A #MeToo Moment as Australia’s Music Industry Rises From Down Under

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BRISBANE, Australia —Denis Handlin, Sony Music Australia and New Zealand’s former chairman and CEO, acknowledged earlier this month that the label dealt with sexual misconduct in his more than three decades at the top.

“At any time I was made aware of this sort of behavior, I took action to ensure that it was stopped and didn’t occur again,” Handlin said in a statement read on the investigative podcast series Everybody Knows on Sept. 1. “With issues of sexual misconduct, I always took immediate action, in accordance with the law and best practice in the interests of those involved in such traumatic and disturbing events.”

Those actions, Handlin said, included the removal of “people at all levels and all seniority.”

In June, Handlin abruptly left Sony following 51 years of service, including 37 years leading the Australasia arm. His comments were the latest sign that Australia’s music industry has a problem with sexual misconduct and predatory behavior within its ranks — but for the first time, leading figures are openly addressing the issue.

Australia’s music industry, so distant from the rest of world, is finally facing its #MeToo moment. In recent months, Sony Music and Universal Music have launched investigations into their corporate cultures in the country, and a group of industry members has been assembled to expose the industry’s dark elements in the mainstream media.

Exposés by Australian media outlets detailing allegations of inappropriate behavior by label and other music executives — including discrimination, bullying and harassment — have led to the departures of other key music industry figures. Among them: Scott Maclachlan, Warner Music’s former senior vp A&R at the label’s Australasia office, who is best known for discovering Lorde; Paul McKessar, former CRS Management director and Benee’s former manager; and Tony Glover, a veteran Sony Music executive.

“I am truly sorry for the pain I caused,” McKessar wrote on Instagram. “There’s no excuse for crossing professional boundaries.” Maclachlan told Stuff: “I do accept the harmful impact of my past behavior and I try every day to repair the damage and prevent it happening again.” Glover said the probe was “a complete surprise,” noting to the Sydney Morning Herald that he “had never been sanctioned before.”

(McKessar and Glover did not respond to Billboard’s requests for comment. Maclachlan said in an email, “Every day I continue to work at improving, learning and making amends.”)

Around the world, the music industry has been slow to expose sexual harassment and violence in and around the workplace, as shown in countries like France, where police and employers have investigated several music producers and at least one music executive over the past year.

In December, French indie label Because Music dismissed Tahar Chender, its head of marketing and promotion for France, for helping create a “sexualized atmosphere” at the company marked by racist, sexist and homophobic comments. (Chender told French publication Mediapart that “if my passionate and excessive character has put people in an uncomfortable situation, I apologize, but we cannot judge 15 years of a career through the filter of 2020.”)

In Australia, #Metoo has been slow to catch on in part because the country’s defamation laws place the onus on the victim or survivor to prove their claim, women’s advocates say — and “gag laws” prevent victims from speaking out, even after a court convicts a perpetrator of a crime. The laws create “an environment of threat, fear, silencing, power imbalance and requirement of resources which makes movements like #metoo difficult to instigate,” says Deena Lynch, a Taiwanese-Australian musician who performs as Jaguar Jonze.

With issues of sexual misconduct, I always took immediate action, in accordance with the law and best practice in the interests of those involved in such traumatic and disturbing events.”

Following Handlin’s departure, Pat Handlin, vp A&R and Denis’ son, and Mark Stebnicki, senior vp strategy, corporate affairs and human resources, also left Sony. The label has not accused them of wrongdoing as part of the investigation.

“It is time for a change in leadership,” Sony Music Entertainment CEO Rob Stringer wrote in a message to staff on June 21. “I will be making further announcements in terms of the new direction of our business in Australia and New Zealand in due course.”

(Pat Handlin and Stebnicki did not respond to Billboard’s requests for comment. A Sony spokesperson declined to comment further. Denis Handlin said he had nothing to add to his recent statement on the podcast.)

In early August, Universal Music Australia said it had launched its own independent investigation after allegations about improper behavior within its ranks emerged online and an internal complaint was lodged with HR, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, which broke the story. “As the leader of this company I take full responsibility for creating a respectful workplace culture for everyone,” George Ash, president of Universal Music Australia & New Zealand, wrote in an internal message to staff, which Billboard verified.

“Everyone deserves a workplace environment that is safe, inclusive, and respectful,” a UMG spokesperson wrote in a statement to Billboard. “We take seriously any claims of alleged misconduct which are brought to the company. All claims are reviewed promptly, thoroughly and objectively. If any misconduct is found, appropriate action is taken.”

The statement went on to say the label is “committed to playing our part to advance real and constructive change and an industry that upholds the highest standards of professional respect, conduct and integrity.”

A spokesperson for Warner Music Australasia issued the following statement: “The music industry has significant changes to make to create an environment where all people feel safe, heard and respected.  We’re continuing to evolve our company, changing the structure of our leadership team and bringing in people from more diverse industries and backgrounds.  Our commitment is ongoing and together we will help build an industry that’s a better, safer, more inclusive place to work.”

The Sony and Universal probes are ongoing, and their findings won’t be known for some time, people familiar with the matter tell Billboard. Sources also say there are no current investigations at Warner, but that the company has dealt with any allegations as they’ve arisen.

“People need to be held accountable,” says a source at Universal. “Hopefully this will be an industry wide sea-change.”

Sexual misconduct issues in the Australian music industry are acute, says one researcher. In May, Jeff Crabtree, subject coordinator of music business and professional practice at University of Technology in Sydney, published a study that found that 86% of respondents had experienced “unwanted sexual pressure” or “harassment.” (Crabtree conducted the study, made up of 33 interviews and 145 online responses, over four years.)

Lynch says she has first-hand experience. In May, the musician went on national television to detail a March 2019 evening in a Brisbane nightclub with two music producers she had been collaborating with. As the evening progressed, she said, they began to “be very sexual” towards her, including running their hands up her bra and underwear, and pinning her to a pillar “so they could kiss me.” When she resisted and tried to go home, both men, she said, threatened to derail her career.

Lynch said she escaped the producers by literally running out of the club and down the street.

“You start thinking about survival in a very small music industry, and it silences you,” Lynch said on the Channel 10 program. “It makes you extremely scared to fight back too hard.” (Lynch declined to name her alleged harassers to Billboard.)

Earlier this year, the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) and its recently appointed CEO, Annabelle Herd, who became ARIA’s first female chief executive in February, invited more than 30 industry professionals to an “initial conversation” on sexual harm, harassment and systemic discrimination. “It was a hard meeting,” Herd says, with “very sensitive” subject matter discussed on that day. The group is working to tap experts in sexual harm and establish a national consultation strategy.

The changes keep coming. With Handlin out at Sony, ARIA appointed a new successor chair, Natalie Waller, head of ABC Music and Events, a division of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. For the first time, the trade association’s two key positions are occupied by women.

Lynch’s pointed questions last year on social media about rumors and allegations in the industry led to the launch of Beneath the Glass Ceiling, an anonymous Instagram account for alleged victims of sexual impropriety and advocates to discuss their experiences without sharing names. A similar account has since been set up in New Zealand.

The movement is gathering steam, says Lynch, “and fanning those tiny fires into a blaze of reckoning.”

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