The way we talk about sexual misconduct, abuse, harassment, coercion and assault within the music industry feels, in many ways, short-sighted. When abusers are outed and accusations are believed (if they are believed), conversation turns to consequence and anger, resentment for the past and concern for the future. What will become of Pinegrove or R. Kelly or Pierce the Veil? (Those are only a few artist names from the last week of accusations. There are countless others.) What will happen to their fans? Most importantly, what will become of the survivors?
These situations are, more often than not, impossibly challenging to navigate, leaving us with more questions than answers. Here at TrackRecord, we’ve been wondering what steps we can take as ethical, inclusive music fans and professionals. We believe victims and are aware that many will not. How can assault be addressed after an abuser is outed within our industry? What happens when the news cycle moves on, distracted by the next tragedy?
I reached out to Sheridan Allen, a Philadelphia-based social worker who runs Punk Talks, an organization that offers free professional therapy to music workers. They provide education, awareness, and advocacy around mental illness and accessibility to treatment. She and her team of 15 volunteers (including three licensed therapists and a pharmacist) have been asking the same questions for a long time, so I asked her: What does restorative justice look like within the music industry?
Hey Sheridan, thanks for talking with TrackRecord. We’re chatting because of the sexual abuse allegations that continue to crop up within the music industry, across genres and scenes. Do you think there’s a particular reason we’re seeing these cases becoming increasingly more public?
I think many survivors of abuse, largely women, have reached their maximum bullshit level. An attack like [those being reported] strip away any sense of safety from a person. When you have no sense of safety, taking down the scariest person in your life seems impossible. I believe that the sheer volume of survivors speaking out gives many individuals who had been carrying this secret burden the opportunity to gain a semblance of safety back. In finding courage and strength through the voices of others, on top of the courage and strength they embody each day just by existing, I believe that many survivors chose to speak publicly as a way to gain some closure, to protect others, or to gain control of their life back.
Do you think we’ll continue to hear these stories? I struggle to call it a “trend.”
I certainly hope it will continue—our [music] community (and our society as a whole) is really listening right now and we are at a crucial point where the entire industry is changing around the idea that music workers should also be good people, which is an idea I can certainly get behind.
Part of me wants to believe we’re hearing more about abusers to cease future abuse, but also because there seem to be some consequences now—Matt Mondanile of Ducktails and PWR BTTM getting dropped by their labels and taken off major streaming platforms, for example. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule— I don’t know if anything has come of the Brand New allegations. There seems to be a power hierarchy even within abuse.
PWR BTTM may be one of the first examples of powerful people being taken down for their behavior. It is hard to believe that was only six months ago. There was a specific kind of betrayal associated with the PWR BTTM abuse—this was a band that preached safety and acceptance to LGBTQ youth and used that platform of fake safety to gain access to the fans they would go on to harm.
It is an intimate relationship, the one between fan and artist, and when the artist abuses that power, it takes all legitimacy out of music that shapes you. It is devastating. We are also in a unique place where the industry is expected to do something about problematic behavior, because once that behavior is exposed, media, social or otherwise, will be shining an enormous light on them. Are [accused abusers] reacting because they want to ensure the safety of their consumers and fans? Are they trying to cover their bases so that they can make more money while still appearing moral?
When we talk about accountability in the music industry, what are we referring to?
We are all kind of figuring out what that means as we go—this is an unprecedented period within the history of music as an industry. To me, accountability within the industry goes far beyond addressing poor or abusive behavior and is based around the response to the survivors and the treatment of survivors by industry and fans alike.
How can abusers be held accountable after allegations arise?
Personal accountability is, in its simplest form, genuinely admitting to and apologizing for wrongdoing and taking concrete steps to prevent further wrongdoing in the future. Unfortunately, accountability is not always so simple and its simplest form may not work for everyone. In these circumstances, accountability can be defined only by the victim of the abuse. I often see people wondering how they can maintain a relationship with someone who has been outed as abusive, and my answer is by continuing to hold them accountable in making an earnest effort toward positive and healthy change.
Yesterday morning, Pinegrove frontman Evan Stephens Hall wrote a long note on Facebook detailing an account of sexual coercion with a woman he believed to be in a relationship with, among other various inappropriate behaviors with fans and others on tour. Do you think his apology— essentially responding to accusations before the victim went public, if she or they so choose to do so in the future— is an example of restorative justice?
It is difficult for me to speak about this situation objectively, because I was directly involved in facilitating communication between the victim in this situation and the band’s label. In this situation, I believe that the best example of restorative justice is in Evan’s decision to stop touring and to enter treatment. I believe Evan will benefit from intensive treatment and time away from the road.
The important takeaway with restorative justice is that the foundation is repairing the harm you have caused another. In order to ensure that harm is repaired, the abuser needs to listen to and understand the requests of the victim, should the victim feel comfortable discussing those directly or through a neutral and trusted party.
Punk Talks works on a treatment model based on personal accountability and sex abuse prevention. What does that entail?
The workshop focuses on four areas: consent workshops, mediation facilitated by trained community members/professional therapists, personal accountability based on restorative justice, and sexual assault prevention fellowship.
I understand it’s for abusers attempting to re-enter the music community. I suppose this is more of a personal inquiry, but do you think there is space for them? I’m weary of that distinction.
This is a difficult topic, but I have always held steadfast to the belief that every person is capable of positive change—if I didn’t believe this, I would be in the wrong field of work. I think the idea of pushing abusers out of our community seems like the best idea at the time, but in the long-run, I believe that social isolation is incredibly more harmful.
[Often abusers will] find other social circles to perpetuate the same behavior in until the cycle repeats itself or the person becomes a danger to themselves. I believe that abusers can be rehabilitated if they have genuine remorse and a genuine desire to achieve positive change and a healthy lifestyle. If we are not willing to give someone a chance to become better (in a controlled and therapeutic environment), we are only perpetuating a dangerous problem. In offering rehabilitation, I believe we will also be able to prevent sexual assault from happening by using early intervention and peer fellowship for sobriety from sexually problematic behavior.
In the face of a lot of sexual misconduct, abuse and especially assault allegations, the music industry seems to view these situations as moral questions instead of how we punish other crimes: with the law. Is there a particular reason, in your opinion, that we view these cases as almost a conversation of “What is fair punishment?” instead of other serious violations?
I believe that this is seen as a moral issue purely on the grounds of the difficulty of legal action in a sexual assault case. Social work professionals often encourage victims to take legal action to set a precedent, but coping with an assault is complicated and intimate and this decision is entirely up to the victim. Before we get to a point where we can normalize and destigmatize reporting sexual assault, we have to begin clearly defining consent among legal professionals and law enforcement and see a change in the accountability of law enforcement officers.
You’re starting a restorative justice workshop next year. What does that include? Will those outside your base of Philadelphia have access to that information?
We will be adopting the workshop model developed by a smaller DIY multi-disciplinary team and it will focus on education as a form of prevention, peer support, and accountability based on restorative justice. The restorative justice component is especially significant, because we will be working alongside victims who are courageously stepping forward with their stories. Working with victims to ensure that they feel supported in seeking justice and offering facilitated mediations by trained community members and therapists can help give a voice to the victim without compromising their safety or involving law enforcement. We will be able to provide these services to any interested parties remotely, and we have plans to train any individuals interested in implementing this service within their community.