“Boys will be boys” and other lies they tell you: the alternative music scene and its sexual assault problem

“Boys will be boys” and other lies they tell you: the alternative music scene and its sexual assault problem
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TW: sexual assault

Stories of sexual harassment within the music scene have become all too familiar over recent years, with the Press Association revealing in 2018 that 1 in 5 British festival goers had experienced sexual harassment or assault at an event. This figure rises exponentially when split by gender, with 1 in 3 women having been subdued to unwarranted sexual behaviour, and nearly half of these women being under 40. It goes without saying that men are also affected by sexual violence, but the evidence is indisputable; an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of women are affected. In fact, nothing exemplifies the scale of this better than Bråvalla, Sweden’s largest music festival, cancelling its event for good in 2017 after 4 rapes and 23 sexual assaults of women were reported on site within its 4 day duration – and that’s only the ones that were reported. This same festival also reported 5 rapes the previous year, before acknowledging that there was a problem it could no longer provide the backdrop for.

Whilst this reinforces that sexual assault is certainly not limited to one specific genre and a common occurrence that requires immediate action from the wider industry, it has become none more apparent than in the alternative music scene which, over the past few years, has revealed itself to be a breeding ground of festering sexual misconduct, with too many instances of much older musicians coercing and manipulating their much younger fanbases into activity that irrefutably crosses the boundaries of fan-artist relationships and therefore abuses the power dynamic.

This site was set up with the intention of giving a platform to women and non-binary people in music. And that includes the fans. To those of you who have experienced sexual abuse at the hands of the music scene: We see you. We stand with you. This one’s for you.

At the time of writing this, there have already been a magnitude of statements from courageous women (many of whom were underage at the time) recounting their experiences of sexual assault involving certain band members within the alternative music scene. In the past 2 weeks alone, the most notorious names to come out of this, but by no means the full extent of it, were former ‘Of Mice & Men’ frontman Austin Carlile, current ‘Attila’ frontman Chris Fronzak, former ‘Black Veil Brides’ bassist Ashley Purdy, and former ‘Motionless in White’ bassist Devin Sola. What makes the situation ever more so disappointing is the duration for which some of these statements have been publicly available; 15 women first came forward to give their accounts on Austin Carlile a few years back as part of an article set to be published by Alternative Press magazine that would allow the victims to share their stories on a wide-scale platform. However, this article was quelched before ever coming to light under the guise of it not meeting legal standards for publishing and the threat of legal action from the vocalist. Interestingly, however, Alternative Press were fine to run a story not too unlike this one in 2017 around the accusations of sexual misconduct against ‘Brand New’ frontman Jesse Lacey…very interesting.

To fully consolidate their stance on abuse in the scene, Alternative Press subsequently ran an article on Carlile rambling about being a born-again Christian, and therefore gave him a platform knowing what they did about the accusations against him and the stories they’d had shared with them first-hand by the victims.

I must point out that these statements against the musicians are, as it stands, solely allegations and not formal charges. I must also point out that these statements are not isolated accounts, but supported and fortified by a plethora of women (and in some cases teenage girls) with similar experiences with the same band members, such as in the example of Carlile where over 26 women have since come forward, but take that as you will.

All this serves as a pertinent reminder of just how strife sexual assault remains in alternative music, causing irreversible damage to the victims, and normalising this kind of behaviour particularly where this is a lack of repercussions. I can’t help but feel that if social media weren’t as prominent as it is, would any of this ever have come to light? The problem has always been here, but the internet has made it more public and apparent than ever. Thinking even further back, it’s not hard to recall even more jutting cases throughout the years, ranging from Jake McElfresh of ‘Front Porch Step’, Dahvie Vanity of ‘Blood On The Dancefloor’, and most notably the infamous case of ‘LostProphets’ lead singer Ian Watkins whose abhorrent actions against children as young as an 11 month old baby made global headlines. 

So after all these years, why has nothing changed? Where does this sense of entitlement come from? We seem to have hit a plateau, doomed to repeat the age old cycle of a band member getting outed for sexual assault, posting an inauthentic templated notes app apology online, announcing a temporary hiatus to “reflect”, before rejoining the limelight a few months later to a crowd of loyal supporters in the hope that the rest of us will have just suffered from short-term memory loss. Frustratingly, this approach seems to work. Of all the abusers in the scene who have been outed, I can think of less than a handful who have faced repercussions. 

Whilst we’re more inclined to push incidents involving more widely-known musicians to the forefront of our attention, we cannot overshadow the wider culture of sexual violence that has been harnessed within the scene that affects everyone from gig-goers to music industry professionals, and those whose stories have been silenced within it. It’s not hard to cast a stone and find a woman who hasn’t encountered some form of unwarranted sexual attention in music, so that begs the question of just how many women haven’t spoken up out of fear of not being believed? How many people has this happened to? 

Throughout all of this my mind continues to circle back to the same recurring thought: why is sexual assault so common in the scene? What’s the denominator?

A power complex. It would seem that where there are young and often underage fans, there are musicians ready to abuse their status and platform at any given chance, and going unchallenged for so long has only added fuel to the fire. This whole notion of bands being able to “sleep with groupies” has rather disconcertingly become intrinsic within the DNA of rock and roll, and continues to dangerously tread the line between a mere notion and an expectation. I find it hard to believe that a musician isn’t fully aware of the pedestal fans place them upon and the esteem in which they’re regarded. It’s not unfamiliar to hear an abundance of “your music saved my life” at any given show on any given night; for a musician to prey on this concoction of vulnerability + idolisation is unquestionably an abuse of power.

Underlying all of this is the ever-lingering idea that women in alternative music exist solely as objects of affection. It’s not difficult to stumble upon those who still believe women only listen to heavier genres for the attention of men, and use this as the basis of justifying both the sexual exploitation and harassment of women; this is dangerous thinking. Nobody owes anybody anything. Alternative music remains heavily male-dominated, and so where women do feature, they’re almost always sexualised both by the media and fans alike. And therein lies the problem. 

For as long as I’ve been a fan of the genre, Hayley Williams, frontwoman for ‘Paramore’, has always been at the forefront of any discussions around women in alternative music. As a result, she’s no stranger to misogyny. Reflecting on Paramore’s run on Warped Tour in 2006, she refers to it as the “summer of condoms, 2006. In 2006, Warped Tour’s sponsors included condom brand Trojan. I got condoms thrown at me. In 2005, I wore T-shirts every day. In 2006, I was a little more comfortable. I’d wear a tank top. But my chest was exposed. We were in San Diego or San Francisco, and a condom flew at me, and it stuck to my chest while I performed. I was so embarrassed.” Strangely, I haven’t heard any stories from frontmen on the same Warped Tour run being subjected to this sort of behaviour whilst doing their job.

Add to this the fact that a lot of underground alternative shows are held in smaller more DIY venues that often lack the type of security we’ve come to expect of larger venues, and a woman is left feeling particularly vulnerable whilst the perpetrator is empowered, relying solely on the crowd intervening when they see something happening that shouldn’t.

Make no mistake: silence is not neutrality. If you don’t speak out against sexual harassment, you’re siding with the abuser. The tides are changing slowly but surely as a growing collective of musicians and fans raise awareness of the problem and challenge questionable behaviour, but the community must continue to fight harder to set a precedence on how to conduct yourself both in public, at shows, and in private. Music is a form of escapism, and gigs should reflect this, acting as a safe space for all fans. In an ideal world, the focus would slowly shift away from the need to put measures in place to protect women, to instead educating men on the boundaries that seemingly don’t come innately to all.

Who’s responsible for ensuring viable change? All of us. Music blogger and promoter Lucy Mccourt recently set up the Instagram initiative ‘Artists Against Harassment’ to encourage bands and artists to speak out about sexual assault and harassment at gigs. Less than a week into the endeavour, and she shockingly announced that she has already had some bands justify not participating from fear of backlash from their labels. How have we got a point where speaking out against assault is more taboo than assault itself!? Without awareness and education on what is right or wrong with a zero-tolerance policy, assault will eventually become synonymous with going to gigs and being a fan of certain bands.

Bands get involved. Artists get involved. Venues get involved. Promoters, labels, A&R reps, journalists, photographers, fans: get involved. The message is simple: hold abusers accountable.

Follow the Artists Against Harassment page here.

Support Safe Gigs For Women here.
An initiative that works with gig goers and venues to educate on consent and ensure reports of sexual harassment are taken seriously. Safe Gigs For Women have toured with bands, such as Enter Shikari, to help create safe spaces at shows across the UK.

Advice and support for those affected by sexual assault here.

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Lucinda