Sexual harassment and racism ‘endemic’ in UK music sector

<span>Photograph: Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images

Sexual harassment, racism and bullying are rife across the music sector on a “devastating scale”, according to a survey of professional musicians.

It paints a picture of “unsafe workplaces where perpetrators face no repercussions” and where “a number of allegations of sexual assault … would be a criminal matter”. However, the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) said that fear of reprisals stopped victims from making a complaint. Many of those in the sector are self-employed and freelance and cannot afford to lose work.

While concerns were raised in a 2018 report by the ISM, new research shows the problem has worsened: “The prevalence of discrimination and inappropriate behaviours in the music sector has increased,” it says.

Assured of anonymity, professional musicians shared their first-hand horrors of discrimination, from sexual harassment to bullying and racism.

One recalled: “I was told, as a female musician, I would only advance my career if I was prepared to give sexual favours.”

Another said: “I was sexually assaulted during a show run and felt unable to tell anyone as we still had three months of working together. It was one of the most difficult times for me.”

Among many others, a performer revealed: “Orchestra conductor said he wanted to kiss me and when I refused, he did not rebook me.”

The musicians described discrimination as “endemic in the whole music profession”, lamenting that such incidents “on the basis of gender and ethnic background” created a sense of victimisation and damage professional careers.

One said: “Even when inappropriate and unfair behaviour was reported, the emphasis appeared to be on ‘no fuss please’ and ‘who knows about this?’”

Vick Bain, the ISM’s president and co-author of the report, said of the findings: “They’re incredibly appalling and depressing because, when we released the last report and called on the industry to take action, we really thought that there would be some movement. Nearly 700 brave individuals filled in the survey. To see that things have gotten even worse, was really very shocking.

“Everybody deserves to be safe at work and it’s a scandal that our brilliant music workforce is being let down in this way.”

In 2018, the ISM’s first Dignity at Work report found that 60% of respondents had experienced sexual harassment.

The 2022 report, titled Dignity at work 2: Discrimination in the music sector, and commissioned by the ISM, the UK’s professional body, found that “the prevalence of discrimination and inappropriate behaviours in the music sector has only worsened”, with 66% of survey respondents experiencing some form of discrimination.

Its researchers concluded: “The survey results were clear that the self-employed and freelancer workforce are unprotected at work as they often have no one to report discrimination to, and are also fearful that raising complaints will lead to them being ostracised from future working opportunities. Those who are employed also do not bring complaints – and when they do many are victimised or punished for doing so.”

The ISM is calling for the music sector to promote a code of practice and for the government to amend the Equality Act 2010 “to ensure that all those working in the music sector are protected”.

Dr Aoife Monks, director of arts and culture at Queen Mary University of London, said: “The vital research that ISM has done for this report makes it clear that urgent action is needed … Until the inequitable conditions of a largely precarious freelance workforce in the music industry are confronted, challenged and legislated for, arts workers will remain vulnerable to the frankly horrifying experiences recounted in this report.”