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Will L.A. Reid’s Sony Ouster Put the Music Industry on Trial for Sexual Harassment?

Above all else, Sony Music “wanted to avoid another Kesha situation,” says an insider of the company’s decision to dismiss executive Antonio “L.A.” Reid from his post as chairman and CEO of Epic Records after receiving multiple claims of improper behavior and allegations of sexual harassment. News of his exit was revealed by Variety on May 11.

The exact nature of the claims made by a female assistant who had apparently worked at the company for less than a year, and detailed via her attorney in a letter to Sony Music EVP and general counsel Julie Swidler, describe instances when the 60-year-old executive made sexually suggestive comments, though they do not specify that physical contact was made. According to several sources, the company is investigating whether Reid had exhibited a “pattern of behavior” that predated his employment at Sony (from 2004 to 2011, Reid was chief executive of Universal Music Group’s Island Def Jam under Doug Morris, who became Sony Music CEO in 2011).

Where Sony is concerned, the company had been flogged repeatedly for its perceived role in the legal battle of onetime hitmaker Kesha and her producer svengali Dr. Luke, who, as CEO of RCA Records imprint Kemosabe Records, caused Sony to be “caught in the middle” of a string of lawsuits and countersuits (although, worth noting: the alleged instances Kesha described occurred before Luke’s Sony deal). And while the singer’s allegations of sexual assault and battery were considerably more egregious than what some might label as flirting-gone-too-far, the company’s action regarding Reid was swift and decisive. As a Sony source explains, when a formal complaint is made, the company is obligated to investigate the claim regardless of the consequences that may be inflicted — profits be damned.

The industry’s decades-long obsession with “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll” is “a mantra of the music industry [that] didn’t just happen on stage or in the tour bus, it’s been part and parcel with the business, which for many years was a boys’ club,” says Jeff Rabhan, a former music manager and currently the chair of New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. “The leadership at these companies has been the same for a quarter century. These are guys who came up from the ‘Mad Men’-era. They’re not bad people, but they may not recognize improper behavior.”

Indeed, several label staffers, women with whom Variety spoke on the condition of anonymity, tell of a culture in which “sexual harassment and treating women like objects is pervasive,” as one longtime industry exec described.

And the problem isn’t limited to multi-national corporations. In recent years, sexual harassment claims among the indie sector have been made public. In January 2016, for example, Heathcliff Berru, the founder and CEO of Life or Death PR and Management, which represented Frank Ocean and Tyler the Creator, was accused of sexual harassment by as many as seven women including Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman. After the company announced his resignation, he issued an apology, writing in a statement: “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.” He later entered rehab.

And just last week, allegations were made against punk duo PWR BTTM and singer Ben Hopkins, who, according to a Facebook post, had initiated “inappropriate sexual contact with people despite several ‘nos’ and without warning or consent.” The band replied with a statement denying any such improprieties — or knowledge that they have been accused — and called for any “survivors” to come forward with their accusations. “Unfortunately we live in a culture which trivializes and normalizes violations of consent,” the group wrote. “There are people who have violated others’ consent and do not know. … Ben has not been contacted by any survivor(s) of abuse. These allegations are shocking to us and we take them very seriously. Further, the alleged behavior is not representative of who Ben is and the manner in which they try to conduct themselves.” PWR BTTM nevertheless was dropped by its label, Polyvinyl, and management company, Salty Artist Management.

Jackie Fuchs, former bassist for all-girl group the Runaways who has worked in radio promotion and as an attorney, says that her experience (detailed in part in a Huffington Post feature) points to “more than a sense of permissiveness, it was a sense of entitlement.” Back in the 1970s and 1980s, she “would get sent to conventions, where there would be one woman for every 10 men. Men would be drunk, and doing drugs, mostly cocaine and Quaaludes. There was a belief that, ‘Of course that’s [sex] what a woman does to get a record played.’ I had to sign a piece of paper when I started working in record promotion that I wouldn’t offer any sex or drugs in exchange for getting records played, but it was done with a wink.”

Others in the industry tell of secret slush funds earmarked specifically for sexual harassment claims. “Every major [label] has one,” says an insider.

Adds Fuchs: “The most important thing is the confidentiality. You don’t get to say a word. That’s why it’s been so difficult to address the problem. It’s just a cost of doing business. The more valuable the harasser is to the company’s bottom line, the less likely they are to do anything.”

In the case of Epic Records, however, the imprint was thriving after a string of charttoppers by the likes of Future, Travis Scott, and DJ Khaled, but one in-the-know source says the company’s Japanese owners, still healing from the 2015 hack that compromised their email system revealing some questionable practices, “keep their eyes on the west” and simply won’t tolerate any embarrassment to the company. At the same time, Sony U.S. brass is keenly aware of their Japanese bosses. “Whether it’s Sony Music CEO Rob Stringer 0r Sony/ATV Music Publishing head Martin Bandier, they know Tokyo is watching. The Japanese don’t look kindly on dishonorable behavior. They never have.”

“Preying on women staffers is not a perk of making it in the music industry, it’s sexual harassment,” says Lisa Bloom, a leading sexual harassment attorney whose recent representation of Wendy Walsh led to consequences for Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. “I applaud Sony Music for standing for women’s right to respect in the workplace and imposing consequences.”

On the other hand, the industry has “come a long way,” says Rabhan, from the hookers and blow days, accounts chronicled in the industry’s most-read histories, like the books “Hit Men” by Fredric Dannen, and Walter Yetnikoff’s autobiography, “Howling at the Moon: The Odyssey of a Monstrous Music Mogul in an Age of Excess.” Today, Atlantic Records is run by a woman, chairman/COO Julie Greenwald; Universal has EVP and music business veteran Michele Anthony as chairman Lucian Grainge’s deputy and Jody Gerson, chairman and CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group; and Sony claims one of the strongest female executives in Swidler (Sony would not comment for this article, nor would Reid’s attorney, Joel Katz), all of which makes this latest ugly chapter a major setback, regardless of the outcome as it relates to Reid.

“Somebody who loves music and wants to be in the music industry should be able to have that career without fear,” says Fuchs.

Public relations expert Howard Bragman, a founder of the firm Fifteen Minutes, however, cautions against a rush to judgement. Though he’s not privy to details of this particular claim, he says, “Because everyone is lawyered up, money will exchange hands, confidentiality agreements will be signed and you’ll never get the whole story. What we know, what we think we know aren’t necessarily the truth and certainly aren’t the whole truth. It’s painful for all involved — empathy and compassion are the most humane responses to all parties.”

With reporting by Paula Parisi

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