Sexual Harassment: Music
There’s a word for it in the music-video business, where male fantasies of young, compliant women are the very heart of commerce. ”That sexy-babe, bimbo kind of stuff that the labels always want,” says a woman who’s made rock videos for years, ”my friends and I in the industry refer to it as ‘babeage.’ It’s part of just an overwhelming predeliction for sleazy male behavior in this business.”
Babeage. What would rock & roll be without it? Just peek into the fantasy world of music videos. What you see isn’t real, but real people produce those videos, and the often graphic, violent sexuality they contain. So it’s no surprise that babeage is a buzzword. Insiders say that in the world of pop and rock-an insular world ruled by six major recording conglomerates, in which only one woman (Sylvia Rhone, chairman of Atco/East West) is at the top-sexual harassment is not just rampant but epidemic, more pervasive than in any other branch of entertainment.
Ugly stories come not just from the lowly but from people at all levels of the business. There’s Mary Cary, guitarist for Rosary, a female hard-rock band, describing a pawing studio owner who demanded sex in exchange for recording time. ”He told us that if we slept with him, he would get us a label deal, and he was just a sleazy little studio guy with no power.” And the notoriously raunchy band the Red Hot Chili Peppers, reversing the roles in an interview for Creem with journalist Nina Malkin, bombarded her with lewd questions about her sex life. (”They were just goofing,” their manager says.) At a radio industry convention last year, top radio consultant Randy Michaels hired a stripper, disguised as a waitress, to have her shirt ripped off during a panel on contemporary hit radio. And an executive at a major label made assignments to employees while playing pornographic tapes on his VCR — ”He did it just to humiliate us,” one woman said.
”The industry promotes the bimbo image very well,” says an ex-label executive, who left the business because of what she characterized as its unacceptably sexist environment. ”The man in music spends his day promoting bimbos on album covers, and the women in the office are viewed as just more of those bimbos. Not all men see it this way, obviously. But the violence is there. In this business, people are reduced to things, and it’s awful.”
That’s an attitude that often starts near the very top — in the offices, say, of an Abbey Konowitch, 40, who in the mid-’80s was vice president for video and artist development for Arista Records. In July 1987, Arista promoted a woman named Joanne Smat into Konowitch’s department, as national manager of artist development. Although several women alleged to Entertainment Weekly reporters that Konowitch verbally abused female coworkers, Smat is the only one willing to go on the record with charges. Because she has since married and left the music business to become an advertising executive, she no longer feels her career is threatened. Other sources, male and female, have confirmed Smat’s story but stressed that if Konowitch found out their names, their careers would be ruined.
”After a very short time it became apparent that there was a certain way Abbey operated, and that I was not going to be able to handle it,” says Smat. His method of operation, she says, included repeatedly asking such questions as ”Can I bite you?” ”Can I touch your thigh?” ”Can I bite your ass?” According to Smat, he predicted that she would sleep with him on a company trip to Maui. She decided to stay home. The day Konowitch began instructing an intern in ”shooting rubber bands at my ass,” Smat says, she was so fed up she walked out of the office.
She says she asked a female executive for advice and was sent to a vice president. He said he’d give her a transfer, effectively a demotion, to a secretarial position. In November 1987, she consulted lawyer Michael Holland.
”He knew of other cases where women had been physically fondled and the lawyers weren’t able to make (the charges) stick because of difficulties of proof,” she says. ”He basically said the law doesn’t work and you don’t have a choice.” ”I advised her that since she was considering other career options anyway, maybe she should just move on,” confirms Holland. Smat resigned in January 1988.
Konowitch declines to comment. His attorney denies Smat’s allegations and claims Arista has no record of any formal complaints or discussions of Smat’s charges. A woman who worked with Smat and Konowitch maintains, however, that there were several formal meetings between Smat and a top Arista manager. ”One of the vice presidents,” she says, ”called up every woman who worked with Abbey and said, ‘Does he really do these kinds of things?’ And all of us said yes. Their solution was to ask us if we wanted to transfer to other departments.”
”On a day-to-day basis Abbey would say gross things,” she says. ”If you asked him for a vacation day, he’d say, ‘Scratch my back and I’ll think about it.’ And he was serious. There were two ways you could handle it. You could just laugh or ignore it or swear at him, or you could really let it get to you. Joanne didn’t want to put up with it — and she shouldn’t have had to — and she complained.”
”Complaints were made by Joanne to me,” says Roy Lott, executive vice president and general manager of Arista Records. ”The situation was analyzed. I, and others, talked to various people. And we found no basis for taking any action against Abbey Konowitch.”
Konowitch’s career apparently has not been affected by any of the complaints. He is now senior vice president for music and talent at MTV, where he decides which bands’ videos get airtime. Last year he was selected as one of Entertainment Weekly‘s Power 101 (he was No. 25).
Other men in music facing harassment charges have fared less well.
Marko Babineau, 40, former general manager of the Geffen Records’ DGC label, resigned unexpectedly in September ”to be with his family.” On Nov. 14 his former assistant, Penny Muck, 28, filed suit against him for sexual harassment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and assault and battery. She charged, among other things, that Babineau touched her breasts and buttocks, ejaculated on a magazine he had placed in front of her, placed his erect penis in her ear, and ordered her to clean up his semen. Other women who worked for Babineau have told similar tales. His attorney has not returned this magazine’s calls.
Mike Bone, 42, former copresident of PolyGram’s Mercury Records, lost his job Nov. 1, two days before allegations surfaced in the Los Angeles Timesabout his alleged misconduct in the office. In July 1990, while president of PolyGram’s Island Records, he allegedly propositioned his then administrative assistant, Lori Harris, 28, at a company party, and when he was rebuffed made it clear that her job was in jeopardy. The next morning he fired her. ”His attitude was ‘That was pleasure; this is business,”’ says Harris, who filed a harassment suit against Bone and Island Records in July, charging violation of the New York State human rights laws. ”I view him as kind of pathetic at this point,” she says, noting that she was unemployed for six months and still has found only part-time work. ”What’s ridiculous is that no one stopped him. Island Records and PolyGram don’t care what happened to me. They moved him from president of a company where he had been accused of harassing and firing his assistant to president of a new company (Mercury) where no one knew what he’d done. He got to start over.” Bone, who has denied Harris’ charges in the past, referred a reporter to his lawyer, who said Bone would not respond.
Jeff Aldrich, 41, recently RCA’s senior vice president of A&R, was let go in December 1990 as a result of multiple sexual harassment complaints. At a convention in Scottsdale, Ariz., Aldrich reportedly made passes at several female employees, throwing one of them onto a bed and physically molesting her. ”Conventions are about teasing, sexual kind of stuff,” says an employee, ”but he was crossing the line. He was sticking his hand down blouses and up skirts. So anyway, we all get back from the convention Sunday and on Monday there’s a very weird vibe in the office. The woman had complained that she wanted him out of there, and they did an inquiry.” Says an RCA executive, ”When some double-digit number of women complained, we knew we had to fire him.” Aldrich is now an executive in A&R at Giant Records. A remorseful Aldrich confirmed that he was ”fired from RCA for an incident that happened at a convention that had something to do with sexual harassment.” A spokesman for Aldrich said it is ”important to know it was while he was inebriated,” and he has since entered a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.
High-powered L.A. lawyer Abe Somer, 53, former head of the music department at the firm of Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, recently settled a harassment suit out of court. His former secretary, Phyllis Finkbeiner, complained that Somer instructed her to bring the office mail to his house, where he greeted her naked at the door. A former summer associate at the firm alleged similar treatment in an affidavit supporting the suit. At a poolside meeting at Somer’s home, she said, he told her, ”You seem a little uptight. If Mick Jagger and (producer) Richard Perry were sitting here, I don’t know if they’d be comfortable with you. If they wanted you to kiss them or give them a hand job, you just do it.” Managing partner Bill Cole says Somer no longer has an office at the firm but is retained on ”of counsel” status. Somer is now part of the legal department at Rondor Music Publishing Co.Somer’s attorney speculated that the allegations were ”hearsay from disgruntled former employees.”
These stories certainly imply that women are routinely abused in the music business. They also say that men can be fired if enough women bring charges against them, even though the charges are untested in any court or other formal proceeding. And now that several lawsuits have hit the headlines, it seems the music business has reached a point of no return. But will any changes in the acceptability of babeage translate into real power and freedom for women?
”If we maintain our fearfulness and keep quiet about this,” says a female former executive at a major label, ”things are not going to change.”
She’s afraid to give her name.
— Additional reporting by Cheryl McCall, Joanna Powell, and Jean Rosenbluth