Words: Joanne Clark | Subbing: Bernadette Galbraith
As allegations of sexual assault and harassment in the music industry come to light, I talk to Melissa Svensen, creator of the Don’t Touch Campaign.
As part of a module on her Multimedia Journalism course, Melissa Svensen was given a brief – “Identify a subject or issue for a piece of campaigning or investigative journalism and produce a series of articles for publication.” And so she chose an issue that she was already aware of in the world of music.
Melissa is no stranger to the music industry. Gigs are a regular part of her social life, and she writes about music on a successful blog, of which she is editor.
Her campaign is centred around an issue that has come to light more and more throughout the past couple of months – sexual assault and harassment in the music industry. More specifically, a project centred on “campaigning for musicians to speak out against sexual harassment.”
Sexual harassment in the industry and at gigs is not new, but it has made its way into the spotlight after allegations against several musicians and artists were made public. Allegations have also been present in other industries since the New York Times published a story on Harvey Weinstein detailing decades worth of allegations against the filmmaker.
The ‘Don’t Touch Campaign’ has already accomplished a great deal in the relatively short amount of time it has been around. So far, the campaign has carried out an anonymous survey, where results showed that a shocking 50% of people who completed the poll said that they had experienced unwarranted advances at gigs. Melissa has also written case studies about real life experiences of sexual harassment at gigs, and interviewed musicians on the subject as well.
“My initial goal was to get bands to speak out about harassment happening in crowds at gigs. I’d like it [Don’t Touch] to be a name people can come to if they want to tell a story.” Melissa says. We’re carrying out our interview over Skype as she currently lives in Manchester where she’s studying at university. I’m worried about taking up her time as I know how busy she is. On top of her university work, she edits a successful music blog, is the station manager of her university’s radio station and also produces her own podcasts.
From her knowledge of music to her clear work ethic, you can tell she puts her all into the campaign. She has to write a summary of the work she’s done so far, and as she multitasks doing work at her desk and talking to me, she says she’s “filling up the 3,000 word count pretty quickly”.
For the campaign, Melissa interviewed band Spectres about how important it is to speak out about other bands and their involvement in sexual harassment. Joe Hatt, guitarist and vocalist of Spectres, said that speaking up about sexual harassment by other musicians is important. “It is a cancer that has seemingly been treated with kid gloves rather than the seriousness it deserves, up until very recently…Artists are the ones on stage, which is symbolic in power, and there is still a weight behind that position.”
Melissa recognises how important it is for bands like Spectres to be calling out other bands, and she also agrees about how power contributes largely to the horrible instances of harassment we’ve been hearing about over the past couple of months. “It’s the same with Harvey Weinstein and Hollywood but on a smaller scale. It’s a power thing.” She also notes how important it is for musicians to call out sexual harassment within their crowds, “In a crowd they think they won’t be seen. So make it the case that they are being seen.”
Spectres aren’t the only band to speak out against harassment by musicians. JulyTalk recently pulled out of supporting Nothing But Thieves on tour after allegations of sexual assault were made against members of NBT. Countless comments on JulyTalk’s Facebook post on the subject were negative. “Why the f*** aren’t you supporting your friends?” and accusations of “falling victim to peer pressure” were posts both present in the comments section.
Melissa, however, supports the bands decision wholeheartedly. It’s another thing that she wants to see more of – bands calling out other bands. “Surely a band that’s been on tour with another band can gage whether it’s true or not?” she asks.
Approximately a month ago, two instances of sexual assault and harassment occurred at the concerts of two hugely popular artists. At a Drake concert, the artist stopped his set to call out someone who was allegedly groping women in the audience. The singer was quoted asking the person to stop, warning them “If you don’t stop touching girls, I’m going to come out there and f*** you up. I’m not playing with you.”
While it’s undoubtedly good that someone as popular as Drake is calling out harassers, Melissa argues the potential dangers of doing so in such an environment. “Is that safe? Would people then be aggressive to that person?”
While it was someone in the audience that was being harassed at the Drake concert, it was during a performance at a charity gig that singer Harry Styles was groped himself. As he kneeled down on the stage, a female fan that was nearby reached up and grabbed Styles’ crotch. There was uproar from people on Twitter, as #RespectHarry trended for most of the day. It was hard to believe that someone could assault another person so purposefully and obviously, where the whole world could see.
But this is what some people go through when they go to gigs. Some are harassed and even assaulted, in a place that should be safe, and as Melissa says, “gigs should be safe, community spaces.”
We move on to talking about the survey that Don’t Touch carried out. It was enlightening. “One of the questions was ‘Do you think if you reported an incident at a gig you would be taken seriously?’ and the overwhelming answer was ‘no’.” 83% of those who took part in the survey believed that if they reported harassment or assault, they wouldn’t be taken seriously. A harsh and upsetting statistic.
In addition, men were said to have felt like they wouldn’t be taken seriously and that they would be laughed at. “It underpins why I wanted to do this. It does happen. People think it’s only an issue with women but it’s not. It was a sad survey.”
So how can we deal with this? How can bands deal with harassers in their audiences?
“Bands need to use their platforms differently. Removing them is the only way you can deal with it. If the band don’t, they [the harassers] still get to enjoy the gig but as well as this, people feel unsafe. It’s not a bad thing if their night is ruined, they ruined someone else’s.”
It’s clear from the news we’ve heard recently that there is a severe problem of harassment and assault in the music industry. This is a time when we need campaigns like ‘Don’t Touch’ the most – where people who have been assaulted or harassed can talk, explain and share their experiences. Her initial goal may have changed, but Melissa is still determined to take the campaign further:
“It’s definitely changed. I think that my initial goal is still relevant but there’s also a focus on getting bands and musicians to speak out against their peers, as a result of the allegations in the news. My dream position would be that people are aware of ‘Don’t Touch’, although the ideal position is for it to not have to exist.”
What can fans do? Even if allegations are being made against a band they like?
“Fans need to come out and say that they’re disappointed, rather than ‘I don’t believe it, you wouldn’t do that’. It’s good that people are speaking out. It’s shit that they have to do it though.”
Melissa states that she wishes to carry on her campaign even after her work has been handed in. We wrap up our chat as she has to head to the theatre soon to review a play, and I wish her good luck for her project and the rest of the campaign.
Raising awareness of sexual harassment in music is important, the proof is in the news alone. It is important for victims of sexual harassment and assault to know that campaigns and projects like this do exist – just look at the formation of the group Girls Against.
Featured image taken by interviewee Melissa Svensen.