Sunday, December 03, 2017

Power cut

Grim reports emanate from the US about an alleged incident involving of one of its leading conductors - James Levine, no less. This is under investigation and in the meantime people must stick to the facts. But here the ISM has released statistics suggesting that 70 per cent - SEVENTY per cent - of self-employed people working in the classical music industry have experienced sexual harassment. This indicates not just a few salacious whispers; it suggests an entrenched, industry-wide problem.

Come hither...
Of course this is far from unique to classical music. I've encountered colleagues in the fields of law, universities, publishing, pretty much everywhere, in which sexual harassment has been a blight on lives and careers for as long as anyone can remember. But there are particular issues in our little corner that make music a particular hot-house.

As far as I can tell, these sexual abuse scandals aren't chiefly about sex. They're about power. They're about those with power over others enjoying wielding that power, and the fact that there's very little to stop them. Where power is an issue, you have to look at who has that power, and what structures, or lack of, are providing it.

Most of the music industry is self-employed. Very few practical musicians in the UK have an actual, salaried, regular-income, full-time job - a few orchestras out of London, but that's about it. Many orchestras, while a primary commitment for their members, are set up so that their members are technically self-employed, which can be artistically a good thing since they can't be ordered not to play in chamber ensembles, not to teach and not to pop off and do a concerto from time to time. But they don't have any employment rights. Get into any form of trouble and employment lawyers will swoop, offering help, but then take one look at your terms and conditions, or lack of, and say: "Oh." Wholly freelance musicians have perhaps an even more difficult situation, though there's more freedom to turn elsewhere if one situation goes pear-shaped.

This doesn't only apply to musicians, of course, and sometimes things are worse when you are employed, because you can't escape as easily. I've been technically freelance since 1993: after working for various magazine companies, each of which treated its staff worse than the last, I decided it was better not to be dependent on one bunch of jerks for an income, but at least spread the load, keep options open and stay at a safe distance. (To say nothing of working from home and avoiding the hellish Open-Plan Office; the latter must surely play some role in the UK's appalling productivity record.) Nearly a quarter-century later I still burn with fury about how certain institutions and individuals behaved, and there are plenty who have it worse than I did.

Why do people behave this way? Why why why? Because they have problems of their own. Because they want to feel powerful. Because they do have a tiny amount of power, and it's the only way they can feel themselves [sorry] experiencing that power. Still, sometimes the psychology behind the larger structures at play can be jolly interesting.

An orchestra, for example, is set up like a classroom. You sit at "desks" in pairs - just like school (or school in the 1970s-80s, at least). You have set, 20-minute breaks after Double Mahler or whatever. There's a Big Person up in front of you, giving the lesson, and you have to be quiet and concentrate on what he/she is telling you to do, and do it, or else your parents will get a Letter (OK, not quite, but you see my point). If the result is an infantilised mentality, it's possibly that pushing the psychological buttons of school makes people regress to the age of 13.

The thing is, those people are adults and should be responsible human beings. But the set-up is not designed for responsible human beings. It's designed - like so much in society - to keep people 'in their place'. At root, it's the same mentality that makes musicians use the trademen's entrance, entrenched across centuries. And so if there are 'personnel problems', it can be difficult to solve them. Few orchestras employ a trained, responsible, personnel manager (or "Human Resources", that hideous '80s term devised to transform people into commodities). The closest thing, usually, is the fixer, but his/her job is more about making sure there are enough violins present to make the requisite sound, rather than stopping them from tearing each others' eyes out. A section leader might be expected to "line-manage" his or her section, but just find me anyone who's OK with that and knows how. They're trained to play music, not to make other people behave themselves. Higher up the tree, individuals who are good at programming seasons or booking fine soloists aren't necessarily comfortable - despite splendid salaries - with facing, investigating and cautioning/firing someone. This seems to be a fundamental weakness in the system.

Other elements in the atmosphere facilitate nefarious goings-on, too. When some managers, record companies, journalists and more focus on how young women look, rather than primarily on how they play, a fervid, charged, sickening atmosphere is encouraged. Basically, this industry can look like it's a pimp to its young women. Why? Sales. Money. And sometimes the women want careers, so they put up with it, and in some cases are even accused of encouraging it themselves. But social media threads (especially "below the line" comments) occasionally turn into something resembling a verbal gang-rape.

This is not just nauseating; it facilitates the normalisation of sexual harassment. It stops those in the industry taking the matter seriously. In a law firm, a harassment situation would be investigated and those responsible held to account. It would be taken seriously, extremely seriously. But in the classical music world, from what friends and contacts have told me, raise the problem and you'd probably get back a snort of derision, advice to watch your own back or a declaration resembling "she were askin' for it, weren't she..."

And so if those who wield the power are people who enjoy misbehaving, it's unlikely that anyone would stop them. There aren't defences. The union's power appears quite limited. In the main, you have to fight back for yourself. But the self-employed person, as we've noted, has no employment rights. When your income can vanish in the twink of an eye, no wonder most people don't dare to speak up.

We need better, stronger structures for musicians. We need stronger unionisation - which means more people joining the union and making it work. We need more solidarity among those in the profession, rather than the every-person-for-themselves mentality that prevails when life is insecure, the field is ferociously competitive and there's an imbalance of supply and demand. We need well formulated, sensible, thorough, up to date codes of personal conduct (pun unintended) in institutions that can hold everyone to account, top dogs included. And we need, urgently, to put an end to the salacious objectification of women musicians and of gay male musicians too.

There will almost certainly be more accusations against more powerful men. As innumerable threads have noted since last night, people in the music industry have been hearing "rumours" about Levine for years. That doesn't make any of it true; rumours are just rumours and you can't go around accusing people on the basis of hearsay. But I can think of several conductors who could be next, people about whom other people have attempted to warn one another for decades. I'd hazard a guess that there'll be more women speaking out, and men too.

As I write, my cats are having a tiff in my doorway. Ricki is bigger than Cosi. He bullies her. He's the bigger animal, so he seems to think he's entitled to unseat her from the best perches, the comfiest cushions, the warmest snooze spots. We try to intervene, but it's difficult to explain to a cat that this is wrong, because they are animals, however cute, and they don't understand. But we are people. We have sophisticated language, philosophy, civilisation, art, comprehension. We have the inherent capacity to rise above base instinct and become fine, enlightened individuals and build fine, enlightened societies. We should be able to do better than animals. Instead, we're doing much, much worse.

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