How music industry misogyny was exposed by one woman (again)
heathcliff berru

Accusations of sexual assault and drugging women… Victims too scared to speak out… A male-dominated industry doing nothing to condemn it.

No, it’s not the British pop scene of the 1970s, it’s the music industry in 2016.

American music publicist Heathcliff Berru, a founder of PR company Life or Death, was forced to resign this week after a string of accusations of sexual misconduct from prominent female musicians.

But, as is so often the case, it took one woman to call him out publicly, rather than any of his male peers stepping forward.

That woman was Amber Coffman, best known for her work in the experimental indie group Dirty Projectors, who posted a series of tweets about his behaviour towards her:

It didn’t take long for the “scary stories” about Berru to emerge, as other females in the industry who had first hand experience came forward.

Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino said she was “too freaked out to ever say anything”, music photographer Faith Silva made similar accusations against him, and LA-based Tearist added to the litany of disturbing accounts of Berru’s behaviour:

Life or Death’s response

In the immediate aftermath of the revelations about Berru, Life or Death tried to distance themselves from Berru following his resignation.

“Life or Death has a zero tolerance policy for the type of conduct alleged in today’s on-line postings. We take these allegations very seriously,” the statement reads. “The men and women who make up this company do not, and will not, condone or tolerate any conduct described in the on-line postings. Life Or Death is 3 men and 3 women who are committed to promoting art and serving the clients that we’re so privileged to represent. We are taking measures to ensure that the alleged behavior did not, and will not, make its way into company operations or impact our commitment to promoting art and assisting our clients.

“We are grateful to Heathcliff Berru for all the work he’s done to date and his creative vision at the company. We appreciate and support his decision to step down as CEO of Life Or Death.”

Berru himself also released a statement, blaming an addiction to drink and drugs for his behaviour:

“I am deeply sorry for those who I have offended by my actions and how I have made certain women feel. If I crossed the line of decency or respectfulness in situations when I was drunk and under the influence, there is no excuse of course. To be clear, while my conduct may have been inappropriate, I have never drugged anyone or engaged in that type of behavior… I have been fighting a losing battle against drugs and alcohol for many years and will be checking into a rehabilitation facility”

The backlash

Run The Jewels

But Life or Death’s name was toxic by this point, and a number of their high profile clients quit the firm in a very public style.

Killer Mike, one half of acclaimed hip hop duo Run The Jewels, led the exodus, and posted a strong statement on Facebook:

“Yesterday a.m. I read the story about Heathcliff. I called him immediately and ended our biz relationship. I also told him how wrong he was and how disappointed and ashamed I am of his actions and that he’s gotta take whatever’s coming. I also encouraged him to work on being a better human being.”

He also offered his support to the women who put themselves forward:

“No one should have to feel afraid for speaking out when wronged in any manner or feel like no cares about them. This is not ok.”

Crucially, Killer Mike also made the point that it shouldn’t just be up to women to call out sexism and misogyny:

“Men have to be able to tell our friends and peers when they’re wrong. We cannot just say, it’s not my problem. We can’t expect ppl to improve if we’re not willing to hold them accountable and push them to be better.”

Game over for Life or Death

It was perhaps unsurprising that the backlash was followed by a further statement from Life or Death to FADER, confirming the company’s demise:

“In light of recent events, the remainder of the Life or Death staff is leaving the company today. We are saddened by the circumstances under which we are departing but are grateful for the opportunity we had together. There will be a new venture imminently that bears no ties to Heathcliff Berru or the Life or Death name. More soon from Bradley, Linda, Duncan, Emily and Nick.”

This is the right decision. There was no way Life or Death could continue to exist, even if it really was about the actions of one individual.

But what’s more important is that the music industry wakes up to an issue that has somehow persisted from a bygone era, when this kind of behaviour was widespread and legitimised.

In 2015 the news agenda was dominated by stories of groping at gigs, male-dominated festival line-ups, trolls targeting female artists with disgusting sexual vitriol, and even a claim from Apple’s Head of Music that women “find it very difficult to find music”.

In 2016, it’s time for the music business to get real about sexism.