of Life Or Death PR, the loss of nine of the company’s top clients, and yesterday a complete walk-out of all the other Life Or Death employees, which was announced by Nick Driel (the now former president of the company) on Twitter.
In the midst of a scandal that’s sparked painful memories for a lot of women in the music industry, a question still looms in the green rooms, venues, and after parties where seedy industry bros dwell in wait of an opportunity to use a night of debauchery as a hall pass for gruesome acts of sexual assault.
That question is simple: Why does Amber Coffman have to fight alone?
As a matter of fact, why does any woman who shares her truth find herself forced to be the lone voice in a boys’ club where nothing is wrong if her male bandmate’s best friend is the head of the label or the dude in charge of the line-ups during festival season?
I spoke to several women (and one man) about the Amber Coffman/Life Or Death situation in depth. A lot of these women not only relate to the stories of Coffman and the others mentioned on social media, but find themselves faced with similar fears about coming forward, especially when their male allies, bandmates, and co-workers are nowhere to be found.
“We as women are still fighting misogyny and sexism because we have all been too frightened of what will happen with our careers if we were to speak out about our experiences.”
“We as women are still fighting misogyny and sexism because we have all been too frightened of what will happen with our careers if we were to speak out about our experiences,” says Andi Wilson, project manager/publicist at the record label Cascine. “I was not affected by Heathcliff, but by someone else who is well known in the music industry this past year. I never imagined my life to completely turn upside down. The past 10 months have been the most excruciating pain because as much as you try to heal, your body won’t let you”.
Sadly, a lot of women like Wilson are often forced to stay silent, even in the presence of their so-called male allies. If you recall Coffman’s second tweet, she states that Berru’s assault happened “in front of her four male friends”, a confession that raises red flags for any women who’s watched her friends turn a blind eye to blatant misogyny.
More sickening than this incident (if that’s even possible), Tearist frontwoman Yasmine Kittles tweeted about the time she told her manager about an attempted rape by Berru, to which he replied “we are going to have to get over that aren’t we”, if she cared about her band.
Roxy Lange is a former musician and current employee of LA’s Pop-Hop bookseller who shared her story of sexual assault from Berru when she was 21.
“Moving forward I hope that more women who experience assault/harassment come forward sooner,” says Lange. “We need to continue to believe women when they come forward about sexual assault. My heart breaks and I can only hope for a clearer conversation from now on. I’m grateful that Bethany and Amber spoke out so I could come forward and be honest about what Heathcliff did to me after nine years of holding this in, not telling a single person except for my therapist.”
For Salty Artists Management’s Haley Potiker, her experiences have taught her that the things done by men like Berru may get swept underneath the rug, but many people know it’s there.
“You know, we talk a lot about self-imposed silence, the strength it takes for women to come forward and name names, and then how they aren’t listened to when they do,” says Potiker. “Rebecca Haithcoat had a great tweet yesterday about how when things (like Cliff’s behaviour) are only well known among women, they get buried.”
“But then when the same dirty laundry gets aired by someone like Amber, who’s a well-known musician, and publications pick it up, everyone in the industry races to condemn Cliff,” she continues. “Well, come on, you already knew he was inappropriate, right? You had at least heard whispering of it? And it becomes this incredibly performative thing for bands to publicly fire him, as if they had never hung out and partied with him before. At least Killer Mike was honest about being his friend and wishing him well in rehab.”
Killer Mike and other musicians like Wavves, D’Angelo, DIIV, and Beach Fossils quickly dissolved their working relationship with Berru and the company once these stories went public. With the exception of Mike’s full disclosure about his friendship and personal dealings with the problematic publicist, some of these other artists weren’t that vocal about him until this became a trending topic on various social platforms.
The fall of another misogynistic industry bro is always the perfect time for a man to be the voice of his own vindication, a voice that once contributed to a sea of locker room whispers amongst buddies in the scene. Even if these men claim they knew nothing of these assaults committed by Berru over the years, silence doesn’t exonerate them from the crimes of their peers. In fact, if makes them just as culpable as him.
I asked a few women what makes a real male ally in the midst of fiascos like this one. While a lot of the answers came from different personal places, the general consensus seems to be that men need to be more way vocal about these situations.
“If you know men like Heathcliff Berru, talk to them. Don’t be afraid to confront them and start a conversation about their actions, especially if you know them on a professional or personal level,” says Toronto musician Katie Lee of Saccharine.
“As a woman, I don’t want to hear how awful the situation is – I need action. Men, stop calling each other ‘bitches’ with the same mouth that tells me rubbing a woman’s ass is degrading. Take action,” says Claire McKinzie, writer for Dummy Mag.
“If you have something to say on twitter, you don’t need to tag a bunch of women so that they see it. Call out the men in your own lives instead of firing shots at a guy who’s already stepped down,” says Potiker, referring to men who only spoke up after Berru’s resignation.
“Being an ally is not an identity or a merit badge, it’s a fundamental part of being a human being and it’s alarming that we have developed a word to reward people who are doing what any decent human should already be doing.”
“The male ally is a problematic concept and I typically don’t trust men who are loud enough for that to be their identifiable characteristic,” says Klein. “Being an ally is not an identity or a merit badge, it’s a fundamental part of being a human being and it’s alarming that we have developed a word to reward people who are doing what any decent human should already be doing.”
“Heathcliff has gone as far as he has, professionally, because he’s an abusive human climbing a corporate ladder built by other abusers,” he continues. “These men have constructed a world without checks and balances, where they can get away with these actions because of fear and finance, so why would any of them call the others out?”
“It takes people like Jessica Hopper, Amber Coffman, and those without such large platforms to speak their truth and make this information public,” Klein concludes. “It takes the music industry as a community to be a place where these conversations can happen. It takes artists to take responsibility for these decisions and intentionally research the people that they work with so that we’re not supporting human scum.”
Regardless of where you sit on this topic of the ally, the lack of voice and self-awareness amongst men and their industry peers is what allows predators to go undetected, especially when said dudes are too scared to expose their friends or boss in order to help a woman who might be in a dangerous situation.
“No one wants to out their boss as being a creep for sleeping with their teenage secretary nor does anyone want to out the guy who’s above you at your agency/label who’s trying to use the roster as a personal black book,” says Jesse Crowe of the Toronto band Beliefs. “I think a lot of men hope that their friends are actually being more respectful than is rumoured and fear bringing it up.”
Motormouth Media’s Judy Silverman believes this problem runs deeper than “industry guys.” In a brief email she states that it’s “an endemic problem to ‘not be that person’ to out your brother for doing bad things.”
“It’s like in the movies when the friend helps the other one bury the body,” Silverman adds. “Systemic culture, rock and roll. It’s way too deep and way too up high for it to ever be solved in a rational way. The only thing we can do for now is be hyper vigilant.”
Berru’s statement released yesterday was just as sad as it was cringe-worthy. Referring to his crimes as “alleged inappropriate behaviour,” he went on to insinuate that his battle with drugs and alcohol are the cause for his actions towards these women.
The casual use of the word “alleged” matched with white indie bro tears is clearly a method of self-preservation, but say you took Berru’s tortured soul routine at face value. How many A&R agents, publicists, and booking agents get drunk and do drugs at every event, festival, and release party around the world? How many of them are the bosses of women like the ones who’ve spoken out in this situation? How many other Heathcliff Berrus are at their first internship pining for the limelight that’ll one day create a false sense of power over their female co-workers?
Addiction is a sensitive subject that affects families and friendships everyday, but “the rockstar life” can’t be used as an emotional scapegoat, especially when several women can account for times when Berru’s advances occurred when he was completely sober.
This conversation has been built heavily around the absence of the male voice and who should fight for women like Coffman. Ultimately, the fear of ratting out a friend is one that’ll plague men for years, even ones who claim to be the biggest feminists and allies. What Coffman’s actions taught us this week is that while it’s important to put the onus on men that perpetuate these cycles of abuse, the female voice is stronger in numbers. A united front can be the most powerful weapon any woman can have in this industry.
“I don’t only want more men to support women, but women to support women too,” says Andi Wilson. “I want the future of this community to be full of healthy, happy women who get to enjoy their jobs and not be threatened by a male dominated world on a daily basis. There are a lot more just like Heathcliff out there, trust me.”
While the voices of influencers like Coffman, Costello, Silverman, and Martinez are a breath of earnest air needed in times of darkness, the light must shine further than our Twitter feeds. These discussions need to happen on various platforms, both digital and physical, on a DIY and mainstream scale.
I end this conversation with a few more thoughts from everyone who contributed their feelings. This is what they’d like to see happen going forward:
“It’s in our culture to keep ‘hush hush’ about violence when it’s under the umbrella of sex. I feel that all of this is rooted in systemic power and privilege. Making conscious decisions to listen to women, to associate yourself with women, I think is where we can break down our impulse to protect ‘the man’ in these types of situations. Clearly having more women involved in these conversations is important, and giving the space for women to speak about these issues is also important. Someone I confronted recently, someone who had hurt me, told me that he never had any good role models growing up. Let’s start being those role models.” (Katie Lee)
“Speak up in the moment that something is happening, not when it’s politically convenient to do so. Don’t make women have to stand up for themselves and each other. Don’t create an environment where your male friends feel protected in their shittiness. Like, literally, just call out your bro when you’re in a room full of bros and there are no girls around to impress with your feminism.” (Haley Potiker)
“Know who you are working with before diving into projects. Bands – don’t just sign a deal somewhere because they offer you money or promise a career. Make sure your team feels like family to you. Ask questions and say something if you notice inappropriate behaviour.” (Andi Wilson)
“I need attitudes to change. I need sexual harassment to be far more punishable. I need society to create spaces where women can feel safe enough to make men accountable for their actions in the moment and not months (or years) after. These stories of ‘I didn’t feel like I could say anything’ need to change.” (Claire McKinzie)