A little over four years ago, in October 2017, news of the Indian independent music industry’s first #MeToo case broke in Pune. A former employee of a popular restobar and music venue in the Maharashtrian city alleged its founder had sexually harassed her. Soon after, more women came forward to say he had sexually harassed and body-shamed them.
The Maharashtra State Commission for Women took note and the police began a suo motu investigation. None of the women participated in the investigation, though a few bands boycotted the venue. Within six months—during which the founder maintained a low profile—it was back to business at the venue. The restobar shut briefly during the pandemic and reopened after the lockdown restrictions eased in June 2021.
This isn’t the only such case. More than four years on, many more cases of sexual harassment in the music industry have come to light on social media but redressal remains a serious concern and few organisations seem to have legally mandated systems in place to deal with complaints.
According to a survey conducted in 2019 by Indian-American vocalist, songwriter and film-maker Amanda Sodhi, 72.6% of women in the independent music industry are disinclined to report sexual harassment to authorities, fearing for their safety and believing it would adversely impact their careers. The survey of 105 women, musicians, managers, engineers and songwriters, among other industry professionals, found that nearly 70% of the women working in the Indian music industry (both mainstream and indie) had experienced sexual harassment in some form.
The findings bear out what women in the field, mainstream and indie, have been saying, or whispering, for years—harassment and discrimination are rampant in the industry, where men outnumber women and tend to hold more positions of power as producers, managers, artists, venue owners or event organisers.
Yama Seth, a band manager, alleges she faced sexual harassment early in 2020 when the promoter of the event—whose job involves ticket sales and, ironically, security—at which the band was playing got drunk. In the middle of the performance, the promoter and a group of his friends, who were equally inebriated, closed in on Seth in a confined space near the PA system. “When I told him to make room, he charged at me,” says Seth, senior artist manager at the Delhi-based talent management agency Big Bad Wolf. She reported the incident to the founder of the agency, Dhruv Jagasia, who decided to terminate professional dealings with the promoter.
Seth says she has faced sexual harassment on three occasions; some of the artists she has managed were among her harassers. She was 23 when she faced sexual harassment for the first time, at a music festival in Goa. “I got a single room as usual,” says Seth, 29. “Two of the artists I was managing got drunk, barged into my room and slipped in on either side of my bed. I ran out of my room. I reported this incident to my boss. He was extremely supportive and suggested we stop working with the artists.” She complained to Jagasia, who wanted to remove the band from the roster of artists the agency managed. She suggested that she would stop managing the artists instead since she did not want the agency to lose business on her account.
In another instance, too, an artist represented by the agency behaved inappropriately. Again, she decided not to work with the artist. “Legal recourse isn’t an option because people dismiss you as a troublemaker. Secondly, I don’t want to relive the experience. But mostly, I am terrified of discouraging young women from joining this profession,” says Seth.
Women music professionals have criticised the independent music industry for being patriarchal, with a “bro code”. “The harassment or abuse is still pretty rampant,” says singer-songwriter Abhilasha Sinha, who released her Hindi single, Jab Tum Miley, in March 2020. “The mentality of the industry is still very bro-ey, very much a boys’ club. However, more non-men (and some men) are talking about it openly, and social media has really helped. It’s no longer taboo to talk about which venues make you uncomfortable, which promoters are skimming your cash, or what jobs are paying you less than your male counterparts. But the industry itself needs to change from within,” says Sinha.
Vocalist and music producer Rishi Bradoo from Mumbai seconds this, explaining that the Me Too movement and discussions on social media have changed his perspective. “Initially, I too was concerned with the fate of the musician but quickly, I realised that this was about sexual assault survivors. Would I work with those who have assaulted women, not made amends, especially when the victim continues to feel triggered by their name popping up? The answer was very clearly ‘no’.”
Not all artists and managers are this categorical. In June 2020, copywriter and editor Uvika Wahi wrote on Instagram that musician Lifafa (the stage name of Delhi-based Suryakant Sawhney) had collaborated on a track in his new album, Superpower 2020, with Ashish Sachan, an electronica artist who goes by the stage name Hashback Hashish, despite having declared that he would cut ties with Sachan as she had alleged on social media that Sachan had harassed her. Rana Ghose, founder of the event management collective REProduce Artists, which had also declared its support for Wahi in a Facebook post, appeared in the video for the song Mandir. “When I was asked to be in that video, I didn’t know Mandir was going to be credited to Ashish—the track was presented to me as a release on the forthcoming Lifafa LP,” says Ghose.
A month earlier, Wahi had gone public on social media with allegations that she had been physically abused in 2018 by her former partners and producers Sachan and Vishnu P.S.. Lifafa and Ghose had then posted statements saying they would cut all professional ties with Sachan.
Wahi later posted that both Lifafa and Ghose had messaged her privately to apologise, and Lifafa removed the song and video. “I did not ask for these apologies…it is not my job to educate grown men on how to cultivate empathy and navigate life in a way that their actions do not victimise others,” she wrote.
Wahi, Sachan and Vishnu P.S. did not respond to repeated requests for a comment for this story. Ghose says: “We are actively wondering how best to assert a sense of safety once we regularly restart events post-pandemic. After June 2021, we have been fortunate to have a number of peers and colleagues both in India and elsewhere contact us with helpful suggestions.” Ghose reiterates that if REProduce Artists were to receive complaints of sexual misconduct by an artist, the agency would stop working with the artist.
Ghose tries to explain why a formal protocol was not put in place earlier: “Perhaps it was a different time/era, or perhaps the scale of what we did between early 2016 and early 2020—with 20-50 patrons on average, generally no sponsors, no standard venues and no real overheads— didn’t suggest such protocols. Perhaps because REProduce (save for five-six events out of the 200-plus we did) chose not to work in commercial venues or spaces, we would usually know most people who would come to our events. Perhaps that gave us a sort of sense of knowing who was there and why they were there, subject to all the inaccuracies that such an assessment presents. If there was an incident of harassment on site that we were aware of, we would have addressed it accordingly—but I have personally not known of or been made aware of any.”
Wahi has said that being an outsider has helped her speak up. “It allows me to speak my piece without the threat of losing opportunities or be quietly ostracised by men who in public may claim to be in my corner, yet privately advise people against working with me to ‘avoid drama’. It means I cannot be banned from their parties or cut out of their cliques,” she wrote on her Instagram account in July 2020.
As the world turned to social media and OTT platforms during the pandemic, artists began hosting gigs from their homes. For female artists, this has been as empowering as self-defeating. Whether they were hosting a portrait-making session for children, as contemporary installation artist Shilo Shiv Suleman did on an Insta Live session, or debuting a new song, women were subjected to lewd, repulsive comments every time they went online.
Most women believe nothing has changed since 2017. Few organisations have the internal complaints committees (ICCs) mandated by law and the “informal work culture” is often cited as a reason for not having a proper redressal mechanism. This is despite the fact that the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, commonly referred to as the POSH Act, clearly sets out that any place an employee (or even an intern or a volunteer) visits in connection with work is defined as a workspace, and this includes locations for off-sites, events and office parties.
“A clear guideline on dos and don’ts, awareness around the law, and access to redressal without fear of retaliation has helped many come forward with their concerns,” says Sonal Mattoo, advocate and founder of Helping Hands, a Gurugram-based NGO that works with companies to implement policies against sexual harassment and other forms of workplace discrimination. “I personally felt our interventions in conducting awareness sessions helped draw a clear boundary between a personal and professional space. The groups we supported comprised a fairly young workforce, working in a casual environment,” she says. Mattoo was one of the lawyers on the complaints committee set up at the Mumbai-based talent and event management agency Only Much Louder (OML) after multiple women accused many of their male colleagues of misconduct in 2018. OML did not respond to repeated requests for a comment.
Despite an increase in awareness, a greater propensity to believe the victim, and workshops for both male and female employees, that something will go wrong “is never beyond the realm of possibility for women professionals in this field”, says Desiree Saldanha, who heads artist management at the Mumbai-based music management and promotion agency Third Culture Entertainment Pvt. Ltd.
Saldanha says safety of women in the industry in cities is merely a box to check off on paper, and the situation is far worse in smaller towns. “In B and C tier towns, safety of women is not the priority, but sales of tickets is, and I don’t see anything changing,” says Saldanha, who has been part of the industry for six years.
Few cities have spaces where artists feel entirely comfortable. “Venues never call out clients because they might be high rollers or frequent customers. Artists are always asked to hush up if a client misbehaves. After a point, we too are desensitised to all of this,” says Chennai-based vocalist Nadisha Thomas, 32. She recalls an instance from 2015, when she was performing at a bar and a group of men began throwing money at her. “They creeped me out with the way they looked at me from the time I began my performance. But when they started yelling song requests and throwing money, I ran out of the bar.”
Some venues do put the safety of women music professionals first, she adds. “There are some situations where alcohol takes over, so we keep a close watch on guests whose behaviour changes and keep the security team on call. We defuse situations then and there. If things go out of control, the security team clears the troublemakers out of the venue and reports them to the local police station,” says Zahir Naina, director, operations and business development, Social Restaurants Pvt. Ltd, the company that owns Radio Room, a popular venue in Chennai.
Private gigs in homes and offices could also put performers and managers in a vulnerable situation. When Deepika Seth was 20, she was full of dreams of making it as a singer-songwriter in Mumbai. But during a private show at a businessman’s home in suburban Mumbai in 2018, the host got drunk, grabbed her and started dancing with her. She remembers running out of the house after the host’s wife, who witnessed it all, turned against her.
“At the outset, it seemed safe to do these gigs because I was performing for this big Punjabi family. The host’s parents and wife were around and I was accompanied by a male guitarist,” says Deepika, now 24. She tried gigs at venues but often found the owner or manager would hint that she should date them. “I felt like I was in a position of losing gigs and realised this is what happens to young artists who don’t have a following or a network,” she says.
Disillusioned, Deepika moved back to Delhi and manages artist relations for female vocalists such as Kamakshi Khanna and Anoushka Maskey. She didn’t set out to be an artists’ manager but believes it is a step up. “Women artists feel a sense of empathy and safety when they deal with a female manager. It helps me take a step back and understand the music business from a position of power,” says Deepika, who has also been working with Big Bad Wolf since 2019. The company, incidentally, does not have an ICC. Its founder, Jagasia, declined to comment on the issue.
That there is no support group for women in the independent music scene is something both Yama and Deepika hope to amend. It stings, though, that it is women who need to bring about a change, even though the industry has more men than women. “I thought that the Me Too movement would bring some sort of accountability,” adds Yama. “There was some talk of it for maybe six months after it began in 2017 and then it fizzled out. Right now, there is a new narrative of outrage where predators are making an effort to take the legitimacy and agency away from women who are speaking up by calling them pseudo woke and lit.”
The independent music industry has alway been difficult for women. Evidence of sexual misconduct continues to be erased—be it in the form of posts being taken down by victims and their supporters or entire social media accounts being shut down—and female artists continue to be silenced or risk losing their livelihood. As Pulitzer prize-winning reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey write in She Said: Breaking The Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement: “There isn’t ever going to be an end…The point is that people have to continue always speaking up. And not being afraid.”
Lalitha Suhasini teaches journalism at FLAME University, Pune.