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Music industry struggles to shake ugly legacy of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll

Last Updated Feb 19, 2018 at 9:40 am EDT

Allegations of sexual misconduct swirling around pop-rockers Hedley have put the spotlight on an industry long defined by the mantra of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, but several music veterans believe a powerful sea change is already well underway. Members of the band Hedley pose on the red carpet during the 2015 Juno Awards in Hamilton, Ont., on Sunday, March 15, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power

TORONTO – Allegations of sexual misconduct swirling around pop-rockers Hedley have put the spotlight on an industry long defined by the mantra of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll — but several music veterans believe a powerful sea change is already well underway.

As the explosive #metoo movement is upending patriarchy in Hollywood and politics, the music industry, too, has been awakening to deeply ingrained gender inequities and increasing pressure to change its ways, said Melissa Auf der Maur.

“The climate is different and there’s all kinds of improvements happening at large,” said Auf der Maur, whose heyday as a bass player included stints with the ’90s bands Hole and Smashing Pumpkins.

“With every decade there have been efforts to try to address this inequality.”

Anonymous claims about sexual misconduct involving young Hedley fans emerged last week, allegations that the band has said are “unsubstantiated.”

Nevertheless, reaction by the music industry has been swift and strong.

Within days the quartet was dropped by its management team, ditched by the opening acts on their cross-Canada tour and blacklisted by radio stations including the CBC and more than a hundred Bell Media outlets.

In addressing the controversy on Facebook, frontman Jacob Hoggard and band members Dave Rosin, Tommy Mac and Jay Benison noted the music industry “does not exactly have an enviable history of treating women with the respect they deserve” and acknowledged that in the past they have “engaged in a lifestyle that incorporated certain rock ‘n’ roll cliches.”

The comments did not sit well with July Talk singer Leah Fay, who took to Twitter on Thursday with her own call to arms.

“In my humble experience, ‘rock and roll cliches’ include: being paid in beer. eating beef jerky for breakfast. sleeping on floors. washing your underwear in a sink,” tweeted the outspoken frontwoman of the Toronto band, adding that until abuse of power is acknowledged as such, the music industry is an unwelcoming and unsafe place.

Auf der Maur didn’t comment on the Hedley allegations but said she’s observed from afar those so-called rock ‘n’ roll cliches, although she herself has never experienced them.

By the time the Canadian expat began touring in the ’90s, she said, the more overt sexism of the ’70s and ’80s seemed to be dying off, at least in her own tight-knit alternative scene.

“There was none of that at Lollapalooza. (Bands and artists including) Pavement, Rage Against the Machine, Beck, Sonic Youth — none of us would do any such things,” she said by email, before elaborating further by phone.

“We were the Lollapalooza alternative nation there — we were the reaction to the gross hair metal and all the ridiculous extension of the ’70s and ’80s and we were a mass improvement. And it’s only gotten better,” she added on a call from her home in Hudson, N.Y.

Music industry analyst Bob Lefsetz wasn’t familiar with the Hedley case, but credited the #metoo movement with ushering in what appears to be greater industry willingness to confront hard truths and rectify past wrongs.

“We’re dealing with how things have been done for years, which is not an endorsement of that, but change happens slowly and hopefully this will predict swifter change in the future,” said the author of the Lefsetz Letter, a popular music industry newsletter.

“And I think it will.”

He acknowledged that superstar acts can be surrounded by yes-men whose livelihood might depend on acquiescing to every demand.

But that kind of power imbalance is quickly evaporating, he insisted.

“What we’ve now seen is that when someone is crossing the line, someone is going to vocalize that that is wrong prior to what they would before the #metoo movement,” Lefsetz said by phone from Santa Monica, Calif.

And while it might be tempting to assume that someone must have known something whenever scandals such as these arise, he said that’s not always the case.

“I certainly know people who’ve been involved in high-profile sexual harassment cases, board members who were unaware of what happened,” he said.

“Just because they’re the manager of the company does not mean they know. It also does not mean they didn’t know.”

Auf der Maur now runs an art centre that specializes in music festivals and art shows and said she goes out of her way to make sure she surrounds herself with “the right people.”

“I’ve put on two music festivals a year for the last eight years and I’ve never run into a jerk,” she said. “I know what’s going on in my world.”

Still, she admitted these are challenging times.

“It’s a very, very incredible and strange moment for all of us because as individuals we really have to soul-search during this time on where we’re going to put our efforts,” Auf der Maur said.

“It’s hard to know what to do. We all have to listen to ourselves and learn from this.”