Sexual Harassment and Economic Exploitation in Artist Management Companies
As Laura* was beginning a career in artist management at a major London agency, she had to balance the new, 24-hour commitment with a personal issue: being stalked online by the friend of a friend. When she eventually went to the police, they told her to remove photos from social media and keep a “quiet” profile online. Around the same time, her agency was rebranding and wanted to put her photo on their new website’s staff directory. She relayed the police’s advice to her colleagues. Her photo went on online anyway. Recently, she told me their response was, “Oh, what’s the worst that can happen?”
In February of 2016, Laura’s stalker was waiting outside the office one night as she was leaving work. He had found her photo on the agency’s website. The following month, her boss mentioned the story in passing over dinner with a client. The personal nightmare became a professional one about a month later, when Laura saw that client in a premiere at Covent Garden.
Citing the danger posed by the stalker, the client insisted that Laura wait for a taxi at his apartment across the street from the opera house, rather than outside on the street. While it was a Monday night and she wanted to go home at the end of a long evening, she agreed to go back to his flat for a drink while she waited on a ride home. The evening would end a few hours later with her fleeing down the stairs of his building.
“I started looking at Uber, and he was like, ‘Right, so are we gonna… are you gonna kiss me?’” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh shit, I’ve completely misinterpreted this going-back-to-his-apartment thing.’ I genuinely thought he was being nice and was just trying to look after me, I guess.”
She paused. “I’m not really a naive person, but I was quite fragile at the time. I was quite stressed about this whole [stalker] situation and I was sort of looking over my shoulders whenever I was out late at night. So I didn’t think it was that weird, but looking back now, I’m like, ‘Why did I do that?’”
Laura tried to diffuse the situation and keep things light, telling her client, “You’ve got the wrong end of the stick, don’t worry about it. We’ve both had a drink, it’s been a long night, you did really well in the show, but it’s time for me to go now, my taxi’s outside.”
She told me, “I didn’t want to be in this really awkward situation, because we were told always to do what the artist wants. Go for a drink with them if they want to after the show—they’re on a high. Even if you’re tired and you’ve got work tomorrow, just go and put up with it. Smile, tell them they’re great, and eventually go home.”
But the artist wouldn’t let her go. He put his foot between the door and the latch so that she was unable to open it to leave and gestured for her to go to the bedroom. Explaining that she had to be up early—that she had work to do for him in the morning—he still wouldn’t let her leave. Four Ubers came and went as the singer became more threatening and manipulative.
Remembering the documentation she went through with her stalker to obtain a restraining order, Laura took out her phone. Her client was too drunk to realize he was being filmed. She later sent the videos, along with a record of timestamps on phone calls from her missed Ubers, to her boss, who had been unable to attend the premiere with her that night. When she finally managed to leave the singer’s apartment, she could hear him call after her on the stairs: “You’ll never get anywhere in this job. I’ll tell everyone you’re rubbish.”
Laura got home at 1:00 a.m. but couldn’t sleep. Around 5:00 a.m., she emailed the head of the agency and requested a meeting first thing in the morning. After explaining what happened, she was told to go home and get some rest. Her boss, recovering from surgery, called her when he was filled in. She told me he asked, “What do you want to do? Do you want to not work with him? Do you want us to sack him? Do you want to go to the police?”
Laura felt that the onus of responding to the artist’s behavior had been placed on her, rather than on her superiors. She said, “When he was with his last agency, he slept with his agent and that’s why he had to leave and that’s why he came to us. And I was like, ‘Well why did you send a vulnerable girl to a premiere party with a known predator?’”
“You sort of think he should be Weinsteined a bit, but then part of me’s like, I don’t want to get involved,” Laura went on. The artist continued to message and call her, insisting that he’d simply had too much to drink. When she avoided those messages, the artist went to her boss and claimed that she had been at his apartment until 4:00 a.m. smoking hash. When Laura showed her boss the videos and Uber timestamps, the artist was fired. “I know I’d cost the company a lot of money in contracts that he had that they handed over,” she told me. “But I don’t know whether they actually [fired the singer] because they cared about me or because they felt like it was the right thing to do from a kind of PR perspective.”
The artist’s main manager, who was on maternity leave during the incident, accompanied the artist to his new firm. Laura left the agency a year later, roughly nine months after it hired its first-ever HR representative. She took some time off to figure out her next career move, and went to therapy to work through what she called “a lot of bad luck that year.” To the best of her knowledge, the artist still makes more money for three performances than Laura, who was responsible for 40 opera singers, had earned in an entire year.
At the lower levels of the artist management business, largely female staff members handle the minutiae of performer’s lives. Officially, they arrange travel, secure auditions, negotiate contracts, and write promotional material. Unofficially, they also reported handling everything from booking appointments for haircuts to going dress shopping to making sure their clients’ wives didn’t run into their clients’ lovers (in some cases booking hotel rooms for those lovers).
The artists “start small, and they’re nice,” said Sabine*, a former associate at a German artist management company. “And then as soon as they get a bit of fame and start earning money, they start testing the borders. They’re constantly needing something.”
Once artists become commercially viable for an agency, Sabine explained, management company CEOs begin to play a dangerous cost-benefit analysis game that often results in those lowest on the company hierarchy bearing the heaviest emotional burden. “If the artist is a high earner for the agency, they can allow themselves to behave much worse,” Sabine said. Since programs are often sold years in advance, artists often change them, and then agents become the bearers of bad news. “As an agent, you’ve sold a program; and then you have to call the presenter three days before the concert and tell them that the artist feels like playing something else. You have to convince them that it’s the only way.”
“There’s definitely a lot of stress-related absence and people being signed-off work,” Laura recalled. “Particularly when it’s an artist, an important person that is relying on you to be there to answer them any time of day.” She added, “I think a lot of the artists are lonely and want you to be around them and treat you like you’re their friend. But you have to always remember that you’re their staff. The word ‘servant’ definitely comes to mind. You’re not in that world at all.”
“You’re in a service position,” Sabine said. “You’re responsible for them, you’re the babysitter, kind of, but kind of not. But then you’re not allowed to ask for anything from them, either. If you say, ‘I’ll be at your concert, could I get a ticket?’ the answer will be something like, ‘Sorry, I’ve already used up all my comps.’”
Artist managers are often drawn from the ranks of graduates in performance, musicology or related fields. Their passion for classical music makes them vulnerable to exploitation such as low starting salaries and unpaid overtime. “The people who choose to work in an artist management company have an affinity for art and music,” said Sabine. “Maybe they even played with the thought of becoming artists themselves, but they didn’t follow through. So they’re working with people who do a job that have a huge respect for. Maybe they’re a little jealous, certainly awestruck. That makes them unable to see things how they are.”
And yet, because the core of an agent’s work is clerical, management companies offer few opportunities for advancement. When Laura left her agency, she believed she hadn’t gained any marketable skills. “I was like, ‘What can I do?’ When you’re being kind of spoken down to all the time by your important opera singer, it really knocks your confidence and you don’t think that you’re worthy of doing anything else.”
Soon after Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of The New York Times and Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker exposed Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual abuse of actresses, the #MeToo movement spread to the niche world of classical music. In December 2016, The New York Post published details of a 2016 police report alleging that James Levine had molested a teenage student during his summers at the Ravinia Festival. In July of this year, Anne Midgette and Peggy McGlone published an investigation for The Washington Post that spanned six months and interviews with over 50 artists. Writing for Slate, VAN contributor, musician, and social-worker-in-training Ellen McSweeney noted that four out of the five qualities associated with sexual violence are reflected in the classical music world. Chief among these are the “oppression, objectification, and limited roles for women,” disparate power dynamics, and norms around masculinity.
Nicole*, who worked for an agency in the United States, recalled straddling the fine line between not sleeping with and not alienating a conductor while he was on tour with his orchestra. “The conductor was openly flirtatious, which, as a young woman in the arts, basically comes standard, so I’d learned to prepare,” she said. After the conductor requested a ride back to his hotel, he invited Nicole in for a drink which she declined. He suggested she change her hotels in the subsequent tour cities so that they’d be staying together. She did not.
“For the months following the tour, I received emails from him inviting me to various events and drinks, which I either politely declined or left vague. Our company worked with him often, so it was difficult for me to balance,” Nicole said. “The larger issue is that when I told my manager, who was on that tour with us, he said, ‘I was wondering!’ instead of offering support or even thinking about how he could have helped me. He then asked if I slept with the conductor, which was as embarrassing as it was inappropriate.” Nicole quit soon after.
“Oh yeah, he does that,” is a common refrain especially among the among entry- and mid-level professionals working on the backend of classical music. One female manager of Asian heritage recalled an artist she was managing telling her he had “yellow fever.” I used to work in digital strategy for artists, and while the job was a far cry from the level of involvement that is expected by many artists from their managers, I experienced similarly inappropriate moments. Declining an artist’s offer of chocolate following a performance due to my nut allergy, I didn’t bat an eyelash when he responded by asking, “How’s your sex life, then?” The same artist later told me on Facebook that he had managed to “convert” a lesbian, joking that he “was doing God’s work” and it was “good publicity.”
Another artist showed up for a prearranged Skype meeting to discuss his website and turned his camera on to reveal himself in bed in nothing but his underwear. At the time, I laughed it off. But seeing how similar interactions affected other people within my organization, I started to wonder whether my moral compass had begun to malfunction. One night while I worked there, I made a remark which may be my greatest regret in over a decade of working in classical music. A colleague had been uncomfortable with a male singer who became very handsy over drinks. I heard myself replying, “You just have to put up with it.” I had internalized a skewed sense of normalcy where a performer could be absolved of harm to others through his musical artistry.
But, as Sabine said, “The whole thing is make-believe. How much is an artist’s Mozart worth?” ¶