Sound & Vision: Jessica Hopper on Ryan Adams and Abuse in the Music Industry

Sound and Vision
02/18/2019
Emily Fox
photo courtesy of Featherproof Books

Ryan Adams is the latest musician to get a slew of accusations accusing him of abuse. That abuse ranges from emotional manipulation to sexual misconduct. The New York Times broke the story reporting that seven women and more than a dozen associates say Adams has a pattern of dangling career opportunities in front of women. He’d then try to pursue them sexually and in some cases would retaliate when denied. The victims include Adam’s ex-wife, Mandy Moore, a bass player who was a teenager when Adams started sending her sexually explicit text messages, and Pheobe Bridgers, who says her song, "Motion Sickness" is about Adams.

 

KEXP’s Sound and Vision invited on author and music journalist, Jessica Hopper to discuss how the music industry should be held accountable. Listen to the segment and read a transcription of the conversation below.

 

Jessica Hopper: When I read The New York Times piece, honestly I wasn't surprised at all. And I felt kind of slow-motion horror as I was reading it as anyone who cares about the fate and circumstances for vulnerable people in music. I mean, it's just... It's horrifying. But given that there's such a well-documented history of this within music but then also within Ryan Adams' career of lashing out at people, of being abusive towards people, particularly fans and critics and former friends publicly and privately. It's not terribly surprising to find out that that also bled over into his relationships with both his wife and women in his life and under-age fans.
 
KEXP: Jessica Hopper says she's been writing about music and how sexism plays out in the industry for more than 20 years.
 
This is something that not just I've been talking about, people have been talking about it. People have been writing stories about it. People have been becoming public and only more recently has there become traction around any media coverage around it, of people taking it seriously and not just sort of wringing their hands or people saying, 'Oh well, you know, it's tough. The music industry is tough.' We're talking about 50, 60 years of systemic issues like this of people abusing power and taking advantage of people who are vulnerable, who are coming into the music industry and obviously not just women. It has been an issue for young people of color. It has been an issue for trans and queer people who are coming into these industries. Just basically, anyone who was outside of this – we call it "the old boys' network," but I mean really it's "the old creeps network.".
 
There are opportunities for people to abuse their power at every single level of music and we know that to be the truth because it's not just the marquee names, it's not just the tremendously powerful. It is the guy who's like, "Yeah I can help your band get on a better bill." And all the creepy quid pro quo that happens from like the basement DIY levels on up to the very high profile, marquee name people who've been outed as in the wake of 'Me Too.'
 
How would you describe what it's like for someone that has no experience or no understanding, what is it like to be a woman in the music industry right now? Whether that be independent, whether that be someone that's just playing bars and weekends, to someone that's emerging and trying to grow their career. What is that like when it comes to navigating the landscape and especially in a still very much male-dominated field?
 
I think, just by going by Twitter, a lot of young women talk about this sort of predatory abuse of their interest in music. Whether it is women who are starting a band and they find an interested collaborator but it turns out that they have ulterior motives. There was one young woman who's tweeting me about how she went into an unpaid internship in music in New York and was creeped on by someone who ostensibly her boss. There was a lot of women who were commenting about having these sort of relationships with mentors in music journalism and in the music industry that was basically, 'Well I helped you with this. Now you have to do something for me.' And there is there's a lot of... Sometimes it's not exclusively sexual. It is all sorts of abuses of power that I think really have the power to distort vulnerable people's relationships to music and to their own talent and to their own hopes and dreams that it really has the power to corrode them. And especially if you encounter this with someone that you've placed your trust in or that you keep hitting this sort of wall as you make your way through the music world. It's incredibly dispiriting. And I think the travesty here, as we see in the story, is just how many women this has just taken out of music.
 
I mean, you think about the Mandy Moore story in just comments like Ryan Adams saying to her, 'You're not a musician because you don't play an instrument...'
 
Right there, that's a story as old as recorded pop music itself.
 
She had plans to collaborate with him and then he kept replacing her with other women and it was like these promises and then nothing ever happened.
 
Yes. And right now I'm working on a book that involves women in music in the 1970s and there were so many opportunities routinely denied to women and an artist of incredible caliber. The women that we think defined the music of the 70s and you can find all these ways that women were denied agency and credit and opportunity because women just weren't considered anything other than vessels. That they really weren't considered artists with their own agency and vision and talent worth nurturing and putting money and opportunity into. We think that this is something maybe that's new, but this is really... We have to look back at the whole of music history in the same way we are now science and literature and just see that how many histories have gone unrecorded, how many innovations have gone uncredited, how many careers and women's spirits were just eaten away at by how much was denied to them by men who were frightened by their talent, who didn't view them as artists or who were just men that wanted to sleep with them and couldn't. And so they poisoned their careers.
 
What do you think we do now? You had a tweet this week and you said, 'What would be incredible right now is to see people take this seriously in the ways that they can: venues commit publicly to safe space policies, labels, booker, et cetera and abandoning on boys-network nepotism so that folx have ways in and up that aren't via – we will say – shitty men.' So what do we do now?
 
I think there are some people and venues who've taken the necessary steps and said enough is enough. I mean, I'm so surprised yet still not at all surprised that there isn't just more voluntary accountability when there are so many different resources. I mean you can literally google this shit, people. Venues can find out what did Canadian festivals and venues do in the wake of Jian Ghomeshi. Which, that's what it took in Canada to make some radical changes in accountability, in adopting safe spaces, in having first responder training and prevention for sexual assault at festivals.
 
What's the Ghomeshi story there? Can you give us a little background there?
 
About Jian Ghomeshi who was a famous radio broadcaster who raped and assaulted numerous women and was basically one of the most powerful men in Canadian music and entertainment a few years ago.
 
But Canada responded. They said, 'We're going to do something about it.'
 
Yes, and it was a wakeup call because so many people had heard he was a creep and had not said anything because he was so powerful and that he was someone who could make or break people's careers. And so, to me, I just wonder how many more people have to come forward and upend their lives and dump their trauma into the world before everyone else in music – I'm talking promoters, venues, managers, bookers, record labels, people in publishing. Every single part of this – [to] say, 'You know what? Enough is enough." And take really basic steps, and sometimes that means walking away from profitable relationships.

It means not booking certain artists. It means being more transparent in business practices. It means having a zero tolerance policy for harassment at venues. Sometimes that means quitting your band. Sometimes it means calling out the guy in your band who's really touchy-feely with women who come up to the merch table after the show. It means everybody who is in this, if you love music and if you want it to be a place that is safe for all who seek it, that you have to be willing to put your ass on the line.
 
When do you think we're going to get there?
 
God, I hope it's tomorrow.
 

 
 


Sound & Vision airs Saturday mornings at 7 AM PST. Hosted by Emily Fox and John Richards, the show "uses interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter."

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