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A Safe Space for musicians: #metoo and the MU

Safe Space: Naomi Pohl looks at what the Musicians' Union is doing to tackle sexual harassment and abuse of power in the music industry

Musicians’ Union (MU) Assistant General Secretary, Naomi Pohl, looks at what the MU is doing to tackle sexual harassment and abuse of power in the music industry.

Following the Harvey Weinstein case in Hollywood last year, the #metoo movement has gained much publicity and attention across many sectors but particularly in the entertainment industries.

While it’s true that sexual harassment can and does, sadly, occur in any working environment, the entertainment sector is particularly fraught with problems.

There are many reasons for this: firstly, the stakes are high and the power imbalance between artists and those who can ‘make or break their careers’ is particularly stark.

Secondly, the sector is staffed by freelancers in the main who don’t have the same rights or protections in law as employees.

Along with the legal framework failing freelancers in various ways, which I’ll come on to, there is also the threat that if they ‘cause trouble’, that is report abuse or stand up for themselves when faced with inappropriate behaviour, they may not work again.

Issues for working musicians and educators

In music, I’ve been shocked at the range of issues reported via our Safe Space email account and the fact that every workplace appears to present a problem of some kind.

We’ve had issues reported to us that have occurred in theatres, orchestras, at festivals, on tour, when signed to a label, when working as a session player in the studios, gigging in pubs and clubs as an unsigned artist and studying music at a college or conservatoire.

While we’ve not received reports of harassment from music teachers, that area of work presents its own issues with child protection allegations far more commonplace than they should be. When I’ve represented members facing child protection allegations in schools or in music hubs, there has almost always been a misunderstanding at the heart of it.

Thankfully, serious allegations are rare. But the impact of an unfounded allegation can be devastating; I’ve known musicians hounded with anonymous threats following an allegation as well as attempts to prevent them from continuing to work.

Safe Space update

This paints a pretty grim picture, I realise. There is much work to do to ensure our members are safe at work. Here’s an update on some of the work we’ve been doing to progress the issue:

  • We’ve launched a new Code of Practice in conjunction with the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM). We hope the Code will be adopted by employers and engagers across the sector. It sets out general principles for organisations to commit to but also some specific guidance on dealing with reports and disclosures. Trade bodies, festivals, venues, conservatoires, theatre producers and anyone else who works with musicians are invited to sign up to the Code. If that’s you, get in touch with your local MU Office.
Chief Executive of the ISM, Deborah Annetts, and Assistant General Secretary of the MU, Naomi Pohl, signing the new joint Code of Practice
Chief Executive of the ISM, Deborah Annetts, and Assistant General Secretary of the MU, Naomi Pohl, signing the new joint Code of Practice
  • We are actively lobbying MPs for various changes to legislation that will assist musicians and other workers in the entertainment industries (and beyond) in bringing claims when harassment or discrimination have occurred. We are doing this work in conjunction with UK Music, Equity and the ISM.
  • A survey of music students has been conducted which shows the worrying extent of problems in colleges, conservatoires and drama schools. Again, we are working with Conservatoires UK and individual institutions to respond to these statistics and improve the environment for students.
  • We have updated terms and conditions for MU Approved Contractors to include a pledge to oppose any form of harassment or discrimination. MU Approved Contractors are also now listed online for the information of members and non-members.
  • We have taken disciplinary action against members we’ve received serious complaints about, something which has been rare in the past but may be more likely now that musicians are working with us and each other to improve.
  • We are working on information for venues, festivals and other workplaces with backstage areas that flag up our Safe Space service and state that harassment will not be tolerated.
  • As we renegotiate our many collective bargaining agreements over time, we will ensure we introduce terms that further protect our members such as provisions that cover travelling late at night.
  • You can also find updated advice on what is sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace and what we can do about it, alongside appropriate behaviour advice and sources of further help, in a dedicated area of the MU website.
  • MU Regional Offices continue to host open meetings on sexism, sexual harassment, discrimination, exploitation and abuse in the music industry. They are open to anyone who would like to share their story at the meeting or individually with us and anyone who has thoughts on how we could better protect musicians. In fact, some of the work listed here is a direct result of these conversations with musicians.
  • While we’ve come quite far in the 10 months since the start of the #metoo movement, there is still a very long way to go.

The MU’s commitment

The MU is committed to ensuring every workplace in the music industry, whichever sector you work in, is a safe one.

We are here to offer support and guidance if you face sexual harassment, discrimination or abuse at work. If you are an employed or self-employed musician, regardless of which part of the industry you work in, you can talk to us.

Email safespace@themu.org or contact your MU Regional Office in confidence. If you would prefer to speak to a female member of staff, you can ask to do so at any point.

Header photo: Naomi Pohl. The MU’s Safe Space service provides support and guidance and a place for musicians to share instances of sexism, sexual harassment and sexual abuse that have occurred in the music industry

This article was first published as Safe Space Update on the Musicians’ Union website here.