Is the music industry finally facing its #MeToo moment?

Iconic artists R. Kelly, Ryan Adams, and the late Michael Jackson have finally faced a reckoning for alleged sexual abuse. Credit a rise in the power of female musicians and shifts in public opinion about sexual abuse.

Wade Robson (from l.), director Dan Reed, and James Safechuck at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Jan. 24 promote the HBO documentary ‘Leaving Neverland,’ about allegations Michael Jackson sexually abused young boys, including Mr. Safechuck. The Jackson estate is suing HBO.

Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

When he entered the guitar store, she knew who he was. It was July 2005; his music video was on TV all the time. Newly graduated from music school, the aspiring female songwriter had been in New York City two months. Suddenly a cute rock star was charming her.

“He would ask questions that really got to the heart of your hopes and dreams like, ‘Do you write songs? Are they good? How can I hear them?’ ” recalls the songwriter, who wishes to remain anonymous. That night he came to see her show. He promised to produce her album. She was living in her very own “A Star is Born.”

Within a week of what she viewed as a casual hookup, he asked her to be his girlfriend. But the $3,000 guitar he tried to give her gave her pause.

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“Deep down I knew he would hurt me and it was too good to be true,” the songwriter recalls. She responded, “No.” That’s when, she says, he started playing psychological games. He wouldn’t give her the recording they’d made. She later discovered that was his M.O. with numerous female songwriters.

Stories of powerful players offering access in exchange for sex are rife in an industry where the #MeToo movement has so far had less visible impact than in film, TV, and media. That may be changing. In recent weeks, iconic artists R. Kelly, Ryan Adams, and the late Michael Jackson have finally faced a reckoning for alleged sexual abuse. Credit a rise in the power of female musicians and shifts in public opinion about sexual abuse. Change-makers are pressing their advantage at a time when old music-business institutions are waning in power, forcing the industry to reckon with a tradition of sexual exploitation that’s as deeply ingrained as the grooves of a vinyl record.  

“We are seeing some long-standing institutions being challenged by new ways, by a new generation, by new technologies. In some cases by new institutions,” says NPR music critic Ann Powers.

Of late, it’s been insurgent documentarians and investigative reporters outside the music industry who have exposed #MeToo abuses of both sexes.

The new HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland,” centering around two men who say Michael Jackson abused them as prepubescent boys, has sewn a shadow onto pop’s Peter Pan. The FBI is investigating a New York Times report that indie rocker Ryan Adams sexted a 16-year-old bass player. Mr. Adams’ texts to her appear to indicate that he suspected she was underage. Persistent reporting by Chicago music writer Jim DeRogatis, plus two recent TV documentaries, have clipped the wings of “I Believe I Can Fly” singer R. Kelly. The R&B titan faces 10 charges of sexually abusing girls, three of whom were reportedly 13- to 17-years-old.

“In the history of popular music – and let’s just start conservatively – Frank Sinatra through Chuck Berry, through Led Zeppelin, through Aerosmith, up to Ryan Adams last week, we have seen many, many men, horribly, inexcusably, tragically abuse women. But Kelly is singular. I know the names of 48 women whose lives he’s ruined. That’s a body count that is unparalleled,” says Mr. DeRogatis, whose book “Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly” comes out in June.

Robert Kelly, known by his stage name R. Kelly, pleaded not guilty, Mr. Adams disputes the Times’ claims, and Mr. Jackson’s estate is suing HBO.

Ms. Powers says that one reason why this sort of sexual misconduct has historically been difficult to expose is that, unlike Hollywood, the music industry isn’t a centralized entity. Its male-dominated silos – including record labels, the concert-tour sectors, and media promotion – often protect abusers by enforcing omertà.

“In a society in which people are uncomfortable talking about sex, music was a realm where we could experience sexuality,” she says of an industry where ”groupies” were regarded as job perks and female singers and musicians were encouraged to play up their sexuality to advance their careers. “Because of that there’s been a kind of permissiveness around the music-makers’ sexual lives that we are now having to reckon with.”

But in the age of internet distribution, record labels and music trade publications have lost market share to streaming services and new media. Once-powerful figures are now vulnerable. John Amato, CEO of the Hollywood Reporter-Billboard Media Group (which includes Spin, Stereogum, and Vibe), resigned last year following a Daily Beast report that he’d quashed articles about alleged serial sexual harasser Charlie Walk, the now-former president of Republic Records.

“This is the first time that the men in the industry are truly maybe thinking that their actions have consequences,” says influential music publicist Judy Miller Silverman, proprietor of Motormouth Media.

Even so, she observes that several executives fired for sexual misbehavior, including L.A. Reid and Mr. Walk, are now working elsewhere in the music biz. Ms. Miller Silverman refuses to work with men with bad reputations, or the companies that employ them. “I definitely think that the industry, as the world has changed, thinks it’s changed. But it hasn’t changed, the real core of it.”

A 2018 survey of 1,227 US musicians bolsters Ms. Miller Silverman’s claim. The Music Industry Research Association (MIRA) and the Princeton University Survey Research Center found that 67 percent of female respondents claimed to be victims of sexual harassment. Seventy-two percent of female musicians reported that they’ve been subject to sexual discrimination.

But the women – one-third of musicians are women – aren’t resigned to a defeatist attitude. As Dua Lipa, winner of Best New Artist at 2019’s woman-dominated Grammys put it during her acceptance speech, women have “stepped up” as of late. The likes of Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Janelle Monáe, Kacey Musgraves, Solange, and Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches regularly work to raise awareness of sexual harassment and sexism.

“They’re saying what a lot of women in other industries are saying: It’s been a boy’s game.... They’re not going to take it anymore,” says Sheila Weller, author of “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon.” “It was a long line to get to that point. It started with a generation of singer-songwriters that I wrote about.”

Many of those women musicians realize that social media platforms can be more powerful than Marshall amps cranked to 11. After the Adams scandal, Laura Burhenn of indie pop band Mynabirds used Instagram to trumpet My Secret Handshake, a project she’s co-created to make the music industry safer for women. Amber Coffman, Phoebe Bridgers, Julia Holter, and Lydia Loveless have used their online platforms to name their respective alleged abusers in the music scene.

This time feels different

As the constant drip of #MeToo revelations from Hollywood, sports, churches, and Wall Street begin to feel like a flood, a widespread mood of zero tolerance has taken root. Wary of public wrath, jittery businesses now quickly disassociate themselves from accused persons. That’s why, when it comes to Mr. Kelly and Mr. Jackson, this time feels different. Sony/RCA dropped Mr. Kelly from its roster in January. Radio stations have yanked Mr. Jackson’s songs from their playlists. Britain’s National Football museum has removed its statue of Mr. Jackson, and “The Simpsons” has said it will no longer air an episode in which the pop icon guest-voiced. Universal/Caroline Distribution scrapped the release of three upcoming Adams albums.

Mark Redfern, editor of Under the Radar music magazine, supports a zero-tolerance policy for sexual misconduct. After robust debate and a staff vote, the magazine excised coverage of the bands Ducktails and Hookworms following widespread reports of sexual misconduct. Mr. Redfern vetted the allegations first. He offers a cautionary reminder of how Conor Oberst, aka Bright Eyes, was dogged by claims of raping a woman in 2014. The accuser then publicly admitted that her claims were “100 percent false.”

Under the Radar has taken other steps, Mr. Redfern says, out of a genuine love of the music of the female artists it supports. That includes using more work by women freelance writers. “There’s no chance of them writing from the male gaze,” he says.

In addition, “we’ve tried not to over-sexualize female artists in photo shoots,” he says. “We just announced our new issue and we have Mitski on our front cover, who is Asian-American, and on our back cover we have boygenius, which is three female artists and two of them are gay.”

Changes behind the scenes

Kurt Cobain’s remark that “women are the only future in rock and roll” often seems prophetic. But in order to create a safer work environment, women in the industry say, long-term reforms are still necessary.

“The most important changes have to do with things happening behind the scenes,” says Ms. Powers. “More woman tour managers. More women behind the soundboard. More women engineers in the recording studio. More woman producers in the recording studio. These are the changes that really need to happen to truly make the industry equitable.”

There are more women writers covering music now than before – a stark contrast from when Ms. Powers started her career. It’s often easier, she says, for a female artist to confide in a female writer about sexism or harassment. After all, she may well have experienced similar misconduct herself.

One female music journalist, who wishes to remain anonymous, recalls how an indie-rock artist tried hitting on her by sending her direct messages on social media. She won’t tolerate unprofessional behavior even if it means losing a paying gig. She recalls interviewing a lead singer who kept trying to look down her shirt. “It was gross,” she says. “I threw money down on the table to cover both our coffees and walked out.”

As for the songwriter whose demo was held for sexual ransom? She warned her friends to stay clear of the rock star. “How do you think whispering networks start?” she says.

The songwriter wishes it were easier for women in her position to tell their stories. “The thing that needs to change is this attitude, ‘She should have known better.’ The person who should have known better was him.’ ”

The songwriter is about to release a new E.P. “I choose not to be a victim,” she says. “You know, flowers always grow from the dirt.”