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Ryan Adams and the Plague of Male Gatekeepers

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Many readers even passingly familiar with the modern music industry will, by now, probably have heard of the Times breaking story on Ryan Adams’s abusive and manipulative relationships with women and girls. 

The overview of the story is that Adams involved himself with numerous women in ways that were nominally professional but that he tried to make sexual, that he wielded the scope of his influence (considerable, in the music world) to try to coerce them into sex, that he broke professional promises to them if and when they broke off the intimate relationship, and that he was generally emotionally abusive and pervy (including having an online relationship with a 14-year-old girl).

Some thoughts:

  1. Anyone who knows much about Ryan Adams probably doesn’t find this surprising. Previous evidence is anecdotal but enormous, most notably of Adams making unwanted sexual advances (sometimes verbal, sometimes physical) toward female fans. It is likely the case that any city in the world that Adams hit on repeated tours has variations of those sorts of stories floating around about him.
  2. Musicians not named R. Kelly have been weirdly buffered from the #metoo movement until now. Not entirely buffered, but noticeably. It seems likely that this is a product of the mythos that surrounds “rock-and-roll” culture, which is basically just toxic masculinity with a microphone in front of it. I hope the buffering stops. There are a lot of rats that will be scurrying if and when it does.
  3. This is all suggestive of a much larger problem in the music industry (and obviously in many others). The problem is multi-tiered, but its root is the fact that men have far too much power and influence over and within the industry. This is true at all levels, from record executives to producers to booking agents to players. Men listen to other men’s records and give them spins and sales. Men sign other men to recording contracts and give them early and sustained career support. Men book other men for shows and festivals and give them visibility. Men ask other men to play shows with them, filling up the bill and stages on any given night in any given town. And on and on it goes. In five years working as a part-time touring musician, I have been booked for a show by exactly one female-identifying talent buyer. For three years I co-booked a music festival, and in that time worked with two booking agents total who were women. I quit my work on that festival last year over the festival head’s refusal to let me hire more women to play and, as the back-breaking straw, when he insisted on hiring a male musician who had recently been convicted of sexual predation.

    There’s nothing wrong with male musicians playing with one another, listening to one another, supporting each other, etc. I have a lot of beautiful relationships with male musicians I love and admire. The flip side to that, though, is that the industry and “scene” (as it were) is so structured by men appreciating other men that female musicians are left without equivalent power and access, and often become somewhere between invisible and a running joke in the eyes of male musicians who don’t see them as “real musicians.” I have heard depressingly many men explicitly devaluing female musicians as just simply not being as talented as most male players they know (without any acknowledgement of how their own biases affect talent evaluation). I have heard them complain that gender inequalities in music aren’t really their fault or problem because there just aren’t that many women out there who play (without any self-reflection on how the opportunities for visibility for female players are limited within a system that men are the beneficiaries of, whether they themselves have ever sought out female musicians to hear and play with, etc.). It is functionally an archetype of male privilege.

    And that’s the crux of the matter. What we’re talking about here is not simply Ryan Adams being the asshole we always knew he was, or even about the larger network of interpersonal and commercial relationships that constitute the music industry. What we are talking about is the fact that those interpersonal and commercial relationships collectively form an enormous structure of power and access that privileges male musicians and is enormously costly to female musicians. “Costly” here means multiple things. It literally leads to their work being devalued in the form of dramatically lower pay for equal work at festivals and shows, and diminished opportunities for exposure and to sell records. The cost is also, however, in stories like Ryan Adams–a man within an industry built on male privilege who was himself so privileged that he felt he had the power to offer and withhold access to that industry to women in exchange for sex. It is an indictment on the industry that all parties involved believed that power to be real. It is a reminder to all men who participate in the industry that it is on them to be better.

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